The director of the Russian polling center VTSIOM says the country’s upcoming elections will see the battle of two polticial agendas: patriotic, reresented by United Russia, and socio-economic, represented by the liberal opposition
The state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTSIOM) is a controversial player in Russian politics, as the pollster responsible for announcing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 80 percent+ approval ratings. [Putin’s 80%+ approval ratings are also routinely confirmed by the Levada Center, which is western backed – RI] CGI sat down with Valery Fedorov, Director of VTSIOM, during his recent trip to Washington to discuss the state of opinion polling in Russia, the anti-Western shift in Russian public opinion, and the difference between “Putin’s children” and “Yeltsin’s children.”
CGI: To what extent does public opinion influence political decision-making in Russia? What role does public opinion play in the country today?
What are the current top issues for Russian voters?
We’re seeing a battle of two political agendas: the first one can be called the “patriotic” agenda, which focuses on foreign policy and Russia’s role in the world. The second is the “socio-economic” agenda, devoted to domestic issues, especially the economic crisis and mitigating its effects. United Russia is campaigning on the patriotic agenda, while the socio-economic agenda is promoted by the opposition, in all its forms. The real pre-election campaign begins in June, but we have already seen that the majority of Russians are more concerned with the domestic situation. This is bad for United Russia, because they make up the majority in the government that is responsible for the country’s economy.
The conflict in Ukraine could tip the balance the other way if the fighting there flares up again, and puts the foreign-policy agenda back into the spotlight. There is a chance that this may happen, because the low approval ratings of Ukraine’s new government give it an incentive to renew its push against the separatists in the East, as a way to shore up its legitimacy. This would be a huge boon for United Russia; paradoxically, some of Putin’s best friends could be in Kiev.
How would you describe the outlook for the opposition in the upcoming elections?
The leftist opposition has a good chance, and the rightist opposition doesn’t exist.
How has Russian public opinion toward the West, and toward the United States in particular, changed since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014?
Public opinion toward the United States hasn’t changed since then – the change happened back in 1998-99, when it went from being mostly positive to mostly negative. The shift was predicated on two major events: the war in Yugoslavia and the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia – a historical Russian ally –, and the Russian economic default.
Prior to Yugoslavia, most Russians approved of U.S. foreign policy and saw the United States as an honest broker on the international stage. Afterwards, they became convinced that the United States arbitrarily decides who’s right and who’s wrong, and therefore it cannot be trusted. The Russian economic default, meanwhile, led most Russians to believe that the economic system prescribed to them by the United States was the fastest way to ruin.
From that point on, Russians have harbored no illusions about the United States and its ability to fix Russia’s problems. In this regard, Putin – who was very amenable to the United States at the start of his first presidential term – has actually gone against the current of Russian public opinion. A good example is from 2003, when then-President George W. Bush sent U.S. troops into Iraq. Putin was against this move, along with the leaders of France and Germany, and Russian public opinion was staunchly against it. But then Putin announced that he didn’t wish for a U.S. defeat in Iraq, and this was a surprise to most Russians. In the early 2000s, Putin was significantly more pro-Western than the majority of the Russian public.
Another example is the recent doping scandal, which most Russians see as a Western plot to keep Russia out of the 2016 Summer Olympics. But Putin publicly placed the blame on the Russian officials who were responsible for enforcing anti-doping regulations. And again this made a big impression on the public. These stories illustrate the immense authority that Putin has, and the significant impact his statements can make on Russian public opinion. When Putin voices his opinion on a particular issue, he is able to make Russians completely change their minds, or at a minimum to rethink the position they currently hold.
Is this ability of the leader to sway public opinion a particular characteristic of Russia?
The ability to sway public opinion is a function of the leader’s approval rating; the higher it is, the more important is his opinion to the public. This is not particular to Russia. Recall that in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, President Bush’s ratings reached 90 percent, which allowed him to pass controversial legislation like the Patriot Act that would later become criticized as his ratings came down. Right now such a leader exists in Russia, but not in the United States. But this wasn’t the case for Putin just two years ago, and it could change again.
There is a widespread belief in the West that public opinion polls conducted in Russia cannot be fully trusted, partly because people are afraid to speak their minds. How would you respond to this claim?
I would tell them to come to Russia and conduct the polls themselves. Gallup has conducted polls in Russia and gotten very similar results [to domestic pollsters]. When I hear that Russian opinion polling can’t be trusted, what that tells me is that the speaker doesn’t like or agree with the results of the polls, and doesn’t want to trust them. Perhaps if the polls began to show the results that the West wanted to see, Western opinion of Russian polling would change.
Does the current information environment in Russia allow for adequate conditions in which public opinion polling can take place? In other words, does the relative absence of alternative viewpoints skew public opinion in a certain direction?
There are many discussions about this in Russia. We’re used to hearing that we have no pluralism, that all our media is state-controlled and works as propaganda. But this doesn’t take into account the Internet, or foreign stations like Euronews, which anyone can access. According to polling data, more than ten percent of the Russian population follows foreign news outlets, which is a relatively high number. Other results show that 60 percent of Russians use the Internet, as opposed to 90 percent in the United States. But anyone who wants to can access the Russian-language versions of Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, BBC, France Inter and so on.
It is clear that an information war is underway, and the reporting of major Russian media is visibly more emotional. But the public is growing tired of this, as reflected in their falling approval ratings. Two years ago, news show ratings sharply increased, but now they’re gradually coming down. This is tied to a waning interest in the conflict in Ukraine.
Have you come across any notable differences between polling results in Russia and the United States, in terms of values or political beliefs?
In the United States, public opinion is very polarized, largely as a result of the two-party system. Russia is the opposite: public opinion is very homogenous, and has become even more so in the past two years. There is a small pro-Western minority, but it is often in the single digits. The United States also has a very strong ideological factor, which leads to the gridlock between the liberals and the conservatives. In Russia, the old ideologies have died but new ones haven’t yet been born. Communism, liberalism and socialism only exist as party labels, but in practice they mean nothing. For example, a United Russia supporter can have more leftist views than a Communist Party supporter. That is another major difference.
One similarity is that both Russians and Americans are mainly concerned with domestic issues. While Russians may seem to place greater emphasis on foreign policy today, this is because the country is currently involved in two wars. Otherwise, public opinion in both countries cares mainly about the economy, education, social benefits, and so on.
There are some fundamental differences between the two publics. Russians think government is good, while Americans think government is bad, it can’t be trusted and has to be monitored. But Russians share the American view that big money is dangerous and should be kept out of politics.
A final interesting difference is that in Russia, approval ratings for public officials decrease as you go down the ladder. Russians rate the president the highest, the prime minister the second highest, followed by the ministers and governors, while mayors have the lowest ratings. In the United States, these numbers are inverted: the public officials closest to the local level have the highest ratings, and they decline as you move towards the federal level. The reason is that in the United States, the mayors have an interest in talking to their constituents, because otherwise they’ll be thrown out of office, and their level of transparency is much higher. The local officials are the ones who most directly respond to their constituents’ needs. In Russia, the mayors lack the funding or the agency to meet their constituents’ needs, while the public has no levers of control over them. Everyone places their hopes on the president. This results in an inverted pyramid system, where the top is responsible for everything.
Have there been any fundamental shifts in Russian public opinion since 1989?
Yes: 1989 was a time of great hopes. People believed that the old system was rotten and everything had to be changed. We had been going down a single path for a long time and it didn’t work out, so people were ready to experiment with other models: the U.S. model, of course, but also the Swedish and even the Chinese models. We tried, and it turned out badly. Today, people are very reluctant to try something new because they think it will make things even worse. This accounts for the conservative wave in public opinion, which comes through in opinion polling on social issues.
Given the significant improvement in Russian living standards since the 1990s, how do you reconcile the conservative shift in Russia with the theory that greater living standards correspond to an increase in liberal, pro-democracy views?
That theory is premised on the idea that the younger generation grows up in conditions of relative stability and wealth. But the generation of Russians who came of age in the 1990s lived in conditions of extreme poverty, insecurity and unpredictability. And the generation of Russians who came of age in the 2000s currently has little influence or interest in politics. The current trends suggest that “Putin’s children” will be relatively liberal in 10-15 years, while “Yeltsin’s children” will remain more conservative, patriotic, skeptical and anti-Western, due to the hostile environment in which they grew up.
Can you tell me a little bit about VTSIOM and how it conducts its work?
We have an in-house staff of about 100 people, along with interviewers in the field. Our polling topics come from three main sources: individual clients, including the Presidential Administration; our existing polling database, which goes back to when we first began polling in 1999, and which has questions that we periodically like to revisit; and our own interests, the questions we as sociologists want to ask. We usually have twice as many ideas for polling topics than we can feasibly carry out, so each week we have to make the painful decision of what to leave out.
On Mondays we have a weekly meeting, where representatives of our clients, political experts, and PR people come in and pitch topics that they want addressed in that week’s polling. We also have our archival staff pull up questions that we’ve asked before and suggest running the same question again to see whether public opinion has changed. We decide on the final topics as a team, after which our analytics and methodology staff have several days to develop the poll. After I approve the methodology, our field staff has two days to gather data. Then we check the results, run a control, and have the final results by the following Monday.
This work is exciting for me because it keeps your brain sharp. Our findings are constantly cited, quoted, criticized and disputed.