Saturday, December 29, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Few Russians Have Travelled Abroad, Polls Show

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 29 – Fewer than one Russian in four has ever travelled abroad and only 17 percent currently have a passport good for such visits, and that lack of contact means that their views about events abroad as well as at home continue to be defined by state-controlled mass media rather than by personal experience, according to a leading Moscow analyst.

             In an essay posted on the portal yesterday, Aleksey Makarkin, the first vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, says that “the most interesting sociological poll of 2012” was one by the Levada Center concerning visits by Russians to countries beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union (

            Given that Russians routinely say that the ability to travel abroad is one of the most important gains since Soviet times, it is striking, Makarkin says, that “83 percent of the citizens of Russia do not have a passport for foreign travel,” a number that means that “a maximum of 17 percent” are currently in a position to travel abroad now or in the immediate future.

            “But even that statistic is clearly an exaggeration,” the commentator suggests, because the Levada Center found that only about seven percent of Russians currently travel abroad for private reasons “once a year or more often, that another six percent do so every two to three years, and that “10 percent did but don’t do so now.”

            The situation regarding Russian business travel beyond the borders of the former Soviet space is “still worse,” Makarkin says, with fewer than five percent doing so once a year or more often, two percent once every two or three years, and nine percent saying that they did so earlier but do not do so now.

            Thus, the Moscow analyst says, “the overwhelming majority of Russians have not seen the West even once,” and consequently, they get what information they have about it from television where they are regularly told that it is a terrible place, a larger variant of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Or they get it from friends and relatives who have gotten it from that source.

            As a result, Makarkin continues, “it is not surprising” that whatever “positive assessments of Western countries” they have are “stereotypes which existed already in Soviet times” but that “the negative ones are typically conditioned by fresh information” from state-controlled Russian television because the majority is “almost completely isolated” from international news sources.

            And consequently, for this Russian majority, “Qadafi was not a dictator but the normal leader of a not bad and stable country whom western imperialists and their agents ‘removed.’ Milosevic was the innocent victim of the undertakings of a cruel international tribunal. And in Syria, the legitimate authorities are fighting with terrorists who are drawing support from the US, Qatar and Al Qaeda.”

            In July, 29 percent of Russians sampled by the Levada Center said they were prepared “to stand shoulder to should with Bashar Asad,” while “only 14 percent supported joining the Western sanctions against that country. 

            And what is perhaps even worse, Makarkin continues, is that this lack of real information increasingly informs what Russians think about events in their own country.  According to another Levada poll, Russians “consider the sentence handed down against Pussy Riot “insufficiently harsh.”
             Given this reliance on Russian state television news, it is no surprise that the majority of the population supports measures against “’foreign agents,’ opposition figures, and ‘slanderers,’ and also the ‘cannabalistic’ law about adoptions,” which even a few members of the government found objectionable.

            “’The simple Russian’ knows,” Makarkin continues, that Americans want to adopt Russian children either to sell their organs or mistreat them because while Russians have “spirituality,” Americans are driven entirely by “the pursuit of profit and the cult of ‘the golden calf.’”

            Such attitudes, carefully cultivated by the Kremlin, have made “the conservative mobilization begun by the authorities a year ago … a tactical success.” But no one should describe it as a strategic success.

            On the one hand, such attitudes “strengthen the peripheral character of contemporary Russia which is no longer feared (the times of the USSR have passed) but is not respected and not only in the West” but in China, on which some in Moscow have put misplaced hopes as “a strategic partner.”

            And on the other, “the ‘simple Russians’ are not so simple. Their conservatism is closely tied to the populist order of the day, to expectations of increases in pay, pensions, benefits, and the preservation of ‘Soviet’ systems of health care and education.” If those expectations are not realized, they will stop supporting the authorities.

            At present, “their support of Vladimir Putin” is based on these expectations, on the lack of clear alternatives and on “fear of chaos” should he depart.  But Russian society is tired and increasingly skeptical about the regime. And while it “doesn’t love the West and the liberals, it also cannot tolerate the corrupt bureaucrats.”

            For the time being, Makarkin says, “the social contract between it and the authorities is preserved unlike the other contract between active groups of society and the authorities which finally broke in December of last year.”  But the broader social contract could break down if prices for oil and gas fall.

            In that event, the Moscow analyst says, “the authorities would encounter more serious problems than they did a year ago.” That is because there are “already leaders with the experience of organizing mass protests.”  And while these leaders are “not ideal,” he concludes, they nonetheless will in those circumstances present a real threat.

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