Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russians View Opposition Not as Alternative but as Communications Channel, New Study Finds

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 17 – Russians do not view the opposition as an alternative to those in power but rather as “an additional” but very weak “channel of communication” between themselves and the authorities, according to a new study prepared by the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

            The basic conclusions of the 185-page report, entitled “The Differentiation of Civic and Political Practices in Russia” (, are presented by Sergey Patrushev, its principle investigator, in an interview conducted by Marina Vishnyakova in today’s  “Novaya gazeta” (

The sociologist says that the study found that Russians “poorly distinguish” between political, social and civic spheres of activity,” something that has “practical consequences.”  People who seek to build a kindergarten find their demands labeled as political, while “people who make political demands are called foreign agents.”

As a result of such confusions, Patrushev continues, “Russians often themselves do not understand” either the nature of the demands they are making or whom they are addressing when they make them “the authorities, themselves or someone else.” And that helps to explain some of the deeper patterns the new study found.

“The most obvious indicator of the level of social dissatisfaction is the approval of the authorities by the population,” Vishnyakova summarizes. According to polls, popular approval of the top leaders of the countries has remained high even during periods of the greatest protest activity although that of lower-ranking leaders has in fact fallen.

“The obvious motivation” behind this pattern, she suggests on the basis of the study, resides “in the institutional function of the federal leaders – ‘if it won’t be them leading, then who else is there?’”

Another one of the study’s findings is that dissatisfaction with the situation in the country is growing “in the first instance” in villages and small cities on the periphery, places which “at one and the same time form the foundation of mass support for the existing authorities.” Consequently, much of this dissatisfaction is displaced on other groups rather than the state.

In major cities, on the other hand, those who are unhappy with the situation in Russia are more inclined to be critical of the government, likely because “they have access to a comparably greater number of sources of information” and thus are in a better position to connect the dots between the problems they face and the regime they live under.

Few opposition leaders are widely known or approved of, the study continues. According to Patrushev, “it isn’t very important whether there are outstanding leaders in the Russian opposition or not.” What is “more important,” he continues, “is in which sphere these leaders operate” and what their activities promote. Initiatives from below need to be promoted; then real leaders will emerge.

“Despite the fact that half of those polled” for the study, “recognize the existence of the opposition a necessary attribute of ‘real democracy,’” Vishnyakova says, “a third of those who are dissatisfied consider it possible to do without it if comfortable conditions of life are established in the country.”

According to the study, half of the electorate of opposition figures consists of people who want to make a protest, while “up to half” of the voters for the ruling United Russia party are motivated by “a lack of alternatives.” Moreover, it found that those who chose not to vote at all divide in about the same ways and for much the same reasons.

The sociologists found, Vishnyakova continues, that “if those citizens inclined to opposite in the first instance voted in order to influence the situation in the country, those loyal [to the ruling party] did so in order that no one would steal their vote and out of a feeling of duty,” one more indication of the low level of institutionalization of democracy in Russia.

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