Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#15 - JRL 2008-174 - JRL Home
Impervious To War, Inflation, And Foreign Barbs, Russian Pride Grows
September 23, 2008
Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

While Western criticism of Russia continues to mount in the wake of the Georgia conflict, recent polls suggest that such scolding from the outside world has little impact on public satisfaction within Russia.

Russian public opinion appears to be firmly behind the country's foreign policy and perceptions that it is a born-again superpower.

The West recently has had little good to say about Russia, which raised hackles with its brief but intensive war with Georgia in August.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has referred to Moscow's "worsening pattern of behavior" and says the country is in danger of damaging its international reputation, while a new survey commissioned by Britain's "Financial Times" shows that more Europeans consider Russia a greater threat to global security than Iran, Iraq, or North Korea.

But such information appears to have little impact in Russia, where the public remains largely supportive of Moscow's Georgia campaign and Russia's overall course.

Moscow residents support the overall trend in comments to RFE/RL. "I think Russia's actions were absolutely correct," one Muscovite says. "They showed that we could be strong, that we could be right, righteous, and just."

"It's time for Russia to get up off its knees. We should simply be able to stand up for our interests by now," another Moscow resident says. "One should be a patriot of one's own country. Maybe Russia has its shortcomings; many things are not the way they ought to be. But one should always be proud of one's country."

Trust In Medvedev

A new set of polls conducted inside Russia shows that public support for the government is higher than at any other time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

One pollster, the Public Opinion Foundation, shows public trust in the country's new president, Dmitry Medvedev, on the rise from 47 percent in May -- the month of his inauguration -- to 57 percent by mid-September.

This still puts Medvedev considerably lower in the ranks than his predecessor, now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who currently enjoys a 75 percent trust rating.

But it demonstrates steady progress in Medvedev's own political evolution and what the public sees as a masterful performance during the conflict in Georgia. (Asked to cite a particular aspect of Medvedev's leadership in recent weeks, the majority of those respondents focusing on foreign policy pointed to the Georgia crisis as a highlight in his presidency.)

At the same time, views of the outside world -- in particular, the United States -- are reaching new lows. The Levada Center, another polling agency, found that 67 percent of Russians have a "bad opinion" of America, compared to only 23 percent with a good opinion. Europeans fare better, with just 39 percent of Russians holding a negative opinion, against 45 percent positive.

Both polling organizations are seen as independent and not reflecting a pro-Kremlin bias. However, the uniformity of Russia's state-controlled media means most Russians have access only to news and information the Kremlin wants them to hear.

Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, says Russia's soaring economic status and what it sees as its short, successful war in Georgia have combined to give most citizens a renewed sense of satisfaction in their country -- and less interest in the world beyond.

"This is a natural reaction from the Russian people. The combination of Russia's reasserted pride and improved living standards are the two components of the high rankings of the Russian leadership," Lipman says. "Each component is totally understandable, and would be the same anywhere. I don't think ever in Russian history has the proportion of people who enjoy decent living standards been as high as it is today."

Economic Uncertainty

The high approval ratings are far from the dismal public mood in the late 1990s, when a failing economy and political chaos provoked a swell of nostalgia for the power and stability, if not the iron grip, of the Soviet era.

The rise to power of Vladimir Putin, and the accompanying emphasis on patriotic sentiment and domestic well-being, have restored self-esteem to many Russians. The state media's reinforcement of the Kremlin's strength-and-prosperity narrative has only compounded the mood of contentment.

One possible cloud on the horizon, Lipman says, is the looming economic crisis. Major market fluctuations and shifts in oil prices have yet to trickle down to the average Russian consumer, but a sharp spike in food or utility costs might begin to slowly chip away at the Kremlin's public support base.

"Currently, the Russian people have accepted what I would call a nonparticipation pact offered by the Russian leadership. The government delivers, and the people don't meddle in politics," Lipman says. "And of course this contract is accepted as long as the government delivers. If the government is no longer able to deliver, and if people's socioeconomic situation deteriorates, then I think we may be seeing a big shift in people's attitudes."