A New Leader and a New Attitude

Reflecting Inward

In January 1999, public opinion surveys in Russia reported that 82% of the population thought that things in Russia were “headed in the wrong direction,” while only 6% believed the country was headed in the “right” one. As of this past June, however, three out of every ten Russians – the most since 1991 – now say that not only is the country moving in the right direction, “the worst times are over.” This significant shift in public opinion is based largely on the popularity of Vladimir Putin, who is currently receiving a 72% favorable rating by the Russian people.

More than one-half of the Russians polled in June believe that Putin’s economic strategy will succeed, another significant shift in public opinion that indicates a growing confidence in the new government. When asked what Putin’s priorities should be, Russians ranked raising people’s standard of living as the highest priority (36%), followed by establishing a true rule of law (19%), and winning the war in Chechnya (15%). Other priorities, such as fighting corruption and improving public health, were in the single digit percentiles.

According to this same poll taken in June 2000, 80% of Russian adults now have color television, 42% have a phone, and 6% have a personal computer; in Moscow, these percentages are 98%, 96%, and 23%. And yet, 40% of the population is classified as below the poverty line. In a poll taken in February 2000, 55% of the respondents reported household incomes of $50 a month or less. Several recent polls have calculated the size of the Russian middle class at approximately 7-8% of the population, even in the more prosperous city of Moscow.

Looking Outward

Polls taken in the summer of 2000 also focused on Russian views of other nations; the results again showed some shifts in perspective. Twice as many Russians hold favorable (47%) as opposed to unfavorable (24%) views of the United States; this is a distinct shift since the February 2000 poll, when 37% held favorable views and 35% held unfavorable views. The June 2000 poll also showed that more think that the United States acts responsibly in trying to solve international problems than think it does not (48% to 19%).

It was interesting to note that Russians generally hold more favorable views of Germany than of the United States, but China receives less favorable ratings than both Germany and the United States. The same is true when Russians evaluate how responsibly these three nations act — Germany is rated highest (58%), the United States next (48%), and China lowest (45%).
When asked whether or not they expected relations with the United States to improve or worsen under President Putin, 48% of Russians expect an improvement, 31% think relations will remain the same, and only 5% expect them to worsen. This is another encouraging shift in views from the February 2000 polls, in which 81% of the Russians agreed that “the United States is utilizing Russia’s weakness to reduce it to a second-rate power and producer of raw materials,” and 85% felt that the United States was “trying to dominate the world.”

A Farewell to Autocracy

These encouraging shifts in popular opinion polls in Russia have been supplemented by positive analyses of Russia’s future under Putin by some leading Western scholars. In a recent interview, Martin Malia from the University of California at Berkeley was asked to compare Putin’s efforts to modernize Russia with that of Peter the Great. Professor Malia dismissed the comparison and said Putin cannot be compared to Peter the Great because the 21st century is not the 18th century – modernization means more than just building a strong army and navy.

In Malia’s view, if Putin wants to make Russia strong, he must make it advanced technologically, and that means fostering education. Advanced technology and education means an independent-minded, diverse, civil society. “You cannot run a modern, technological, and educated society the way you run an 18th century military monarchy. I think that Putin understands this,” Malia stated.

International standards have changed, Malia argued, and “Russia cannot behave in an old-fashioned, brutal, autocratic, nationalistic way and get away with it. It needs the support of the world community to survive. . . . Putin does need the world community just to make Russia a viable society – not a superpower, but simply a society that works.”

When asked about his views on where Russia will be ten years from now, Malia’s response was a cautious one. He said he expected “continued halting progress toward a more normal modernity” and he did not see “any real possibility of a conservative, nationalist, authoritarian restoration.” Malia, like a growing percentage of the Russian population today, see the country moving in the right direction, in the direction of becoming a “normal society.”

I concur with Malia’s judgment. In my conversations with members of the university’s Board of Trustees and corporate leaders in Moscow, the consensus is that Russia is finally “under control” and currently has the leadership in place to move it forward on the path of reform. No one I spoke with is expecting improvement to be dramatic and without periodic setbacks, but the country is moving in the right direction – which is to say, toward becoming “normal.”


Note: The public opinion polls cited above were conducted by the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research and the results were summarized by the Office of Research of the Department of State in their “Opinion Analysis” dated August 18, 2000 (M-144-00), and August 23, 2000 (M-148-00). The interview with Martin Malia appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of Problems of Post-Communism.