New climate of fear makes Russian polls ever less reliable, Moscow sociologist says

Putin's promise of "СТАБИЛЬНОСТЬ" ["stability" in Russian] crumbling and crushing its original supporters (Image: Alexey Merinov, mk.ru)

Putin's promise of "СТАБИЛЬНОСТЬ" ["stability" in Russian] crumbling and crushing its original supporters (Image: Alexey Merinov, mk.ru) 

2016/05/15 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

One of the few Russian sociologists who predicted the mass protests against the Putin regime in 2011-2012 says that the attitudes behind those protests are intensifying even though they are not yet captured by polls because fear has returned and ever more Russians are afraid to tell pollsters what they really think.

Sergey Belanovsky, Moscow Center for Strategic Research

Sergey Belanovsky, Moscow Center for Strategic Research

In an interview with “Moskovsky komsomolets,” Sergey Belanovsky of the Moscow Center for Strategic Research, argues as was true five years ago, “’official’ sociology is far from always capable of tracking trends” and that unexpected developments are thus likely.

Until recently, the sociologist said, he had been among those who argued that Russians were not so fearful that they would not tell poll takers what they felt but that his recent research, which he admits was on a small and thus less than fully representative sample, has convinced him otherwise.

Among the signs that Russians are afraid to express their real opinion, he says, are “extraordinarily short responses, refusal to take part, and like ‘I don’t know,’ ‘everything is fine,’ and so on.” Such people will respond more openly only if they become convinced that others they know about have.

In his experience, Belanovsky says, repeat surveys show that prior to Russia’s “involvement” in Ukraine, that is, “before the Olympiad and the annexation of Crimea,” people answered more or less honestly and the major polling agencies could be more or less trusted most of the time. “Then people responded without any fear.”

But now things have changed, in large measure because of “the aggressiveness of [Russian] television with its rhetoric in the spirit of ‘who is not with us is against us.’” That makes people fear expressing an alternative position lest they fall into the categories of fifth column or worse.

Young people show less fear and those who grew up in Brezhnev’s time show the most, he continues. “Propaganda has begun to use its former algorithms and the reaction of people has not been slow to follow.” Of course, Belanovsky says, “this is not 1937.” But fear has returned and is spreading.

He says that the initial Russian reaction to Crimea with its explosion of patriotism was “sincere.” But “the peak of enthusiasm has passed.”

Fear of the future plus a sense that there is no alternative are the primary reasons why polls continue to show high ratings for Putin and his policies.

This “fear will intensify if repressions intensify,” the sociologist says, although he says he finds it difficult to imagine that they will go further than in 2011-2012. But at the same time, he points out that “at one time, it was difficult for [him] to imagine the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas.”

Expressions of support for Putin reflect not only this fear but also the sense that there is no real alternative, a view that the Moscow media have done everything they can to promote. Indeed, he recalls, at the end of Soviet times, polls found high levels of support for the CPSU even as that organization was collapsing – and for the same reason.

Russian public opinion is largely “inert,” that is, it continues in one direction for a long time; but then it can change suddenly. Immediately after Boris Yeltsin sacked Yevgeny Primakov as his prime minister, many expressed anger. But that anger lasted only a day or two and then people found reasons to support the new man. That can happen again.

Beginning in Soviet times, the security agencies sampled public opinion in various ways; and it is entirely probable that they are continuing to do so with their own polls, Belanovsky says. But the authorities should not rely on these, although they may feel they cannot afford to offend the security agencies by stopping the program.

Russia is entering a new period of change, he argues.

“The authority of the federal authorities is beginning to fall and ever more signs of a major tectonic shift in public consciousness are appearing.”

Some of this has been picked up by the major polling agencies, but “’official’ sociology still does not reflect” just how dramatic this shift really is.

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Edited by: A. N.

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  • Alex George

    Why on earth would anyone take polls out of Russia seriously? “Climate of fear” describes it well.