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For Russians, Link Between Democracy and the West

by Ian T. Brown

Association between free markets, democracy, and Western nations

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Growing Western concerns about a resurgent Russia have some experts asking how the West lost Russia as an unquestionably pro-Western partner. John Thornhill, a contributor with the Financial Times, argues that pervasive anti-Westernism throughout Russian society drives it away from Western allegiances. However, when Gallup recently asked Russian respondents which political system is the most suitable for their country, 40% favored a system that is similar to the old Soviet one, but is more democratic and market-based.


Tied for the second most popular option, though only favored by about half as many respondents, are a Soviet system, similar to what was in place in Russia prior to "perestroika" (18%), and a Western-style democratic republic (18%). Ten percent of Russians surveyed favored a strong authoritarian system that places order above freedom.

Associations Between Preferences for Western Democracy and Free Market Economies

Despite the anti-Western sentiment noted by Thornhill, Russians continue to link some elements of traditional democratic values -- namely a free market economy and democratic governance -- with Western-style democracy. This is clear when examining the views of the 18% who prefer a return to the old Soviet system and those of the 18% who prefer a Western-style democratic republic. The Gallup Poll reveals that the two groups differ predictably in their attitudes about a free market economy and foreign investments.

First, Gallup asked Russians if they feel the creation of a free market economy, largely free from state control, is right or wrong for the country's future. Since Gallup began asking this question in 2006, Russians have tended to say this approach is wrong, rather than right for their county.

Those respondents who said a Western-style democracy is more suitable are much more likely than those who prefer a Soviet system to say a free market economy is right for the country. Further, those who favor a Western-style democracy are almost twice as likely to believe that foreign companies will help the Russian economy. When asked if the Russian government should allow or prohibit foreign companies from buying Russian ones, respondents who prefer a Western-style democracy are more likely to believe the government should allow this.

Among all Russian respondents surveyed, Gallup finds that they are spilt as to whether foreign companies will help or hurt the country's economy. A majority, however, believe the government should prohibit foreign compaines from purchasing Russian ones.


Associations Between Western Democracy and Satisfaction With Democratic Governance

Gallup also surveyed Russians on democracy in their country. Gallup first asked Russians if they believe democracy is important for their development of their country. A majority of 60% said so. However, not surprisingly, this 60% was disproportionately made up of those who reporting that they preferred a Western-style democracy (79%) rather than the old Soviet system (43%). For those respondents who said democracy was important in the first question, Gallup then asked how satisfied they are with the way democracy works in Russia. Respondents are split, with many saying they are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with they way it works. Russians who prefer a Soviet system are more likely to be very or somewhat dissatisfied with how democracy works, and those who prefer a Western-style democracy are more likely to be very or somewhat satisfied. Lastly, Russians were asked about the importance of active political opposition in their country, and the majority feel it is somwhat or very important. Those who say a Western-style democracy is most suitable are more likely than those who say a Soviet style system is suitable to believe it is very important that the country have active political opposition.


Demographic Differences in Attitudes Toward Democracy

In terms of age, Russians between the ages of 15 and 39 (46% of respondents) are more likely than their older counterparts to favor a Western-style democracy over the Soviet political system. Russians with up to eight years of basic education or less (19% of respondents) are more likely to prefer a Soviet political system. Those with at least four years of education beyond high school (17% of respondents) are more likely to say a Western-democracy is most suitable.


Finally, Russians in the poorest income quintile are more likely to prefer the Soviet system than a Western-style democracy, while those in the highest income quintile are more likely to favor a Western-style democracy rather than the old Soviet system.


These findings are significant in light of a recent report by the Institute of Modern Development, a think tank led by President Dmitry Medvedev, which claimed the most vehement opposition to Russian democratization has come from the socioeconomic elite, and that the lower classes are the most open to liberal reforms. Gallup data show the opposite to be true.

Association Between Western-Style Democracy and Western Nations

The United States has long considered itself a beacon of democracy, and during the Cold War, the American system of government was diametrically opposed to the Soviet governance model. Interestingly, however, Russians who prefer a Western-style democracy and those who prefer the old Soviet system do not differ significantly in their likelihood of approving the job performance of U.S. leadership. Respondents who prefer a Western-style democracy are much more likely to approve of the leadership of Western nations, such as France and Germany (democratic republics), the United Kingdom (a constitutional monarchy), and Canada (a federation, parliamentary democracy, and constitutional monarchy all rolled into one) than are respondents who prefer the old Soviet system.

Gallup also found an association between Western-style democracy and Russian leadership. (Russian government has termed its particular brand of governance "sovereign democracy," but Freedom House classifies the country as an undemocratic nation "not free.") Russian respondents who favor a Western-style democracy are more likely to approve of Russia's leadership than those who favor a Soviet system (the respective approval percentages were 73% and 54%).

Bottom Line

Low approval of U.S. leadership in Russia -- which stood at 14% when Gallup last polled there in May 2008 -- has hindered statistical comparison between preferences toward the most suitable political system and attitudes toward U.S. leadership. But evidence that Russians do associate the values of free market economies and democratic governance with Western-style democracy means there is hope for Western leaders who believe their countries can serve as models for democratic reform within Russia.

Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with at least 1,203 adults in Russia, aged 15 and older, conducted in May 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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