ZOiS Spotlight 9/2018

Do Russians want change?

Despite hoping for change, most Russians have no clear conceptions of possible reforms. Nikolai Krinner/n-ost

In Russia, hoping for change often appears to be a lost cause. The public’s social expectations are seldom high, and people often get what they expect: very little. Yet Russia’s March 2018 presidential election and the start of a new political cycle—even if only a formality—provide a strong impetus to reconsider whether there is mass demand for change and what that means.

The Carnegie Moscow Center teamed up with Russia’s independent Levada Center to organise the We’re Waiting for Change project. Together, the two organisations conducted a pan-Russian quantitative poll measuring public support for reform. The results are instructive, painting a picture of a country where hope for change and concrete understanding of reform rarely co-exist.

As of August 2017, attitudes to reform were split evenly: 42 per cent of Russians supported decisive, large-scale change, while 41 per cent favoured minute, gradual improvements. However, contrary to the standard narrative, Russians do not perceive change as inherently threatening—only 11 per cent wanted no change at all. But the majority of the population lacks a clear grasp of specific steps that might improve the situation. 

Generalised hopes dominate public opinion: a slightly higher standard of living, increased wages, and more affordable goods in the shops. More extreme views were also present. For instance, one respondent made the morose observation that ‘people in backwater towns . . . wish for the state to grow stronger and shoot the rich, and for kind comrade Stalin to come and save us all. But that also counts as change.’ As a rule, economically disadvantaged segments of the population tend to support radical reforms. More successful social strata, for the most part, would prefer gradual change.

The Russians polled widely believe that young people are the group most interested in change. But this supposition is not supported by the facts. In reality, contrary to preconceptions that young people are the drivers and advocates of change, they are perhaps the most conservative group on this issue. Survey findings showed that only 34 per cent of people aged twenty-five years and under are strongly in favour of decisive, far-reaching change—fewer than in any other age group. Young people are also the most likely to say that no reform at all is necessary: 15 per cent of respondents, compared with roughly 10 per cent of other age groups. Almost half of young people believe that Russia needs only minor changes.

Why is this the case? It may be because this generation grew up under Russian President Vladimir Putin, knows no other leader or political system, and has not experienced other state models. Support for the government among young people has been higher than the national average. However, when young people move into their late twenties and thirties, with careers and different kind of responsibilities, their desire for change seems to grow.

Support for change, but a lack of clear conceptions

Of all Russians polled, Muscovites expressed the most substantial visions for potential reforms. They believe that improvements in the social sphere and judicial reform are both necessary. A third of Muscovites—twice the national average—consider improving the quality of state services and government support for business to be important reforms. And every fifth respondent in Moscow noted the necessity of guaranteeing free and fair elections.

Demographic groups, however, varied only slightly on the whole. More educated citizens capable of meaningfully discussing the potential direction of reforms are actually smaller in number than many expect. And they are the only ones under the impression that political reforms are necessary. Individual respondents spoke of the ‘changeability of power’, ‘independent courts’, and ‘inviolable property rights’. However, even these people had no intelligible vision of a reform plan. These discussion group members often viewed increasing state payouts, subsidies, and credits and controlling prices as adequate means to achieve their goals. Such views represent dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs and a conviction that the government has irreversible responsibilities to its citizens. But they lack any clear conception of next steps.

National surveys show that Russians have heard almost nothing about the reform programmes of former finance minister Alexei Kudrin and Russia’s commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights Boris Titov. These politicians were mentioned less than 1 per cent of the time when respondents were asked to name people who could offer an appealing reform plan. In fact, up to 60 per cent of respondents were unable to name any politician up to the task. 

This is unsurprising. In Russia, the entire discussion of national development bypasses the people and is left to professionals. The echoes of expert discussion that do reach the general public tend to come through independent media channels, but their regular audience seldom exceeds 10–15 per cent of the country.

Passive acceptance of the existing system?

Despite some mentions of potential reformers like opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the dominant public view in Russia remains that if anyone will accomplish reforms, it is the current regime (although the Moscow focus groups expressed scepticism on this issue). With few alternatives, the majority of respondents placed their hope for change in Putin.

This is the long-standing model: Putin embodies the hopes of each disparate societal group. He is the main liberal, nationalist, imperialist, and socialist. Thus, many view him as the main reformer, too. This creates the impression that the most desirable and convenient scenario for everyone would be to change everything without changing anything—which requires no sacrifice, risk, or even effort. The regime will supposedly reform on its own. Only it never happens.

The citizens with the most faith in the president’s reform capabilities are moderately successful individuals hoping for minor improvements. This may be in part because most people considered middle class in Russia (state employees, civil servants, bureaucrats, security forces, and state-corporation employees) owe their well-being to the state. As realists, they don’t ask for the impossible: alternative reformers.

Taking all this into account, Russians hardly express a clear desire for change. However, a majority of citizens—even the ‘post-Crimea, pro-Putin majority’ (the supporters of Putin and the annexation of Crimea),—also recognise that without changes, it is impossible to move forward. Or even stand still.

Andrei Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Denis Volkov is a sociologist at the Levada Center in Moscow.

This text is based on an article that originally appeared in Russian in Vedomosti and in English on carnegie.ru