'We Don't Want the Current Government to Do Something, We Just Want a Different Government'

Journal Title: The Current Digest of the Russian Press

Issue Edition: Vol. 72, No. 23

Author: Artyom Zemtsov


'We Don't Want the Current Government to Do Something, We Just Want a Different Government'

By Artyom Zemtsov. Republic.ru, June 5, 2020, https://republic.ru/posts/96885. Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – On June 4, the Belanovsky Group, an independent research team, published the results of a public opinion study titled “The New Spectrum of Political Sentiments in Russian Society in 2020.” Political analyst Artyom Zemtsov talked with one of its authors, Anastasia Nikolskaya, a psychologist, senior researcher at the Russian President’s Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, and assistant professor of psychology at Kosygin Russian State University, on how Russians’ political values, emotions and behaviors are evolving. . . .

* * *

Question. – You and I chatted in fall 2018. We talked about the transformation of Russians’ political values, the growth of protest activity and the emergence of popular demand for justice. What has changed in the last two years?

Answer. – I can’t say that anything has changed qualitatively. In 2018, we talked about the fact that there were a certain number of Russians who already had different values. Now, that number has just gotten bigger. We supposed that these values would gradually form a core, and that this core would develop a shell. That is exactly what is happening now. These new values can be called postmaterialistic, or, if you will, liberal; they are strengthening and becoming popular among a growing number of Russians.

Q. – Eighteen months ago you said: “The people’s love affair with the regime is over. We’re looking for our next fling.” And now in an interview with Znak.com, you claim that “society is ready for a divorce.” Is the divorce process dragging out?

A. – In 2018, people really were saying “We’re looking for our next fling,” but now they are no longer looking for anyone. At least in our study sample, there is no clear demand for any particular political leader. . . .

We are seeing weariness with a single ruler and the concentration of power. Of the 235 respondents in our sample, 179 said that they did not need some prominent leader (56 respondents still find such a leader desirable). Russians are no longer looking for someone else; society has matured to the point that it can live without a leader. We are already thinking about how we will live on our own after the divorce.

Q. – In other words, Russians favor a complete decentralization of power?

A. – More than half of respondents say that an ideal form of government for them is a parliamentary republic, without any charismatic leader. We observed approximately the same thing in focus groups in 2018. Many people, of course, do not fully understand what a parliamentary republic is. But more and more people are talking about a system of checks and balances, and the need for every social group to be represented in the government, so that its interests are taken into account. The overwhelming majority of respondents say that only the interests of a very narrow group – the political elite – are represented. In their opinion, other Russians are not seen or heard. In fall 2019, people wanted to be heard, noticed and respected. Not anymore. We don’t want the current government to do something, we just want a different government. This is a major shift compared to 2018. . . .

Q. – Which social groups no longer need a charismatic leader, and which still urgently need one?

A. – During our study, we suddenly realized that the usual classifications of people – apolitical, critical and loyal – has started to fractionalize. The palette of public sentiment is not monochromatic but has many hues. Based on our interviews, we tried to hone the classification. That turned out to be rather difficult. There are two parameters: On the one hand, there is a person’s ideological basis, and on the other, there is their psychological status.

The first group is the “elderly.” These are generally pensioners, aged 70 to 90, who live in large cities and have a rather decent pension; they no longer have to look after children or even grandchildren. They have enough money to meet their modest needs. These people can calmly enjoy life. They are doing relatively well right now and therefore generally support the current political regime. They continue to see [Russian President Vladimir] Putin as the national leader.

“Great power supporters.” These are supporters of the values the government is offering: nationalism, patriotism, imperialism, the traditional family model, etc. This is the most loyal group to the regime.

“Guardians of the status quo.” This is also a conservative group. It is afraid of changes because they could worsen their personal socioeconomic situation. Their psychological status is “fear of change,” and their ideological basis is conservatism. There are things they aren’t happy about, but they are ready to put up with them.

“Apolitical.” These are people who are practically uninterested in politics. Many people in this group are young adults aged 18 to 23. They have no responsibilities yet. But this group also includes well-off housewives. Their ideological basis is hedonism, and everything is fine in their life.

Q. – What social groups are critical of the authorities?

A. – “Pseudo-political” is the largest group of those critical of the authorities. People in this group became interested in politics no earlier than 2018, and many only in recent months. There is a lot they are unhappy with. They are pushing mostly for socioeconomic changes. Political changes are not so important to them. They don’t want to participate in any civic activity, but they expect that from others. Most people in this group don’t need a leader at all, but they believe the people still need one.

“Saudadists” (not to be confused with Saudis). The Portuguese have a word, saudade, that does not have a straightforward Russian translation. The term means an emotion that expresses longing, nostalgia for a large empire [sic; saudade conveys a general sense of longing or nostalgia – Trans.]. This group of Russians is very nostalgic for the lost great power [status]. Actually, they are similar to great power supporters, but they are completely disappointed in the government. They basically have the same foundational values, but they believe that the government has deceived them; its actions are now completely unacceptable. This group needs a new political leader who can lead the country.

And the last large group is the “opposition.” They don’t need a leader; instead, they need civil society organizations built on horizontal ties. This group talks a lot about a parliamentary republic, about not needing one-person rule or concentration of power. . . .

Q. – You have presented a very interesting and varied picture, but if you were to summarize, what portion of Russians in your sample is most critical of the authorities?

A. – I think more than half. The most critical are the “oppositionists” and “Saudadists.” . . .

Q. – You mentioned an increased level of aggression and frustration – an “agitated state of society.” What kind of “agitated state” is this, and what kind of actions could these emotions result in?

A. – In our quantitative survey, the question was: “What emotions are prevailing for you during the [coronavirus] self-isolation period?” And then there was a list of emotions. “Irritation” ranked first, “anxiety” came in second, and third was “anger.” But irritation and anger are emotions of aggression – just aggression of different intensity. Anxiety is understandable; these are fears for loved ones, for the financial situation. But aggression –  What it is aimed at –

Q. – Is it vague or targeted?

A. – We think that it is generally large-scale and targeted. The aggression is directed at the government. More so the federal government, but sometimes the president personally. The irritation is due to the fact that he deceived people, or so they believe. He made promises and did not live up to people’s expectations. If, for example, you were to request a loan from a colleague with whom you have a good but not particularly close relationship, and that person refused, it would be annoying, but normal. But when in a difficult situation you asked someone close to you who knows what is happening in your life and that person refused, this, of course, would elicit completely different feelings. That’s roughly what has happened. People are wondering “How could he do that?” [Putin] surely knows how bad things are for us! How could he escape to his bunker, shirk his responsibility? In people’s minds, illusions that many held right up to the self-isolation period are collapsing. As those illusions dissipate, aggression grows.

Q. – Is this increased level of aggression present in all groups? Which groups have more of it, and which have less?

A. – Of course, there is no aggression among the “elderly” and not that much among the other loyal groups. There is a vague sense of irritation, but it is not directed at the government. On the other hand, people who used to be absolute loyalists include family members of high-ranking officials – i.e., our Russian elite. These people say that everything is fine with them personally, but they understand that it’s really impossible for [ordinary] people to live like this – that something needs to change. Even the loyalists have some kind of understanding. . . .

Q. – Generally speaking, what percentage of your sample could be willing to join the political opposition?

A. – About 15% of respondents, but you need to understand that this willingness is for now [just] declarative. Whether it will manifest itself in behavior is a big question. People are afraid. If not for the fear of repressions, the willingness to protest would be much greater. In our sample, the willingness for progovernment political participation is, of course, much lower. Moreover, the other respondents are on the fence. As soon as they see that thousands of people are filling the streets, they will take to the streets, too – provided there is no police violence. In fact, with the help of repressions, the regime has somehow managed to restrain people; they are afraid. Although there is more and more talk that protests are about to begin, and if the first shot is heard, or if the riot police accidentally hurt some old lady, people will lose their heads and crush the police. That is what one of our respondents, a former riot police officer and pensioner from Ivanovo, thinks. And he roughly understands how the system works on the inside.

It seems to me that the authorities will someday surrender their positions, either peacefully or nonpeacefully. . . .

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