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After the inevitable Carnegie Moscow Center focus-group study finds consensus among Russians on social spending, but strongly divergent views when it comes to economic and foreign policy

In a November research paper for the Carnegie Moscow Center, Denis Volkov, Andrei Kolesnikov, and Alexey Levison summarized the results of their focus-group study examining Russians’ expectations for the country’s foreseeable future. In both Moscow and Yaroslavl, the researchers assembled three groups of “Putin loyalists,” leftist and right-wing “traditionalists,” and “liberals,” asking these people what public goals they support, whether Russia can develop under state capitalism and political authoritarianism, and what reforms they consider feasible. Meduza summarizes the study’s findings.

The study demonstrated that Russians, regardless of their political persuasion, view small businesses positively and support the basic premise of a welfare state, despite expressing annoyance with the country’s “parasitic bureaucracy.” All respondents described Russia’s future prospects as “uncertain,” and many were pessimistic, overall. Focus-group participants who were coded as “liberals” were the best at articulating their vision for Russia, often citing democratic benchmarks reached during the Yeltsin era. Loyalists and traditionalists, meanwhile, focused on achievements and precedents from the Soviet era.

Most of the voters who endorsed the recent “zeroing out” of Vladimir Putin’s presidential term clock are not his ardent supporters, and even these individuals say major reforms in Russia won’t be possible until after Putin leaves office. At the same time, the focus groups showed that Vladimir Putin benefits from a widely shared perception that Russia has no viable alternatives to replace him. This aura arguably made it largely uncontroversial for most Russians to endorse the constitutional amendments that could extend his presidency to 2036. 

Less “depressive and paternalistic” in general, the study’s liberals expressed hope that “the street” might influence the selection of Putin’s successor, but respondents across the board said they expect the country’s elites to present their next leader as a fait accompli. Viewing this as the only alternative to another revolution or coup, most Russians don’t object. 

Traditionalists and liberals both want Putin gone, but they embrace other, radically different priorities, particularly when it comes to markets and foreign policies. Like the Kremlin’s loyalists, Russian traditionalists support statism and nationalizations at home and interventionism abroad (many even eagerly anticipate that Moscow will regain more former Soviet territories, either by annexation or invitation). Some traditionalists also advocate “Stalinist methods” in the fight against corruption and want to redistribute the wealth accumulated by “state officials and oligarchs” — a heavy-handed approach that proponents don’t necessarily believe is anti-democratic. Liberals, on the other hand, reject such rhetoric as repressive and instead favor shrinking the government’s economic role by privatizing major state enterprises and breaking up state monopolies. They also want to reorient Moscow’s foreign policy toward the West. 

Unlike Westerners, whose primary environmental concerns are global, the Russians in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s focus groups were worried most about local pollution. Traditionalists and loyalists tend to blame Russia’s failings here on weak government oversight, while liberals fault Russia’s technological backwardness and a lack of international competition. Volkov, Kolesnikov, and Levison say everyone agrees there’s a problem, but one side believes “too much is allowed” and “money permits everything,” while the liberals believe excessive red tape and imposed restrictions are responsible. 

Respondents in all political groups support various protest strategies as a means of holding public officials accountable. No participants said they seriously believe such demonstrations can bring about regime change or even oust individual state officials, but the consensus view is that such activism can still broadly pressure the authorities to fulfill their duty. Liberals are often better at articulating these ideas, but the demand for accountability is universal. When it comes to supporting small businesses and vulnerable populations, there is also wide support in Russia for social spending.

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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