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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

President and Russians: foreign view of the attitude of the population of post-Soviet Russia towards its presidents

Maslanov Dmitriy Valerievich

Post-graduate student, the department of New and Newest History, N. I. Lobachevsky Nizhny Novgorod State University

603950, Russia, Nizhny Novgorod, Gagarina Street 23




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This article focuses on the issue of the attitude of the population of the post-Soviet Russia towards its presidents in the context of the theory of transitional democracy. The research on the political development of the nations with the transitional type of democracy, with Russia being regarded as one of them, holds a special place in the world political science. The peculiarities of the public opinion of the forming Russian democracy also did not escape the attention of the foreign sociological research; as a result, on the example of the little-studied surveys of public opinion, conducted by foreign authors, the author reveals their view on how the population treats the office and the persona of the president, and what effect they had upon the development of the countrys political system. This article analyzes the foreign research conducted in cooperation with the Russian institute of sociology (Russian Academy of Science), surveys by Pew Research Center, and others. The main result of the research is the introduction into the scientific use of a number of little-studied foreign researches, which confirm the foreign idea that the transition of democracy in post-Soviet Russia has created a hybrid state (hybrid regime, authoritarian democracy, electoral authoritarianism). In addition to that, the presented opinions and results of the research can be considered in structuring long-term image strategies by the Russian government.

Keywords: Transitional democracy, hybrid state, authoritarianism, Vladimir Putin, post-Soviet Russia, president, politics, delegative democracy, strong persona, leader

The research of the political development of the countries with the transitional type pf democracy or democratic transitions, hold a special place in the world political science. With the start of the third wave of democratization, many authors attempted to understand the new criteria and the results of the change of political regimes in the countries that have shed the shackles of authoritarianism, including the post-Soviet Russia. The “transitology” is based on the blueprint of “democratic transition” (authoritarianism-transition-democracy), in which the democracy a priori becomes the better form of governing, and studying the transitional regimes most often manifests in the search for “perversions” or “abnormalities” of the optimal, i.e. liberal, Westerly version of democracy. In Russian science the transition researchers have formed a number of concepts regarding the Russian political reality; for example, “nomenclature democracy”, “destructive democracy”, “regional authoritarian regime” or “Russian hybrid”, and others [1, 7, 8, 11, 21]. These concepts vary from one another by the assortment of structures and characteristics attributed to the regime, but all of them converge on the fact that in Russian there is a system of power that cannot be called a version of a successful democratization.

The important question for “transitology” is the question about the influence of one or another institution upon the formation or strengthening of democracy, including discussion about the advantages and flaws of the presidential, parliamentary, and mix model. In Russia, the form of governing is the presidential-parliamentary republic, a local version of which is often referred to by science as “superpresidentialism” – a system, in which the president possesses extraordinary authority, which impede a successful “democratic transition” [5, 3-20]. At the same time, it is impossible for the population of the country not to have a certain attitude towards the forming institutions of power, president, and socio-political reality. The nuances of the public opinion of the developing Russian democracy did not escape the attention of the foreign sociological researches. As a result, based on the example of little-studied surveys of public opinion conducted by foreign authors, an attempt is made in this article to show their view upon the population’s perception of the office and persona of the president, and what effect did the “strong persona” had on the development of the country’s political system. This article examines the research conducted in cooperation with the Russian Institute of Sociology RAS (T. Colton, V. Zimmerman, M. McFaul, H. Hale; The Russian Election Studies series – RES), surveys by the Pew Research Center, and others that analyze the mood of the Russian population towards the political system and state institutions. The timeframe of the post-Soviet Russia defined in this work falls on the period between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the end of the second presidential term of Vladimir Putin in 2008.

Many foreign authors who study the influence of the presidents upon the political development of the countries refer to Guillermo O’Donnell, author of the term “delegative democracy”, who defines and explains many traits of the system that has formed in Russia. According to O’Donnell, in “delegative democracy” the president is viewed as the embodiment of the nation; the main keeper and holder of its interests. His policy can vaguely resemble the pre-election promises; moreover, he places himself above all political parties and group interests. But delegative democracy is no stranger to democratic tradition, and the elections form the assortment of people who can govern the state according to their reason for a period of several years. The pinnacle of this system is the president, who bears the responsibility for all successes or failures of the government, becoming either an idol or the fall person [6]. This description is given by the researcher for political regimes establishing in Latin America and post-Communist nations in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It is noteworthy that this concept also holds true for post-Soviet Russia. For example, it was used by the Russian researches Vladimir Gelman and Andrei Tsygankov applicable to the development of political institutions in the country [2, 10]. Henry Hale – a leading American researcher of political regimes and policy of the countries of former Soviet Union – while characterizing the post-Soviet Russian regime as “hybrid”, concurs with Guillermo O’Donnell, and points to the fact that the idea of a “strong hand” to the population is essentially a cultivation of delegative democracy, where democratic elections take place in order to delegate the power to a certain powerful circle of individuals and president, who will be completely responsible for the development of the country, possibly even unaligned with public interests [15, 1-14].

If we speak of the first president of Russia Boris Yeltsin, then despite the fact that it was under him that the Constitution of 1993, which in historiography is often referred to as source of the “superpresidentialism”, he can hardly be called this “strong persona”. According to the polls, the approval of his work continued to drop throughout all of the 1990’s. Ariel Cohen, a renowned American expert in policy of the post-Soviet countries, in his work “From Yeltsin to Putin” writes that based on the surveys in 1990 and 2000, a conclusion can be drawn that the population felt that the political leaders have done a lot to undermine the democratic institutions [12, p. 37]. William Mishler and Richard Rose also note that not only the approval of Boris Yeltsin was falling, but there was also a rise in the interest towards Soviet regime. Their analysis of the surveys revealed that at the brink of the centuries the support for the system of power of that time was at a very low level. Even though the young generation displayed a very high level of national pride (75%), the youth initially had a neutral stance on the new regime and the president, the older generation had a negative stance, while the middle and most productive generation was somewhere in between; in other words, the population was not quite satisfied with the government embodied by the president, which came to replace the Soviet [17, p. 825-827]. This is also confirmed by the Russian surveys. For example, according to the data from WCIOM, in 1997 approximately 80% of the population did not approve of the performance of Boris Yeltsin. But as time went on, his approval would periodically rise, even with interruptions by declines. The first period of decline, according to their observations took place in the middle of 1990’s, and was characterized by the strongest economic and social depression in Russia; the second was already during Putin’s presidency in 2006 [17, p. 826-827]. This is likely related to certain unpopular reforms, such as monetarization of benefits and abolishment of gubernatorial elections. Nevertheless, as pointed out by Rose and Mishler, the support for the second president of Russia Vladimir Putin was almost twice as high as that of Yeltsin (according to their scale, Putin had 6 points, while Yeltsin had only 3.4).

Namely the second president is considered that “strong persona”, or as Lilia Shevtsova calls is the “strong hand”, which in her opinion gave the population only the hope that everything will be better [11, p. 47]. A number of polls show that there was a great portion of those who considered that Russia needs the “strong hand” or the “strong persona”. By 2008, some 55% of the respondents fully, while 34% partially, agreed with the fact that Russia needs such strong leader. Thus 89% of the respondents in one form or another supported this idea [15, p. 1368]. In addition to that, 72% believed that Vladimir Putin indeed cares for the welfare of common people, 85% saw him as an honest and trustworthy, 93% considered him “strong”, while 98% held him as “smart” leader. A Harvard University Professor Timothy Colton, a prominent expert on modern Russian policy and Michal McFaul, professor and former (2012-2014) US Ambassador to Russia, note that after Putin’s rise to power the Russian electorate felt that he was the most competent man for resolving all of the problems Russia was facing [15, p. 1370]. Timothy Colton highlights a positive moment in president’s approval by the population, which has experienced its political liberties, economic benefit, and success. Majority did note that they did not gain a lot, but at least did not lose economically [13, p. 15; 17]. Analysis of the evolution of opinions and public preference that is based on economic development leads the researchers to a conclusion that the support of the previous political regime is explained from the perspective of current economic indexes, while the assessment of the current regime and political leader is based on the hopes for the future via the evaluation of his previous achievements. Vladimir Putin became the “hero”, the embodiment of positivity, who has come to replace the “drunken” Boris Yeltsin. Moreover, the financial and economic fiasco of the late 90’s played in favor of the president’s image inside the country. Daniel Treisman, a professor at the University of California, believes that the hope for the new decisive young president was very high within the society, and the economic upturn of the early 2000’s, after the economic crisis and devaluation of national currency, became the strong push for his support. In his last years, Boris Yeltsin became the shame of the country, while Vladimir Putin quickly became the pride of the country. In addition to that, even great calamities will not be able to shake this system for a while, since, as we have already noted, the population votes by a retrospective assessment. Therefore, the period of economic prosperity, the so-called “fat years”, will remain in the avant-garde of the public opinion for some time [18, 13-22].

But there were also other points of view with regard to support of Vladimir Putin and his victory at the first elections. Professors T. Colton and M. McFaul in their 2001 article highlighted the fact that Putin’s ascension to the political Olympus took place due to manipulation of public opinion, “unexplained” explosions of homes, staged decisiveness and war in Chechnya. But despite the fact that the future of the government revealed its strive for authoritarianism, infringement on both, political and economic liberties, the Russian people still believed that it was a right decision to delegate majority of the power to one man [4, p. 13-14]. But based on the public opinion surveys, there was no infringement upon the liberties: more than half of the respondents noted that under Putin they did not suffer any infringement of personal liberties, 28% said that they felt even more free, and only 9% felt less freedom [13, p. 5]. It would seem that such assessments could be justified by the improvement in the welfare of the population; it is no secret that better financial situation makes a person more free, allows them to travel abroad, see the world, become educated, which undoubtedly forms a positive impression of existence of personal, and at times political freedom. In a way, the regime gave no reason for objections, as long as the upward trend of the economic development was maintained.

But the positive attitude towards Vladimir Putin as a leader and the “strong persona” does not mean that the Russian people wanted to see him as irremovable president. More than 96% of the population would prefer to elect their leader based on free general elections. At the same time, 87% of them believed that such elections should take place in a competitive setting; in other words, the people should have a choice between several candidates, each of whom would be able to present their political program for the public decision. The absolutely undemocratic version of elections, where the president puts forth a candidate for his replacement, and they are elected by way of voting “yes or no”, was supported by only 9 %. As of spring of 2008, approximately 40% of the population expressed the regret that Putin did not amend the Constitution so that he could go for a third term after already having served two. But more people (49%) expressed that such changes would be a bad idea, despite the fact that they like Putin as a leader. Furthermore, by then, the majority (62% of the population) did not want Putin to remain a president for life [15, p. 1370-1371]. Thus, the surveys confirm that even a leader that is as popular as Vladimir Putin, is not supported by the population as the irreplaceable president with exclusive authority. His support was that of a “strong leader of the people”, to whom the population delegated very broad range of authority, but was still limited by at least the term of the presidency.

Based on the body of surveys, the majority did not differentiate the essence of representative democracy and the idea of the “strong persona”; for Russians it was not a contraposition, rather an index of their opinion that these political forms go hand in hand, representing an ideal combination – believed Henry Hale [15, p. 1368-1370]. The researchers state that not many Russians can be considered supporters of authoritarian tendencies, although the development of current situation can speak to the contrary. Many indeed like to see a strong leader who is mostly not limited by other institutions, but is elected by will of the people. Over the years of democratic rule and existence of elections of various branches of government, the Russian population has become accustomed to it as a procedure that allows, or at least creates the illusion thereof, each citizen to directly influence the political situation. At the same time, there is still a feeling of necessity of a strong branch of executive power, or a supreme arbiter – a “superpresident”, especially in the times of instability. “A unique aspect of Russia is the role of the individuality in politics. It is colossal, not like in other countries, most likely due to the fact that up until the XX century Russia was a monarchy” – believes T. Colton [3, 993-1020]. Despite such reserved positivity of the researchers with regards to Russians, this still remains the perception of the society that supports the president who, according to these researchers and historiography as a whole, is characterized as an autocrat or a tyrant. Therefore, it is the assessment of a society that (even if only subconsciously) does not support a democratic transition, but instead only contributes to the escalation of a hybrid or semi-authoritarian quasi-democratic regime, which is under present conditions is considered by many as “critically dangerous”.

Thus, the majority of English-speaking authors, leaning on the results of the surveys of Russian public opinion with regards to their attitude towards their presidents and describing the transition of democracy in the post-Soviet Russia, agree on the fact that a situation formed within the society where the desire to have the “strong persona” as a president, who is almost not limited by the public or political institutions, correlated with the desire to elect a president at the free democratic elections. The evolution of the attitude towards the office and the persona of the president – a representative of the highest political power by the Constitution – can be clearly seen in the results of the foreign surveys: from ambiguous, or rather negative, to positive assessment of the second president, whom scholars designate as a “strong persona”. In essence, the presented political system exists in the framework of a “transitological” conception with regards to the post-Soviet Russia, and is similar to the ideas of “delegative democracy” and “hybrid state”. The position of the researches on democratic transition is most often based on the presence of certain “perversion” or deviation from the Westerly liberal democracy and represents a version of a dissonance, which in this case they elucidate on the example of the Russian socio-political discourse. The public opinion they present correlates and confirms their idea that the democratic transition has formed a hybrid state (hybrid regime, authoritarian democracy, electoral authoritarianism) in the post-Soviet Russia, in which there is public opinion that wholly supports the political leader, elections that do not promote change of power, and political practices that are externally identical, but internally different from those of the West. But it is necessary to consider the fact that the population of a country has the right to choose the vector of the development of its political system that they believe is most optimal as far as social, economic, and state interests, and it does not necessarily have to copy the Western European examples. If we talk about the image of Russia and its citizens, which is being transmitted by the researchers and is based on foreign sociology and formed by them in the society, then it is most likely negative, considering Western perception of a strictly authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin. For example, a reputable Western agency Freedom House, whose relevant research is being quoted by any self-respecting mass media, in their reports place Russia in the category of countries not even with a “hybrid regime”, but an “authoritarian political system” [14, 134-155]. This undoubtedly played and continues to play a role in the formation of the political agenda regarding Russia in the West. Therefore, in structuring long-term image strategies, the presented opinions should be considered pertaining to how the Western society can be shown the essence of power and people’s attitude towards it namely from the perspective of Russian reality, ideals, and traditions of political culture, in which there is often a combination of contrasting traits and opinions, uncharacteristic for the Western liberal political culture.

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