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The Russians Rethink Democracy

The Pulse of Europe II

As their standard of living goes from bad to worse and uncertainty about the future increases, the Russian people have soured on democracy.

By a margin of 51% to 31% Russians say they now favor a strong leader, rather than a democratic form of government to solve their country’s problems. Only 17 months ago, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, a comparable Times Mirror Center poll found just the opposite division of opinion – 39% of Russians favored a strong hand at the helm and 51% wanted a democratic solution to their nation’s daunting problems.

The slide toward authoritarianism, in a nuclear-armed nation that remains potentially the most dangerous to the United States, is manifested in a number of ways in the survey and in a series of focus groups conducted throughout European Russia in November. The polling found  a growing disillusionment with the Russian parliament, declining interest in politics and no signs that the people feel increased political empowerment in post Soviet Russia.

Democracy also eroded in Ukraine and Lithuania, but not nearly so severely as in Russia, according to independently conducted opinion polls in each of the three former Soviet Republics. Majorities in both of these smaller nations still prefer democracy (50% in Ukraine, 67% in Lithuania) to a strong leader, but by smaller margins than in 1991.

The surveys in all three countries detected increasing uncertainty about the future, fueled by sustained disillusionment with current conditions and sagging optimism about the future. In Russia fewer than one in twenty rate their life situation positively and only one in three expect a somewhat better life within the next five years. Support for a return to authoritarianism was sharply higher among Russian citizens who expressed discontent with current conditions and had little expectation that their lives would get better over the next five years.

The poll also found increased hostility in Russia toward a free market economy,  another condition that would favor emergence of a strong leader there. Lithuanians have also soured somewhat on the pace of economic reform but much less so than Russians. Ukrainians, in contrast, want to move faster toward free markets.

The fresh look at Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania was conducted late last year as a follow-on companion to the comprehensive “Pulse of Europe” survey by Times Mirror in May, 1991, which covered West and East/Central Europe as well as the former Soviet republics. In the interim, the Russians have lived through an aborted coup, and all three peoples have been undergoing economic chaos, political turmoil, and national rebirth as independent countries.

The new survey comes as the Russians prepare for an April referendum that will decide their new Constitution and Ukrainians prepare to vote on a new Basic Law this spring.  Lithuanians, for their part, begin a novel experiment of being ruled by their former communist (albeit nationalistically inclined) bosses, this time freely elected.




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