Monday, April 25, 2016

Russians’ Anti-Americanism Arose Before Putin and Will Outlast Him, Volkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 25 – The anti-Western and anti-American attitudes found by Russian pollsters peaked in early 2015 and since then have somewhat subsided, but they are likely to continue for some time even when sanctions are lifted because their roots lie not so much in Putin’s propaganda as in Russian experiences in the 1990s, according to Denis Volkov.

            In an article in today’s “Vedomosti,” the Levada Center sociologist reports that polls found 81 percent of Russians had a negative attitude toward the US and 71 percent toward the EU in early 2015 while now these figures are 64 and 60 percent respectively (

            Such fluctuations in Russian attitudes toward the West have been a feature of Russian life since the end of Soviet times, he points out, rising at times of high tension as over Yugoslavia in 1999, Iraq in 2003, Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine since 2014 and then “rapidly returning to [more] stable positive value” after the crises pass.

            But since the 1990s, he says, that is long before Vladimir Putin came to power, Russians shifted from their enormously positive view of the US and the EU at the end of Soviet times to a consistent distrust and dislike of the West; and that underlying attitude is likely to preclude any new era of good feelings at the popular level for many years whatever the Kremlin does.

            Many now forget that at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, “Russian society was delighted by the West, chiefly by the US.  America seemed to Russians to be a model society … and the chief ally in the world arena.  Rapprochement with the West [then] seemed more important than cooperation with the former Soviet republics.”

             Consequently, Volkov continues, “the foreign policy of Yeltsin and Kozyrev was not imposed from abroad as it is common for people to say now but rather reflected the existence of a broad societal demand for rapprochement with the West and the inclusion of Russian in the club of leading world powers.”

            But Russia’s economic crisis at that time and the West’s obvious disinterest in bringing Russia into that club meant that such attitudes lasted only for a few years; and by 1993, differences over major foreign policy questions between Moscow and Western capitals heightened the sense that the West was still hostile to Russia and did not wish it well.

            Polls at the time showed that Russians were very negative about the American bombing campaign in Iraq and especially NATO’s military actions in Yugoslavia, and those events deepened Russian hostility.  In 1996, only six percent of Russians were prepared to call the US an enemy, but by 2008, 35 percent were; and now, this figure is 46 percent.

            Already in May 1998 and not in Putin’s time, “about 75 percent supposed htat Russia was seeking to weaken Russia and transform it into a raw materials supplier. Today such views are supported by 80 percent” of Russians.  The big change came in 1999 with Yugoslavia, well before Putin came to office.

            But after he did so, Volkov argues, anti-Western views among Russians were “intentionally used by the Russian authorities for the interpretation of events taking place in the world and for justifying Russian foreign policy ambitions as a forced response to the aggressive actions of the US and its NATO allies.”

            That pattern was very clear in the case of the Maidan in Ukraine. Originally, only about 20 percent of Russians were inclined to blame that action on the West, but by 2014, “such an explanation was accepted by the Russian population as the main one,” the result of government information programs.

            If one considers the likely course of development of such attitudes in the future, the Levada Center sociologist says, it is probable that after the lifting of sanctions, “generally positive attitudes quickly will be restored but suspicions about the hidden hostility of the West toward Russia and also distrust of the US and the EU will remain for a long time.”

            That will certainly be the view of the members of the ruling elite, Volkov says, as most of them came out of the Soviet-era security services and have cold war views about the West. Those in Russia who think differently are “in a subordinate position” in the Russian political system and have been “marginalized and stigmatized.”

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