Russians don’t follow the western script

According to much Western commentary, a new cold war is brewing between Russia and the West. Russians are coming to be seen as enemies, not partners. We are told that they are obsessed with the thought that the West is trying to strangle Russia; that they believe that Russia must stand up for its sovereignty and national identity; and that Russia, flush with oil money, now has the power to do so. This is the message of the current BBC World Service series ‘The Kremlin and the West’. ‘Russia and the West are snarling at one another … the poisoning of a dissident in London, fears over energy supplies, and talk of a new arms race have sent a chill round the world’.

This narrative seems remote from the surveys of Russian attitudes conducted by the Levada Centre. Asked last year ‘on which problems should the Russian government concentrate first?’ 45% gave ‘corruption and plundering of public property’, 40% ‘price cutting’ and only 12% ‘strengthening of military…and defence capabilities’. Asked in 2006 to rank the country’s problems in order of importance from a list of twenty-seven, respondents put domestic issues in the first sixteen places, with ‘Russia’s status in the world’ at no.18., and ‘national security’ at no 24.

There is no necessary contradiction between wanting to have a better life and wanting to see Russia strong and respected in the world. The difference is that it is much easier for governments to pursue a ‘strong’ foreign policy than to improve people’s welfare. The former is mainly rhetoric; the latter requires deep reforms to domestic institutions. ‘Standing up’ to America, or denouncing the West for real or imagined slights is an easy way to boost President Putin’s popularity, and divert attention from the government’s failure to tackle the problems of most concern to Russian citizens.

The measure of the ‘welfare’ task facing the country is formidable enough to require the united energies of the incoming Russian government. Under President Putin the Russian economy has grown by 6 per cent a year. This has raised GDP per person from $3200 in 2000 to $5600 in 2007 (or from $7100 to $14,000 in PPP terms.) The current American PPP equivalent is $43,400 and the British $35,000. That is to say, the Russian economy delivers only one-third of the ‘welfare’ to its citizens that the American economy does, and 2/5ths of Britain’s. It is much easier to talk about power and glory than to close this ‘welfare gap’ –which, in fact, has changed little since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

An interesting fact about the two surveys cited above is that Russians put ‘cost of living’ issues as the first three of the four problems the government should deal with, demanding ‘price controls’, or indexation of salaries and pensions. This reflects an inflation rate of 12% and the fact that the prices of many necessaries have risen over 50% in the last year. An inflation rate of 10.7% per year on average over the seven Putin years explains why many Russians do not feel better off despite the advance of real incomes.

The important point is that these surveys of Russians opinion reveal the same preoccupations as those of people in the West. They do not show any obsession with Russia’s special identity, exceptional characteristics or unique mission. People in Russia, as everywhere, want higher incomes, reduced social and economic inequality, and a better quality of life. In this similarity of aspiration lies the best hope for better understanding between our countries. Politicians, whose job it is to keep the peace, should build their political support on hopes that people share, rather than the prejudices which divide them.