The Russian Elite: Values, Attitudes and Forecasts
This study is based on empirical evidence collected from seven waves of the survey of Russian elites conducted by Prof. William Zimmerman (Zimmerman, 2002, 2009). The waves were taken in 1993, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016, with a total of 1,664 respondents. All respondents are residents of Moscow. Restricting the sample to Moscow is unlikely to result in statistical bias, given Moscow’s disproportionate impact on the nation’s decision-making. Moscow is the financial, political, intellectual, and cultural center where the principal decisions are made and the individuals occupying key positions in various spheres of public life are concentrated. To compare elite and public views (specifically, with regard to the US), the study also uses the data from the New Russian Barometer project directed by Richard Rose [Rose, 1992–2009] and administered by the Levada Center. It comprises 18 national polls conducted between 1992 and 2009. We also use some other data from the Levada Center. To analyze the value difference between the elite and mass publics, we use the data from six waves of the World Value Survey (1990, 1995, 1999, 2006, 2008, and 2011) [World Value Survey, 1981–2012].
The data provided by these polls reveal not only short-term transformations in the elite’s attitudes but also some stable long-term trends involving various groups of the Russian elite. To identify generational differences in elite values, the respondents were subdivided into several generations: born in 1940 or before; between 1941 and 1950; between 1951 and 1960; between 1961 and 1970; and after 1970. The recent wave of the World Value Survey data also allows us to examine the generation born in the 1980s.
We have relied on of these data to trace the evolution of elite values and their preferences for the country’s political system, economic development model, and foreign policy in the context of the Russian Federation’s changing role in the international system. Based on the results of our analysis, we have composed a portrait of a typical representative of the modern Russian elite, and forecasted how elite values and attitudes (and the effect they have on the country’s foreign and domestic policy priorities) will continue to evolve. Elites help shape the conceptual foundations of Russian policies and choose the means of achieving the preferred ends, but they are not always guided by rational motives in these pursuits. The influence of individual psychological traits on foreign policy decisions still has not been thoroughly studied due to the difficulty of polling officials at the highest levels of power. However, the unique data of William Zimmerman’s surveys of Russian elites provide some insight.
Owing to the rigidity of psychological traits, the foreign policy preferences they inform are a good predictor of an individual’s actions in specific situations. In fact, psychological traits are a better predictor of foreign policy views than group allegiance and political orientation. Therefore, the psychological component is important in any analysis or forecast of changes in elite values. For instance, ethnocentrism is an important characteristic that has been found to have an influence on foreign policy.
Some findings are counterintuitive. For instance, it would seem that a broad definition of Russia’s sphere of national interest should correlate with support for defending the national interest by military means. The number of respondents supporting a broad definition of Russia’s sphere of national interest (extending beyond the country’s borders) has been steadily falling until the most recent wave, when the trend sharply reversed. All the while, the number of those who see military power as the decisive factor in international relations has been growing and still is. On the basis of cohort differences observed in the responses to these questions, we make several forecasts of the direction Russian foreign policy will take in the coming decades. The lowest percentage of respondents expressing support for a broad conception of Russia’s national interest was found among two cohorts: those born in 1961–1970 and those born after 1971. By 2020 these two cohorts will be the largest in the Russian elite, making them especially important in any discussion of the future foreign policy.
The youngest cohort (born after 1971) were the least likely to support the use of military force as a tool of foreign policy. The growing number of elites with more aggressive views on the use of military force suggests that Russia will likely take a harder line in foreign policy matters in coming years. This will not necessarily come in the form of more armed conflicts unleashed by Russia; yet we expect more attention to all matters pertaining directly and indirectly to growing the country’s military power. In this way, the elite’s views on military power will shape not only the direction of foreign policy but also Russia’s domestic priorities.
At the same time Russia is unlikely to use military force in the absence of any international conflict or potential threats to its national interests. For example, both respondents who broadly define the national interest and those who hold the opposite views rank economic power ahead of military power as a factor in international relations. This suggests that the elites are most likely to support using economic leverage rather than military force in peacetime.
Our forecast of the foreign policy views of the Russian elites should not be taken as a declaration of this group’s expansionist intentions, though they are likely to support efforts to increase Russia’s military power and to favor tougher measures, including the use of military force, in international conflicts that threaten Russia’s interests. Their lack of expansionist ambitions is supported by the consistent downward trend in the number of elites who broadly define Russia’s sphere of national interest. The respondents born in 1961–1970 and post-1971 are the least likely to believe that Russia’s sphere of interest extends beyond its borders.
Our research also has implications for the prospects of the Russian-US relationship. The level of anti-Americanism expressed in the surveys is today considerably higher among elites and the general public than in the 1990s. Over time more respondents have come to view the United States as a threat to Russia. The most significant changes in attitudes to the US and democratic values in general were recorded in the cohort born in 1961–1970. In 1993, the majority of this generation supported democracy and liberal economic reforms, and viewed the United States as a potential partner. But in the 2000s, anti-American attitudes began to grow rapidly. This change in the attitude toward the US among these cohorts has a direct bearing on the direction of Russia’s policy with respect to the US.
The rise of anti-Americanism in the Russian population is rooted in ressentiment, or disillusionment with Western values and the US as the embodiment of those values, caused by Russia’s rocky transition to democracy and a liberal market economy. This hypothesis has been borne out by the data. Ressentiment explains a critical dimension of the transformation of elite values. Moreover, as our analysis shows, anti-American sentiment peaks during the periods of international tension and heightened antagonism toward a potential geopolitical rival.
Currently, the relations between the United States and Russia are turbulent, with relatively frequent disagreements on matters of international importance, like the situations in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Russia has not shied away from confrontation; it has dug into its positions. This could be due to the growing number of people in the 1961–1970 cohort who see the US as a serious threat to Russia’s security. These are people with significant influence on Russia’s foreign policy.
From this we can infer that Russia’s policy to the US may undergo some changes when elites born after 1971 become more of a presence in positions that formulate foreign policy. It is entirely possible that younger elites will take a milder approach to bilateral relations and will seek out compromise. Of course, exiting the current round of confrontation would be a necessary condition for this to happen.
Our analysis of the Russian elite’s perceptions of internal threats to the country suggests a number of conclusions regarding likely domestic policy priorities in the coming years. As noted above, the elites regard inefficient governance as one of the most serious threats to Russia’s stability, increasing the likelihood of future efforts to reinforce Russia’s vertical power system and overcome internal contradictions, as well as to stabilize interethnic relations. Ethnic strife, another major threat in the eyes of the elite, has been a source of instability in various Russian regions during the entire post-Soviet period, and has undermined efforts to strengthen the vertical power system. Still, economic problems are viewed by elites as the main source of trouble, suggesting that the main emphasis of domestic policy will be on overcoming socioeconomic challenges.
Elites are becoming more ideologically polarized over time, particularly in their political views. While the mean values on political questions are essentially the same for all cohorts, the variance can be quite different. Polarization, as measured by variance, is decreasing at the times of international crises. This re-enforces the idea that the youngest cohort of the elite may become less anti-American only if the current tension is somehow dissipated.
For the younger respondents (born after 1970), the greatest polarization is seen on questions of government ownership of industrial enterprises, the prospects for starting a new business (an indirect indicator of a respondent’s positive attitudes to the market economy), the existence of a single true philosophy, and outlawing dangerous ideas. The variance for this cohort was the highest for outlawing dangerous ideas, but in general this cohort is no more polarized than others, as the structure of cohort differences varies for each indicator.
The political beliefs of the Russian elite have been marked by a gradual divergence between two groups, the first of which prefers authoritarian methods of governance while the second favors a liberal democratic model. The first group is currently in the majority, but the number of supporters of liberal democracy has also grown in the past few years. Will this group exert a significant influence on Russian politics in the coming decades? That depends on a host of factors. First, will the general public support calls for liberalization and democratization? In 2011–2012, we saw an increase in protest activity due mostly to the greater political participation of the middle class. However, it appears that their energy has been dissipating, as there has not been an avalanche of new demonstrators. As noted above, international tensions seem to be a factor of consolidation. Second, much depends on cohort differences: the generation born in the 1960s will occupy key government positions in the 2010s, to be gradually replaced by those born in the 1970s in the following decade.
Rising socioeconomic prosperity in the Russian Federation could upend this course of events. If the country overcomes the ill-effects of the current crisis and economic growth continues at the same pace as in the 2000s, the elite polarization may not necessarily lead to a schism and open confrontation but rather to the formation of two camps in the government that will advocate different solutions to pressing problems in line with their ideological preferences. This does not mean the country will undergo a general democratizing trend. The current political regime is likely to be conserved for to reproduce a new generation of elites by recruiting many Russians from the younger cohorts.
Our analysis sheds light on the impact of value changes on the behavior of future generations of Russian elites. Democracy does not generally seem to be the preferred form of government: authoritarian and/or technocratic governance are seen as equally acceptable political systems. Moreover, the popularity of authoritarian rule may even grow over time among both the elite and mass publics.
Finally, on the whole the younger generations are not very politically active. The 2011 protests are perhaps better understood as an emotional reaction or a fad, rather than a conscious decision to fully participate in the civil society. To be sure, there is a small segment of society – particularly in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg – that holds post-materialist views and is prepared to defend and promote its ideals. However, they cannot count on mass support, which they found out in late 2011-early 2012, when the protests fizzled out after an initial peak.
The rotation of elites over time may not necessarily lead to significant liberalization and democratization of the current political system. More likely, a combination of authoritarian and
technocratic methods will be employed. Civil society and democratic institutions will develop
albeit slowly, with economic concerns likely to be the main driver of the process – this process will be initiated by the need for better cooperation between the business people and the government. Increasing foreign investment and integration with international economic institutions will also likely play a role. However, for a significant segment of Russian society and the elite, democratization will not be of particular interest. Individuals born in the 1970s and 1980s who may be more post-materialist in their views will either be incorporated into existing government structures and adjust their political convictions accordingly or be sidelined from politics.
However, if economic growth resumes in the coming years, this will inevitably foster the spread of post-materialist values among younger Russians, especially those born after 1990. Greater numbers of post-materialists will translate into greater political activity. It will be difficult for the regime to ignore the growing calls for democratization and a more powerful civil society, forcing some concessions. Given Russia’s growing integration with the international community, particularly on the economic front, and the institutional requirements that come with it, it appears that Russia’s political climate may see some significant changes in the 2020s.