The Russian Pollocracy Unmasked

DSCN1730.JPGWhen will pollsters, politicians, researchers, and reporters stop milking the dead plastic cow of Russian “public opinion”? Photo by the Russian Reader

VTsIOM Records Another Dip in Putin’s Confidence Rating
But If Respondents Are Asked about the President Directly, a Majority Say They Trust Him
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
May 31, 2019

Russians’ confidence in Vladimir Putin continues to plunge. According to VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Foundation), during the week of May 20–26, 30.5% of people polled expressed their confidence in the president. This was Putin’s worst showing since 2006. (Earlier polling data is not available on VTsIOM’s website.) The previous all-time low, 31.7%, was recorded a week ago.

VTsIOM asked an open-ended question (see the inset, below, for the exact wording), meaning respondents were free to identify the politicians they trusted.

This was VTsIOM director Valery Fyodorov’s explanation for the discrepancy between the level of confidence in Putin and the president’s electability rating.

VTsiOM also published responses to closed-ended questions for the first time, meaning questions about the confidence of respondents in specific politicians. Putin’s confidence rating was 72.3% when the question was put this way to respondents. VTsIOM also quizzed them about their attitude to the prime minister and party leaders, but confidence in them was considerably lower.

FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) also asks respondents specifically about confidence in Putin. Last week, 62% of people they polled said they either “absolutely” or “more or less” trusted the president.

What VTsIOM Asks
The open-ended question was worded as follows: “We all trust some people while not trusting others. If we talk about politicians, whom do you trust to make important government decisions? Whom would you not trust?”

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said on Thursday, May 30, that the Kremlin had taken note of VTsIOM’s poll showing a decline in confidence in Putin. He asked the pollsters to explain the discrepancy between the confidence rating and the electability rating, which has been growing.

For example, according to FOM, the president’s electability rating has increased by five percentage points since March. Last week, it was 50%. This week, it dipped to 48%.

“We expect an analysis on the part of Russia’s esteemed specialists on how these figures correlate. How can the confidence rating fall when the electability rating increases? It’s a complex analysis. We hope to see this analysis sooner or later,” Peskov said.

On May 24, VTsIOM published polling data on confidence in politicians. 31.7% of respondents said they trusted Putin to make important government decisions. It was the lowest figure since 2006. However, Russians [sic] still trust the president more than any other Russian politician.

“The open-ended question about trust is sensitive to the public’s moods and emotions. When the mood is sour, as it is now, many respondents refuse to answer, choosing ‘no answer’ or ‘I don’t know,’ etc. VTsIOM does not publish the numbers of people who respond this way, but around thirty percent of people polled give these answers in similar polls done by the Levada Center,” said Dmitry Badovsky, director of the ISEPR Foundation.

As for VTsIOM’s first closed-ended poll on confidence in specific politicians, it would be interesting if the pollsters had included in the list all the politicians people ordinarily name in VTsIOM’s customary open-ended poll, including Putin, Sergei Shoigu, Sergei Lavrov, Pavel Grudinin, and Alexei Navalny, argued Badovsky.

He would not rule out the possibility that VTsIOM would do this in its next round of polls.

“It would be impractical to get rid of the open-ended question about trust. It has been asked for many years, since 2006. Such long-term data sets are rather important in research and analyzing the situation,” argued Badovsky.

“Fluctuations in the president’s ratings have been much discussed over the past year. It’s just that it rarely gets on the agenda, but when it does, there is a conflict. It’s hard to deny negative trends, but it’s considered indecent to acknowledge them,” said political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov ironically.

“However, there have been few instances when the publication of ratings was suspended. If I’m not mistaken, it happened to Medvedev’s electability ratings when he was president. Declining to publish ratings is tantamount to acknowledging you are powerless to reverse the trend. Yes, the ratings have dropped, but not so critically as to warrant panicking,” Vinogradov argued.

It would make more sense to natter on about the subject until society and the media switch their focus to some other problem, he added.

We asked Fyodorov whether the pollsters would now publish responses to both questions about confidence.

“We shall see how society reacts and decide accordingly. Maybe we will publish both polls. Or one poll. Maybe at the same time or maybe at different times. We haven’t discussed it yet,” he replied.

He did, however, promise to keep publishing results of the open-ended survey about trust.

Translated by the Russian Reader

DSCN1893Russian “public opinion” polls are “udderly” useless. Photo by the Russian Reader

In October 2013, during the height of the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise crisis, Shaun Walker wrote this in the Guardian:

In the queue outside the [detention center in Murmansk where the Greenpeace activists were held], there is little sympathy for Greenpeace among relatives of other detainees, as they wait to deliver packages. “We have a saying in Russia: you shouldn’t go into someone else’s house and try to live by your own rules,” said one middle-aged woman who had bought a parcel of food for her 33-year-old daughter, who had been inside for five months on charges she did not want to reveal. She had been waiting in freezing temperatures since 4am to ensure she was among the lucky few who got to deliver her package.

Another man, waiting to deliver a package to his brother, suggested the Greenpeace activists were paid by western oil corporations to undermine Russia and should be “shot, or at least sent to a camp”. The opinions reflect surveys which show that the majority of Russians support the piracy charges.

Walker’s take on Russian “public opinion” struck me as so wildly wrong that, a few days later, I wrote and published my first attack on what I would subsequently dub the “pollocracy.”

For some reason, as the country sinks deeper into the Putinist fascist night, this “saying” becomes more and more popular. I’ve personally heard and read it something like six hundred thousand times over the past few years, but it’s hard to remember anyone ever saying such a thing in the nineties. It’s just remarkable how people participate so willingly in their own enslavement and extinction, and with the help of such “sayings.” Yes, “folk wisdom” really does consist in repeating over and over again what some fat cats with soccer teams in England, kids in Swiss schools, and mansions on the Riviera want you to think.

On the other hand, reporters like Shaun Walker wouldn’t have to look that hard for Russians who don’t think this way, even in Murmansk. And it’s pointless, as he does here, and as avid Russian watchers both inside and outside the country love to do, to cite a “public opinion” poll that, allegedly, shows the majority of Russians don’t support the arrested Greenpeace activists. Aside from any other number of methodological and philosophical issues with such polls more generally, not only in Russia, “public opinion” is a nearly meaningless concept in a country lacking all the things that make it a somewhat more meaningful concept in other countries, things like free elections, broadly based political parties, non-astroturfed grassroots groups, much stronger and more militant independent trade unions and, most important, freedom from constant terrorization and brainwashing, in the not-so-distant past and now again, over the past fourteen years, by officialdom, whether in the form of bureaucrats, police or state media.

Why does “the majority” not support the arrested Greenpeace activists? Because they (or, rather, a good number of the people who answered this dubious poll) thought that this was the response expected from them. Why did they think that? Because state and loyalist media have portrayed Greenpeace as the second coming of Al Qaeda, willing dupes of the CIA, and any other baleful thing you can think of. You don’t even have to believe this stuff. You just know that if some “polling organization” calls you up out of the blue, there are strong cues out there in the big media world to which you have access telling you how to respond to such questions. So what’s the point of thinking something different out loud? But then Shaun Walker, hundreds of other reporters, “political analysts,” “sociologists” and so on cite this “public opinion” as if it weren’t obtained under duress. It’s a vicious circle.

I knew I was probably not alone in my profound distrust of attempts to depict Russian “public opinion” so facilely. Actually, my friend the reporter Sergey Chernov had been making similar arguments in our endless conversations about politics then. It was Chernov who hit on what I think is still the consummate formula for how the pollocracy works in Russia: “Levada—TV—Levada,” ad infinitum. A vicious circle, indeed.

But I wanted to see whether other Russian reporters and political scientists had reached similar conclusions. Although, as I discovered, they were few and far between, there were other Russians besides Chernov who had noticed that the leaders of their country, where nearly all elections were faked and had just protested this sad circumstance in large numbers for several months, were positively and paradoxically bonkers about “public opinion” polls.

Since 2013, I have enthusiastically translated and published their articles on the subject while also wearing out my already thin welcome by insisting on this website and other venues that Russian “public opinion” polls are worthless as measures of what real Russians really think and should be shunned by conscientious reporters and researchers.

Worse, Russian “public opinion” poll are barefaced attempts to mold public opinion by persuading the 99.99999% of Russians who are not asked what they think about anything that everyone (except them, perhaps) is gaga about Putin, crazy about Stalin, bonkers about the occupation of Crimea, etc.

Events of recent weeks have brought into sudden, sharp focus the dubiousness of public opinion polls in Russia, whose elites and security service have been rapidly descending into neo-totalitarianism while society at large seems, at very least, to have quite a lot of the democratic fight left in it, especially when it comes to NIMBY-style battles over parks and waste landfills.

This emerged forcefully in Yekaterinburg, where the powers that be unexpectedly suggested polls and plebiscites as a way out of the conflict between rank-and-file residents defending a city park and the Russian Orthodox Church, who planned to build a church in the park.

Now it transpires (see the article, above) that one of Russia’s troika of “trusted” (official or quasi-official) pollsters, VTsIOM, has been engaging in double-entry bookkeeping, so to speak, when it comes to gauging the public’s trust in Russia’s would-be president for life.

For reasons that are not clear, it asks the victims of its survey open-ended and closed-ended questions about their confidence in Putin’s leadership, questions that produce wildly different outcomes.

What does it all mean? I would hope it means that people who are serious about reporting and explaining the complexities of the Russian elite’s police tactics and the political resistances mounted (or not mounted) by the Russian grassroots will forever forswear the nasty handiwork of Russia’s troika of public opinion manipulators.

The article in Vedomosti, which I have translated, above, shows, without really trying, that the troika of pollsters (Levada Center, FOM, and VTsIOM) cannot be trusted if only because they are mixed up with the Kremlin in a shady game to persuade perfectly intelligent, well-educated, thoughtful people they know what they think only when Putin, Levada or the TV set tells them what to think.

And yes, even when a Russian “public opinion” poll seemingly goes the opposition’s way, as it has in this case, it is still worthless. {THE RUSSIAN READER}

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