By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Ask a citizen of the former Soviet Union what he or she thinks of "the market", and in well over half the cases, the answer is likely to be something unprintable. Go on to ask what ordinary people can now do to change things, and the verdict on the state of democracy and human rights will almost always be hostile.
This is part of the message — "shocking" according to the liberal Moscow press — that flows from the European Union's annual Eurobarometer Public Opinion Poll, results of which were released in mid-March.
The "choice for capitalism" made by the former Soviet elite, citizens of the CIS countries have now realised, was never meant to be in the popular interest. Nor was the population to be allowed to block or reverse the move; the promise of democratic rule was a sham.
In the survey, conducted last November in six CIS countries, 57% of respondents indicated that they saw the move to a market economy as "an absolutely incorrect step". This was well over twice the number — 24% — who considered the move correct. In Russia, opponents of the shift to capitalism outnumbered supporters by three to one, and the number of people disillusioned with "reform" was 12% above the level a year earlier.
The broad sense of disappointment and bitterness was confirmed when interviewees were asked: "In general, do you feel things in your country are going in the right or wrong direction?" In Russia, 72% answered "the wrong direction", while only 16% thought the trend of developments was correct. In Ukraine this latter figure was as low as 13%.
Asked, "In general, are you satisfied with the process of democratisation in your country?", no fewer than 83% of Russian citizens answered "no". Only 8% were satisfied.
"Reform" was launched by leaders of the former party-state nomenklatura with the goal of dividing up the national wealth among their own social layer. It was sold to the intelligentsia with the promise of intellectual freedoms — not to mention living standards resembling those of the Western professional classes. Workers were far more sceptical, but enough believed the predictions of Western-style abundance for the counter-revolution to pass off with only scant resistance.
The hopes of democratisation and prosperity were always far- fetched, even when sincerely held. Now the organisers of the Eurobarometer poll have lamented, with unintended irony, "the rapid growth of mass disappointment with democratic change, and the large number of people who feel that they lived better under the old regime".
If majorities in the former Soviet republics now feel that the shift to capitalism was a mistake, this does not indicate broad support for any alternative course. There is a widespread sentiment that could be summed up as: "Whatever you're doing to us, get it over with, so that the suffering can end!" Almost everywhere in the CIS, the Eurobarometer poll showed majorities complaining that "reform" had proceeded too slowly.
In the months since this poll was taken, various additional opinion surveys have shown how the moods of the former Soviet population have been evolving. In Russia, these polls show a further darkening of the collective vision of the future, as the war in Chechnya has shown that the new state authorities are no less savage than the old.
One of the processes charted in these polls is a further collapse of belief in political institutions and personalities, especially in Russia. On March 17 the results were announced of a survey conducted by the Sociological Centre of the Youth League of St Petersburg. People of all ages in Russia's second-largest city were asked: "Who would you vote for, if elections for president of the Russian Federation were held tomorrow?"
Some 69% indicated they would not vote at all. Of those who would take part, the largest single number — 8.9% — would vote for ultra-rightist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. President Boris Yeltsin could count on the support of 3%, and liberal oppositionist Grigory Yavlinsky 2.2%.
Polls in January and February indicated that 72% of the Russian population lacked confidence in Yeltsin, while only 8% had some trust in him. A total of 57% thought he should resign.
The feelings of passivity and helplessness that have largely characterised the Russian population are by no means universal, and they will not last forever. Where the economic situation is particularly bad, or where workers are unusually well organised, powerful resistance movements are capable of springing up. This was suggested by a recent poll in Omsk, an industrial city of more than a million people in Western Siberia.
With many defence factories, Omsk has been hit hard by the failure of the government to meet its debt obligations. Workers in the city have faced constant delays in wage payments. According to a report early in March, a survey commissioned by the Omsk Province Committee on Family and Children's Affairs showed only 20% of the local population feeling confident about the future; 40% were "extremely worried".
Asked what they were prepared to do to defend their interests, 65% replied that they were ready to take part in strikes. A stunning 30% were ready to participate even in "mass disturbances".