Declining support for Yeltsin's project


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — "The enthusiasm voiced in 1990 and 1991 for all types of private property has ... declined, as people have become familiar with the concrete embodiment of abstract principles in practice."

Not an outlandish finding, when you consider that for most Russians the zeal of Boris Yeltsin and his ministers to introduce capitalism has brought catastrophically lower living standards, and often the threat of joblessness. Nevertheless, many readers of the liberal Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta would have been shocked when they were told on June 15 that the core positions of Yeltsin's privatisation program — supposedly approved by Russians in the April 25 referendum vote on the president's economic policies — were in fact highly unpopular.

Just as discomfiting to Russia's liberal intelligentsia would have been the discovery that when the findings of a range of surveys were summed up, the proportion of Russians who could be considered "active supporters" of socialism clearly exceeded the proportion of "active opponents". It was possible, readers learned, to frame a question in such a way that a strong majority of Russians would indicate support for a "socialist option".

These striking conclusions were set out in an article by Boris Grushin, head of the "Vox Populi" Public Opinion Research Service. Grushin's data were drawn from among the findings of a large number of Russia-wide surveys conducted by his organisation since 1990. The main shortcoming of these figures is that most of them are not especially new. However, the questions were often devised with unusual professionalism, probing beneath accepted generalities to reveal aspects of popular consciousness that radically transform the overall picture and the conclusions that can be drawn from it.

Grushin's data provide backing for the hunch of many observers that the hopes large numbers of Russians held in capitalism peaked in 1990 and 1991, and have been declining ever since. In the first years of the decade, the relaxation of censorship flooded Russia with images of North American and Western European prosperity. Meanwhile, disdain for anything tainted by Marxism caused the Russian intelligentsia to ignore the warnings of leftists that their country's destiny under capitalism was to become part of the third world, not the first.

Nowhere during these years was the acceptance of capitalist doctrine more widespread than in relation to property ownership. In July-August 1990, a Vox Populi survey found 92.5% of respondents "agreed fully or were inclined to agree" that land should be given as private property to those who worked it. In April 1991 almost 46%, a plurality, favoured private ownership of large enterprises.

At least among workers, support for the concept of socialism did not abate as one might have expected. Curiously, many people who were inclined to support private ownership of large industries also retained at least some attachment to socialist ideas. e to show this by acknowledging — as Russian liberals have rarely done — that Stalinist "barracks socialism" does not represent the only possible type of post-capitalist society.

In June 1991 a survey of attitudes toward alternative "roads out of the country's crisis" included the option "the building of a new, humane, democratic socialism, free of the distortions and deformations of Stalinism and stagnation". Of the respondents, 41.2% chose this variant; together with supporters of "the ideals and values of socialism, established during the years of Soviet power", a total of 59.5% of those polled opted for some variety of the "socialist road".

Only 25.4% rejected the ideals and values of socialism in favour of "orienting to other roads of development".

It is obvious that in mid-1991 socialism, often understood simply as a society providing guaranteed employment, virtually free housing and free basic social services, was still perceived by most Russians as a gain that should not be surrendered. But the fact that there could be no such guarantees in a society where large industry was privately owned was often not grasped at all.

Two years after this poll was conducted, many of the illusions about the rights of workers under capitalism have evaporated. What would be the results of such a poll today? Not surprisingly, the people who have the money to pay for opinion surveys are giving such topics a wide berth.

A pointer to the way Russians now see the relative merits of socialism and capitalism is provided, however, by the evolving attitudes toward private ownership of the means of production. Since 1991 the popularity of this concept has declined steadily for all major categories of productive wealth: agricultural and non-agricultural, small, medium and large.

According to Vox Populi figures, support for private ownership of agricultural land fell from 92.5% in mid-1990 to 55.8% in November-December 1992. In February 1991 private ownership of small and medium enterprises was supported by 61.2% of those polled; in June-July 1992 this figure was 55.2%, with 32.1% opposed.

The most striking shift was in support for the private ownership of large enterprises. Endorsed by close to half of those polled in early 1991, this position was supported by a mere 20.8% in February-March 1993, with only 7.4% "in full agreement". A total of 67.5% were opposed, 43.5% "fully".

Assessing sceptically the various options that have been placed before them, and gaining in experience and insight, ordinary Russians have steered between ideologues of the right and ultraleft to arrive at positions that are humane, workable — and socialist. In the popular vision, farmers should be able to have freehold title to the land they work, and small and medium businesses should be open to various forms of private ownership. Meanwhile, large enterprises — which in Russia account for the great bulk of production and employment — should be collectively owned.

The Vox Populi surveys do not distinguish between private ownership of enterprises by their workers and ownership by outside capitalists. But the demonstrable popularity of worker ownership provides further grounds for believing that the popular political consensus in Russia is firmly socialist.

If this is correct, why did Russians vote on April 25 to endorse Yeltsin's social and economic policies? The truth is that most Russian citizens did nothing of the kind. Only 34% of eligible voters turned out to the polls and answered "yes" to the question concerned. Surveys before the referendum indicated that of the large number of people who did not intend to vote, most were hostile to Yeltsin.

Meanwhile, the popular consensus and government policy are totally at odds. Yeltsin's drive for the crash privatisation of large industry rests on the convinced support of only a tiny sliver of the population. Not a reform, but something closer to the theft of the century, this aspect of privatisation can be forced through only by undemocratic means. One need seek no further to find the social and economic roots of Yeltsin's "democracy of one" draft constitution.