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The impact of the war in Georgia on Russian public opinion

In September 2008, shortly after the Russo-Georgian war, researchers from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences carried out a survey of the foreign policy views and attitudes of 1,750 Russian citizens. Comparing the results with those of surveys conducted in previous years, they found a sharp shift of opinion.

Even since 2007, there had been a big increase in the proportion of Russians saying that they had negative feelings about NATO (now up to 80%), the United States, other countries that had supported Georgia (for example: Poland – 51%, Britain – 38%), and, of course, Georgia itself (81%). The proportion with positive feelings about the United States had declined from 37% to 14%.

There had been a gradual anti-Western trend in Russian public opinion since the mid-1990s, but the war in Georgia greatly accelerated this trend. As a result, it was now possible to speak of an emerging “anti-Western and anti-NATO consensus” in Russian society, encompassing not only Russian nationalists and the left but also a large section of previously pro-Western liberal opinion.

For the first time in the whole post-Soviet period, a majority of Russians (60%) expressed hostility toward Ukraine. Conversely, respondents were much more likely than before the war to express positive attitudes toward close allies within the CIS (Belarus – 75%, Kazakhstan – 69%), and also toward China (59%).

55% of respondents expressed strong approval and another 29% mild approval for the actions of the Russian government in the Caucasus. Only 2.5% expressed disapproval.

Over half of respondents were in favor of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remaining independent states recognized by Russia. Fewer than 5% were willing for them again to become autonomous regions within Georgia. Over a quarter (27%) thought that Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be incorporated into the Russian Federation.

What is the relationship between Russian public opinion and the views of the political elite? Some say that in light of the control exercised by the elite over television and the mainstream press, public opinion is merely a reflection of elite opinion. The source acknowledges that elite propaganda has enormous influence over public opinion, but argues that elite and public opinion are nonetheless far from identical because other factors also affect public opinion. 

It seems that the elite is not uniformly successful in inculcating the public with its attitudes. Thus, most ordinary Russians are much less sensitive than the elite to economic and military-strategic issues (for example, the deployment of American ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic).

Such issues are not readily understood and do not strike an emotional chord. By contrast, the events in Georgia clearly did have a very powerful emotional resonance. More specifically, the average Russian television viewer was upset and angered by images of the Georgian assault on Tskhinval, the death of Russian peacekeepers, and the streams of Osset refugees seeking safety in Russia. The strength of the reaction surprised even the public opinion specialists. Of course, the Russian television viewer was never shown images of the “peace imposition operation” – the apartment blocks bombed by Russian planes, the streams of refugees fleeing the Russian advance, etc. Conversely, the American television viewer was shown these images but not the images shown on Russian television. “The truth, nothing but the truth, and only part of the truth.”            

Source: Andrei Andreyev, “Vneshnepoliticheskie predstavleniia rossiian posle kavkazskogo krizisa” [Russian Citizens’ Foreign Policy Conceptions After the Caucasus Crisis], Mirovaia ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia [World Economy and International Relations], May 2009, pp. 74—80. Final paragraph my own comments. 

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