The Illusion of Change in the Former Soviet Union

Yesterday the Pew Global Attitudes Project, one of a great many interesting projects brought to us by the Pew Research Center, released a report detailing continuing downward shifts in confidence about democracy and capitalism in former Soviet territories. The report is filled with rich and interesting detail and is very much worth the reader’s time, but I’m particularly interested in one small fraction of the public opinion polling Pew conducted to come to its conclusions:

Two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians are unhappy with the direction of their countries and disillusioned with the state of their politics. Enthusiasm for democracy and capitalism has waned considerably over the past 20 years, and most believe the changes that have taken place since 1991 have had a negative impact on public morality, law and order, and standards of living.

Alright, this seems pretty straightforward: democracy bad, communism good. What is tangential but interesting is that the central reason listed for dissatisfaction with economic and political systems in the region sounds an awful like the dissatisfaction felt here at home:

Large majorities in all three nations believe that elites have prospered over the last two decades, while average citizens have not. In Ukraine, for instance, 95% think politicians have benefited a great deal or a fair amount from the changes since 1991, and 76% say this about business owners. However, just 11% believe ordinary people have benefited. The fall 2009 survey further highlighted the extent to which these publics are disillusioned with their political leadership. Few believed politicians listened to them or that politicians governed with the interests of the people in mind.

While Americans seem to share the sentiment of those living in Ukraine or Lithuania, they come to a very different conclusion. There is not shortage of talk about the failure of our system, but very little discussion of changing the fundamental rules and principles governing it (by the way I don’t this is a bad thing – I think individual actors are causing our problems, not institutions).

Perhaps most interestingly, while democracy gets a bad rap, the underlying principles and the institutions they produce do not. Most citizens of former Soviet republics still place tremendous value on, among other things, freedom of speech and religion, an independent judiciary, and honest elections. The Pew report does not explore the explanations for such a gap between affinity for the institutions and affinity for the system; this would be a very interesting question to explore in the future.


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