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Regular version of the site

Democracy Isn’t for Everyone

Russians adopt western values but see them in their own way

Europe wants to live in a democracy. This is especially true for residents of countries of Northern Europe, but less so for those of former socialist countries, especially Russia. While almost everyone has a positive attitude towards democracy, people have different understandings of it. Alla Salmina studied the relationship between attitudes and understandings of it using the data of 28 countries that participated in the European Social Survey (ESS). Her findings were published in POLIS. Political Studies.

How Do People View It?

Attitudes towards democracy were measured by the extent to which citizens wanted to live in the political system’s conditions and their assessment of how effective it is in their country.

The highest commitment to democracy was found in Northern Europe (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden). At the other extreme were post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe, primarily Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia. Russia’s scores were not only the lowest in this group, but in the survey as a whole.

How Important Is it to You to Live in a Country
with a Democratic Form of Government?
(Averages represented on a 10-point scale, ESS, 2012)

The countries differ even more in terms of whether their populations view democracy as an effective form of government, as well as the extent to which they view their countries as democratic.

While northern Europeans view themselves as the most democratic, populations of the former socialist camp, including Russia, view themselves as the least.

How Democratic Do You Consider Your Country to Be?
(Averages represented on a 10-point scale, ESS, 2012)

Those most dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy reside in Southern Europe and former socialist countries:

 Spain (4 on a scale of 10);

 Portugal (3.9);

 Russia (3,8);

 Albania (3,7);

 Slovenia (3,6);

 Ukraine (3,3);

 Bulgaria (3,1).

How Satisfied are You with the Way Democracy Works in your Country?
(Averages represented on a 10-point scale, ESS, 2012)

How Is It Understood?

How respondents understand democracy was analyzed in terms of their attitudes towards 15 democratic attributes: respondents indicated which traits they believe are most important, i.e., which they most strongly associate with the desire to live in a democracy, and which are less significant.

The fundamental traits in all groups of countries, first and foremost those of Western, Northern and Southern Europe, were:

 free and fair federal elections;

 the ability of opposition parties to criticize the government;

 the ability of the press to provide citizens with reliable information to judge the activities of the government;

 protection of minority rights;

 the ability of all people to freely and openly express their political views, including radical ones.

The most important democratic attribute is free and fair elections. Residents of Western European countries are more likely to associate democracy with this characteristic, while those in countries that tried to establish socialist forms of government, including Russia, are less likely.

Ranking last on the list is a government’s efforts to reduce inequality. Of more importance is reducing poverty. 

What Characterizes Russia?

Russians have a broad understanding of democracy. Most of its attributes are significant to them. In order of importance, these are:

 free and fair federal elections;

 the ability of all people to freely and openly express their political views, even radical ones;

 the ability of voters to choose from truly different political party platforms.

Bringing Russia more in line with European countries is the lesser importance respondents placed on the reduction of income inequality (or rather, tackling poverty). But the importance Russian respondents placed on the interests of the masses distinguished them from other countries. As in the former socialist bloc as a whole, the ability of governments to change decisions in accordance with the opinions of the majority of citizens is considered to be important for democracy.

But Russia’s approach to the interests of minorities is different. In Russia, the protection of the rights of minorities is the attribute least associated with democracy. This differentiates Russia from both Western and former socialist countries.



Author of the study:
Alla Salmina, Senior Research Fellow, Laboratory for Comparative Studies in Mass Consciousness, Expert Institute
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, August 13, 2019