• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

Economies Are Built on Trust

How people’s wariness affects the country’s development


The degree to which a society trusts its leaders can have a major effect on a country's economy. Thus, there could be a connection between Russians’ low level of trust and the fact that the country lags behind the world’s leading states in per capita GDP. HSE University expert Daria Avdeeva used domestic and international statistics drawn from Russian and foreign sources to study this correlation.

Why Incomes Grow

There are different types of trust: interpersonal (between individuals), political (between citizens and the state), institutional (towards state, private, non-commercial, and media-related organizations), and international (between the people of different countries).

All this, according to the study’s author, “reflects the general background of trust in the country, and this affects the functioning of economic agents, and therefore the economy as a whole.

For example, the higher the level of generalised (interpersonal) trust, the better the per capita income indicator. Calculations based on statistics from the World Values Survey (WVS) and the World Bank for 1998-2017 showed a 10% increase in trust associated with a 21% increase in per capita GDP.

Russians are not particularly trusting of each other. According to HSE University sociologists, fewer than 17% of citizens are willing to trust the majority of people, and only 41% would trust some people under some conditions.

According to WVS estimates, generalised trust in Russia averages 29%. That is slightly higher than the global average of 27%, but far below that of Norway, that leads with 66%. 

Estimates of generalised trust in different countries (%, average for 1981-2014)

Source: WVS, I-VI waves of surveys for 1981-2014

The difference in the level of trust is associated with the difference in countries’ economic development, although researchers are still trying to determine the causal relationship. The unequal degree of interpersonal trust accounts for 40% of the disparity in per capita GDP between states. The level of interpersonal trust in Russia, for example, explains 10% of the gap  behind that of Great Britain, Germany and the U.S. by approximately 10 percentage points, of Japan by almost 25, of Canada and the Czech Republic by nearly 30, and of the Netherlands and Norway by as much as 50.

Estimates of the effect that differences in trust have on per capita GDP disparity between Russia and other countries

Source: WVS, World Bank, calculations made by the author of the study

* Difference in per capita GDP is measured as the actual difference between the average level of per capita GDP between Russia and other countries; trust impact assessment — an assessment of the difference in per capita GDP levels associated with differences in levels of trust; difference in trust — the actual difference in the level of trust between Russia and other countries.

People and Politics

Trust in organizations — government bodies, businesses, the media and NGOs — is extremely low in Russia according to annual reports of the Edelman Trust Barometer produced by the Edelman consulting firm of the U.S.

In 2018, Russia placed last among 28 countries listed, scoring 36 points on a scale of 100. China placed first, with 74 points, followed by Indonesia with 71, India with 68 and the UAE with 66.

Russians are most trusting of r authorities and least trusting of NGOs. In a survey of 37 countries that the Pew Research Center conducted in 2017, analysts found that 67% of Russians approved of their government’s actions overall. The Netherlands and Germany are the only Western countries whose populations trusted their ruling authorities even more, at 71% and 69% respectively.

People who trust the authorities are more law-abiding, have more faith in the future and are more willing to invest and consume. This contributes to economic growth. But at the same time, the state of the economy itself forms people’s “disposition” towards politicians.

Those who perceive the economic situation positively tend to trust the state. “What’s more, it is not so much objective factors as a subjective perception of what’s happening that plays a decisive role,” Daria Avdeeva noted.

“The sharp drop in trust for the Russian president, prime minister and government in 2018 happened after they adopted unpopular measures to increase the retirement age and value-added tax,” Avdeeva said. “The surge in trust in 2014 did not result from a strong economy, but from a surge in patriotic sentiments associated with the Crimean crisis and the deterioration of relations with the West.”

Suspicious Business

Russians trust businesses slightly more than the media, but much less than the state.

According to the WVS, only one-third of the population trusts banks and major companies: 38% and 33% respectively.

Researchers at the Higher School of Economics made a similar finding in the RLMS HSE national survey — namely, that 35% of Russians trust large private firms and approximately 24% trust small and medium-sized companies. That survey also found that a significant segment of the population would prefer that the state, rather than the market, control the economy and that the authorities set food prices and provide medical care and jobs.

The wariness towards major companies — despite three decades of market relations — might be associated with companies’ lack of transparency and social engagement, but even more to their general lack of interest in earning consumers’ trust.

“The emergence of a business community has not yet resulted in feelings of trust towards those companies, and this cannot but affect the condition of the economy,” Avdeeva noted. “Perhaps it is in this area that the greatest potential now lies for increasing the trust that would positively affect Russia’s economic growth.”

A View from Abroad

Another form of trust is international: how the people of one country view the citizens of other states. This can affect whether the public approves of its government’s actions and electoral behaviour, thereby exerting an indirect effect on foreign policy.

The Pew Research Center survey of 2017 found that respondents in 19 of 37 countries held rather unfavourable opinions of Russia. Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Germany and the United States expressed the most negative opinions, while Vietnam, Greece, the Philippines and India were positive.

In all 37 countries, youth ages 18–29 took a more positive view of Russia than people over 50.

The findings are contradictory with regard to mutual trust between the U.S. and Russia — that plummeted after 2014. According to the Pew Research Center, relations had improved by 2017, with 29% of Russians trusting Americans (up from 19% in 2014), while the number of Americans trusting Russians rose from 23% to 41% over the same period. Gallup polls, however, found no such improvement, with the number of Americans disapproving of Russia increasing from 44% in 2012 to 72% in February 2018.

According to a Levada Centre poll in May 2018, 69% of Russian held an unfavourable view of the U.S. and 20% viewed it favourably. Those figures had changed significantly by August 2019, to 44% and 42% respectively. By contrast, Russians hold almost unvaryingly positive opinions of Belarus — 84% look favourably at the country today, as compared to 85% in 1998 — and China (75% and 67% respectively).


Study by:
Daria Avdeeva, expert, Centre of Development Institute, HSE University
Author: Svetlana Saltanova, December 21, 2019