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What is the public opinion of the government/competing governmental parties?

Written by Liberty Siegle.

Note: I am studying abroad in Irkutsk, a Siberian city close to Mongolia. I am over 3,000 miles from Moscow, so bear in mind that my experience here varies dramatically from what a student in western Russia experiences.

The majority of Russian people like Putin and his party (80% approval), and while it would be easy to just accept this fact and move on, the reason why Putin is so popular demands explanation.

Russia has a multi-party system with United Russia, the largest and current ruling party, claiming over half the seats in the Duma. Older people overwhelmingly support Putin and United Russia. Younger people are generally more liberal, but seldom hold strong opinions about the government. Compared to  adults, the young are more willing to admit they are indifferent about politics, and some brave ones admit to really not knowing or understanding politics. While I rarely beat a Russian in bringing up the topic of government, when asked their opinion after sharing mine, which I try to give as diplomatically and mildly as possible, I often get a short response in support of Putin with vague responses like “Putin is a strong president” or “who else is there?”

The vagueness and brevity of these answers dissatisfy me. I don’t understand why people are so eager to ask me my opinions, then withdraw when sharing theirs. But research and reflection makes it clear that the “who else is there?” argument carries much more weight than I initially thought.

There are two main barriers here. (1) Russians want to talk politics, and they are opinionated, but the news here is state controlled and not easy to access. The most readily available news here is suspect in its reliability and objectivity. In fact, Russian news sources spread anti-Americanism by rebroadcasting FOX news reports, even taking FOX’s worst moments out of context to make Americans look that much worse! I see few newspapers, and when I do they are more commonly used as toilet seat covers than as reading material. Few Russians have quality internet access in their homes, so the internet isn’t as popular a news source as it is elsewhere. And frankly, many people here are too apathetic to seek alternate news sources. (2) Those who loudly oppose Putin and/or gain a following end up dead or imprisoned. In February Boris Nemtsov was shot dead near the Kremlin and not surprisingly, most Russians I have talked to about this either don’t know that it happened, don’t even know who Nemtsov was, or believe Putin’s claim that it was “the West” that assassinated Nemstov to make him look bad.

Between the lack of quality, accessible news and the arrest or murder of political opponents, the “who else is there?” answer demonstrates the state’s success in keeping it’s people in the dark about politics.

Bottom line—Russians like their Putin and in a multi-party system where one party has over a 50 percent backing, there is little chance for change, especially when any opposition uprisings are literally shot down.

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