RD Interview: Valery Fedorov, director of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), discusses the interconnection between foreign policymaking, media and society in Russia, the new historic high of Putin’s approval rating, and the cyclical nature of U.S.-Russia relations.

Public opinion surveys consistently find Putin scoring very high approval rates despite concern about the troubled economy and high tensions with the United States over the Ukraine crisis. Photo: AP

The current course pursued by the Kremlin does not fail to keep surprising Western experts and policymakers. All this leaves pundits in Europe and the U.S. uncertain about what should be expected from Russia on the world stage, with some experts like Stanford University’s Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, warning about the dangers that stem from Moscow’s foreign policy strategy and encouraging the U.S. leadership to contain Putin’s actions in Syria and Ukraine.

To what extent is such worrying rhetoric grounded? What kind of social changes are happening in Russia and how is the political scene in Russia most likely to develop in the short term? 

Russia Direct sat down with Valery Fedorov, director of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), to discuss the interconnection between foreign policymaking, media propaganda and the public mood in Russia, Putin’s public image, and the cyclical nature of U.S.-Russia relations.

Valery FedorovRussia Direct: What are the key topics that are the focus of international experts and policymakers today, from your point of view?

Valery Fedorov: The shock of the last year has passed and it is no longer accepted that Russia is the evil aggressor who is reforming the world order. There is no illusion now about the kind of government in power in Kiev and about the ineffective U.S. policies in the Middle East. Everyone understands that Russia is back in the international decision-making process.

Another point is that the dialogue on the world stage has now become multipolar. Not only Russia and the West are included in it, but also the global East. This reflects the global movement of power, wealth, science and technologies. In the political sphere, the East has usually been underrepresented. The same goes for Russia because we were traditionally oriented towards the West and Europe. Even our eastern part of the country didn’t receive enough attention.

Today, a balance is starting to form. The reasons for that are well known: If our Western partners don’t treat us well, we pivot to the East. Today, in some ways, we are paying our debt to the East and starting to recognize that the future of human civilization is now decided in the Asia Pacific region.

The final trend in focus is that currently we are going through a difficult problem-solving process both on the regional and global levels. On the regional level, the discussion is aimed at searching for specific ways to resolve conflicts, such as in Ukraine and the Middle East, while on the global level the question is more fundamental and broad. The whole structure of the post-Cold War world order is now in ruins. This became evident last year. Now the urgent question is: What do we do next? How can we substitute this system with another?

Some powers find the old system efficient enough so they push for its revival. On the other hand, they tend to forget about the numerous wars, genocides and instability that it gave birth to. Others believe that a new structure should be formed, but no one agrees on how it might look like.

Russia, in turn, is pushing for multipolarity with the UN and international law playing an important role. This concept, though, does not satisfy the rising powers – they do not have a voting power in the UN Security Council and they don’t find the UN capable of ensuring everyone’s interests. The U.S., on its part, also does not consider the UN to be efficient but they do not want to be just one country among others in the new concert of powers.

The discussion is just beginning to take place so it will remain on the agenda of the world ruling elite for the next decade or more.

RD: From your point of view, what is the correlation between Russia’s domestic development and its foreign policymaking?

V.F.: Speaking about Russia in the global context, it is necessary to note that in 1990s we were nobody, we didn’t believe in ourselves and we barely had enough resources to sustain our survival, even less our economic development.  

During the last 15 years we managed to resolve the urgent issues and focus on areas with the most potential. We achieved good results not only in economic development, but also in the area of politics. However, the achievements we reached did not come without a price: Russia still remains, first and foremost, a natural resources exporter bearing all the risks connected to oil price fluctuations. Energy resources are traded in dollars, so the Russian financial system is vulnerable to external influence, which is evident now with regard to sanctions.

In other words, it is clear today that we are not the same as we were a couple of decades ago. We can afford more, we live better than we did before and, as a result, we strive for more. We believe that we deserve more and carry out our policies as adults, not children, in the Western school of market economy and democracy.

On the other hand, it is also clear that we are still far from being able to play as equals with the West. Russia’s ability to sustain itself under pressure is limited. There are many urgent issues, which need to be resolved in the areas of technology, finance and business. Therefore, our main priority is to focus on domestic development.

Here we can speak about a similar situation in China. Starting in 1975, China has been successful in achieving a high level of economic growth and technological advancement. But, still, the gap between China and the West exists. This gap is also present between Russia and the West. So, our main focus is internal, not external.

Therefore, Russian foreign policy initiatives over the past year emerged not as a result of our desire to show off our muscles; rather, it was an inevitable consequence of the status of a great power. This status means specific requirements and if you do not meet them you get kicked out of the league – this means a different position on the world stage and a different form of dialogue. This will mean other bets and offers. That is why the transformation is in process, not as fast and efficient as it could be, but it is underway and I believe that we can make it successfully till the end.

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RD: How would you characterize the interconnection between Moscow’s foreign policy decisions, the mood of the Russian public and the media coverage:  What do you think comes first? Is it the Russian state media that influences the public to support the Kremlin or is it the public mood that shapes the Kremlin’s policymaking and the media coverage?

V.F.: In the 1990s there were no Communist media sources and the television network was largely liberal, promoting the market economy. However, all parliamentary elections held throughout that decade saw the high popularity of the Communist Party and the Russian ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. This is an example of the inability of the media to influence the public.

Today the situation is different: The liberal voices are not heard, and they have no political power. The liberal media is at the outskirts, while the mainstream media during the last couple of years has been mostly state-supportive, patriotic and anti-Western. And it is highly popular.

Why? Is it because they are trying to impose some kind of agenda? Or is it because they speak the same language with the common people and address the questions that concern them? I am inclined to think it is the second. Television’s popularity over the past years has been growing: everyone is watching it because they finally started to meet the demands of the public. I think it is the media that has changed, not the mood of the people.

RD: Recently Putin’s public approval rating reached its all-time maximum – almost 90 percent. To what extent is it possible to sustain it and what does this level of public support mean for the future development of the country?

V.F.: Of course, the high level of public support is something that you quickly get used to. On the other hand, when one and a half year ago the rating reached 86 percent no one hoped that it would remain this high for long – actually everyone expected it would decrease and reach 65-70 percent. It did not happen. Why? My version is that Putin went through his second symbolic birth. He transitioned from the category of a politician that might be compared to other public figures to the category of a historical figure- the ratings of which cannot be counted.

His right to determine the future of the country is now beyond discussion. His actions in Ukraine and Crimea are something that Russians believed he should do by showing the world what Russia is about and did not bend to the pressure. Basically, in some respects, he completely met the characteristics of a proper “tsar.”

By the way, the “tsar” epithet, while having negative connotations, points out a couple of interesting parallels. Who would measure the rating of a tsar? It’s absurd.

On the other hand, the rating of his prime minister can be measured. In this sense, the Russian system is quasi-monarchical: Putin has gone much further than other politicians have. And he has become a political institution himself. Unless he decides to leave his position, he will remain in power.

RD: Does it create any risks in the long run?

V.F.: The risk is that when the time comes and he decides to leave the political stage without a successor, the system might collapse. But I don’t find it urgent for now. This is a long time coming and there will be enough time to ensure the line of succession. The precedent was in 2008 when Dmitry Medvedev became president and he was one till 2012. The risk exists but it can be controlled.

RD: For now, there are no preparations for that?

V.F.: Putin’s term ends in 2018. It is highly likely that he will win the 2018 presidential elections. So I’d think about the risks in 2022.

RD: Talking about the dynamics of U.S.-Russia relations, how has the public attitude towards the United States changed? What are the main factors that influence the opinion of Russians with regard to America?

V.F.: The U.S. for Russia always was and will remain one of the most important states that we compare ourselves with and look up to, even if we are annoyed by it. That is why the dynamics of our relations are of a cyclical nature.

The most positive period for our relations was after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Then, in 1998, we became disappointed in the U.S. due to our financial default and the Yugoslavia bombings. After that, in 2001, another surge of sympathy happened after the Sept. 11 attack in 2001, when the U.S. was a victim and showed its weaknesses.

Two years later, the U.S. got involved in Iraq – the whole world including Russia disapproved of it and another period of coolness came along. Today we are experiencing another setback. The percentage of those whose attitude towards the U.S. is positive has hit an all-time low. Against this background, the public attitude toward China that has always been characterized by skepticism and fears of colonization has risen significantly in a more positive direction.

Hence, the new warm-up in Russia-U.S. relations might be expected after the new U.S. president gets elected in 2016. Every new president tends to reassess relations with Russia, forgetting everything that happened before and giving it a fresh start. In Russia it is more difficult to do – our history is five times longer and we tend to look into the past as compared to the American tendency to look into the future.

This means that the hands of the new U.S. president will be untied and we will be able to reset our relations once again.

RD: So the cyclical nature of U.S.-Russian relations is connected with the cycles of power in Russia and the U.S.?

V.F.: Yes, but this interconnection has now shifted because the length of presidential terms has changed. Earlier, the cycles coincided with each other quite well: for example, Putin and George W. Bush came to power in 2000. Now, as a result of constitutional reform in Russia, the presidential term length has changed from four years to six so the cycles do not match this well. However, over time this should level out.