By Carmen Eller in Moscow
"Alexander" is the first caller on the "Curve" morning show at Echo of Moscow, a radio station critical of the government. The young listener is the first to be given the opportunity to answer the host's question about the Caucasus conflict: "Did this war make Russia stronger?"
Kremlin loyal youth protest in Moscow against Georgia and the EU with a signed reading, "Sakkashvili is a criminal."
The connection isn't great and there's fuzz in the background as he declares: "The stronger person is always more respected, and Russia has become stronger." His country may be finding itself in an increasingly isolated position internationally, but you can still hear the pride in his voice. And this young Moscow resident is far from alone in his opinion. The strong state is enjoying tremendous popularity.
For many Russians, the economic crisis of the 1990s remains a painful memory. The economic upswing that happened under Vladimir Putin's terms as the Kremlin chief not only improved the country's material situation, but also helped promote a new sense of self-confidence. That has also been evident in the days following the war in the Caucasus. In direct contrast to the Western view, Russians have emphasized the fact that the Georgians started the offensive and the war.
Indeed, most Russians are backing their government. The latest poll taken by Moscow's renowned Levada Center delivered clear results: 70 percent of the Russians surveyed said they were "in full and complete agreement" with the statement that the Russian leadership had "done everything it could to prevent an escalation of the conflict and to prevent the bloodshed." Only 4 percent claimed that the government had stoked the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in order to promote its own geopolitical interests.
Greater Trust in Putin
The authoritarian policies of today's Russian leadership are seldom questioned in public. But despite one-sided reporting in the tabloids and state media, there are still some bastions of multifaceted information in the media. Some print and online publications deliver differentiated reporting. But the reach of these media in Russia, an enormous country, is very limited. Only 20 percent of Russians have access to the Internet, and the majority of those who can get online are either young people or people who live in big cities.
The powerful Putin is still held in higher esteem than his sucessor in the Kremlin. According to a recent survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), which is closely aligned with the government, 58 percent of Russians put their faith in Prime Minister Putin. Only 40 percent say they prefer President Dimitry Medvedev.
When asked who they think has the upper hand in Russian politics, only 14 percent agreed that it was Medvedev, according to the Levada Center poll, with 26 saying it was Putin. But the majority said they believed the two are sharing power equally. In the minds of some Russians, Medvedev didn't go far enough in the conflict. Listener Anotoli from Tver, calling into to Echo of Moscow, said: "Medvedev is a weakling. We should have trampled on Georgia and, while we were at it, taken over the Crimea again."
Distrust amongst the Russian populace of Western policies is just about as great as its trust in it own leaders. Only 8 percent of those surveyed felt Russia was responsible for the fact that most Western governments supported Georgia in the South Ossetia conflict. A clear majority see evil intentions behind the support given by the West to Tbilisi. The West, they believe, is striving to "weaken Russia and to drive it out of the South Caucasus region."
'Very Aggressive Propaganda'
"The easiest explanation for the anti-Western sentiment is the state control of the mass media," Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "On TV there is hardly any free reporting -- instead you see a lot of very aggressive propaganda." He said it was reminiscent of the worst of times in the Soviet era. The pollster said another important reason for the mass support given to Russian leaders is the increased material wealth of the people of Russia.
In addition, Mikhail Saakashvili's election as Georgian president and the democratization of his country triggered an anti-Georgian propaganda campaign in Russia. Reservations about the Baltic states and Ukraine also increased. "Soviet complexes were reawakened. The people of Russia feel they have the right to strength and influence in the post-Soviet region," says Gudkov. "It led to an ideological mobilization." He says that anti-Western propaganda was a central theme of the Putin era. "The Russian leadership consolidated its anti-American propaganda in the negative sense," he says.
Still, there are measured and even doubting people in Russia. "Are you proud of your country?" the respected Russian political magazine Vlast asked politicians and celebrities, alluding to the war. It received a relatively critical answer from Vladimir Posner, a Russian TV host. "I don't see any reason to be proud. Russia had no other way out that to get involved in the conflict. But in my mind what happened after raises a lot of questions." It seems unlikely, however, that many Russians share his feelings.
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