By Paul Goble
Two years after Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a step the Russian people overwhelmingly backed as a signal that their country could stand up to Georgia and the West, the failure of many other countries to recognize these republics and the high cost of supporting the two new states have combined to reduce public backing for them.
In an article posted online yesterday, Mikhail Smilyan says that polls show “ever fewer [Russians] remain support recognition of South Ossetia” and that they are less prepared to continue to provide assistance to that republic (www.gzt.ru/topnews/society/-rossiyane-zasomnevalisj-v-praviljnosti-priznaniya-/322668.html?from=1columndownfromindex).
Drawing on poll results collected by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) available at wciom.ru/index.php?id=196&uid=13778, Smilyan notes that fewer Russians are paying attention to the political aspects of Moscow’s decision and more to the actual costs of supporting these republics.
As a result of that shift, he continues, “the number of Russian citizens who believe that Russia behaved correctly by supporting South Ossetia in its conflict with Georgia has significantly declined. In 2009, one year after the conflict, 59 percent of Russians had that view; now, only 38 percent do, a decline of more than 20 percent.
Over the same period, support among Russians for Moscow’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has fallen from 59 percent in 2008 to 34 percent today. Moreover, “almost a quarter of the respondents (21 percent) are certain that under certain conditions,” Moscow could end its recognition of the two, almost double the number who believed that a year ago.
And because those conducting the VTsIOM survey asked respondents to specify how committed they were to any particular position – “unqualifiedly yes,” “more yes than no,” etc. – Smilyan argues that that support for recognition has softened “despite the fact that the majority all the same [continues to] approve the recognition of the independence of the two.”
At the same time, Smilyan continues, support for providing assistance to the two states is falling and is now slightly less than half of the percentage backing aid a year ago, 15 percent against 31 percent, quite possibly the result of reports about the large amounts of money Moscow has been offering.
In addition, however, fewer are prepared to support militarily the two than a year ago, possibly an indication of a shift in Russian public opinion but almost certainly the result of declining attention to this issue and the political symbolism of what the Russian Federation did in the Georgian war.
Smilyan puts the most negative reading on the VTsIOM findings, perhaps because he like many of his readers believes that if a polling agency reputed to have close ties to the Kremlin is reporting this, the real shift in public opinion against Moscow’s policies in the North Caucasus may be even greater and hence more significant.
Not surprisingly, VTsIOM itself put the best face on its findings, headlining its story with the assertion that “76 percent of Russians are certain that the decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was correct” but acknowledging that 21 percent suggesting that the decision could be reversed.
Its three other “main” findings, VTsIOM said, were first, that only half of Russians are convinced that the decision about Russian recognition is irreversible, second, that only seven percent of Russians say they pay “regular” attention to developments in these states, and third, that most Russians believe Moscow should extend humanitarian aid rather than anything else.
Shifts in public opinion when people stop thinking about the political meaning of an action and begin focusing on the financial cost are typical. Indeed, they are so common that political leaders opposed to a particular individual or policy try as hard as possible to talk about the price tag of a policy if they want to defeat it.
An example of this that surfaced today is a Belarusian television report that the cost of Vladimir Putin’s automobile expedition equals the annual budget of “a small Russian city,” Minsk’s response to Moscow’s attacks on Alyaksandr Lukashenka (For a report on this, see
www.nr2.ru/incidents/298828.html; for the video itself, www.nr2.ru/video/298828.html,)