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Russia: Analysis From Washington--The Reorientation Of The Russian Mind

Prague, 31 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russians today are significantly less interested in emigrating, studying or working abroad than they were immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, according to the results of a poll released in Moscow on Thursday.

Based on a sample of 1500 people in cities and towns across the Russian Federation, the respected Moscow-based Public Opinion Fund found that only six percent of the respondents said that they wanted to live abroad, down from 11 percent in 1992.

Over the same five year period, the Fund reported, those saying they wanted to work abroad and then return fell from 17 to 11 percent. Those indicating that they would like to be educated abroad fell from six to three percent. And those interested in living abroad temporarily fell from 17 to 13 percent.

Overall, 64 percent of those responding to the poll said that they would not want to leave Russia regardless of conditions there, up from 49 percent in 1992.

The difficulties of conducting such a survey under current Russian conditions mean that no one should put too much confidence in either the absolute numbers or their size relative to the total population.

But the fact that the direction of change in each case is the same gives some reason to accept these numbers as indicative of some general trends in Russian public opinion.

And these trends point to some positive as well as some negative developments, many of which do not conform to the expectations of outside observers.

These trends point to three positive developments. First, they may suggest that the Russian people themselves may not perceive their own situation to be as desperate as many Russian politicians and even more Western analysts have argued. Instead, they may believe that their lives are getting better.

Second, they may point to a rising self-confidence among Russians in the future, a self-confidence sadly lacking in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union. Indeed, they may even indicate that a new social compact between the Russian people and their government is now being formed.

And third, they may indicate that ever more Russians are coming to terms with the consequences of the demise of the Soviet empire and have accepted the Russian Federation as their country. To the extent that is true, it could limit the success of extreme nationalist politicians who seek to recover the empire.

But in addition to these positive implications for the future, there are some potentially negative ones as well.

First, these results may reflect an increasing apathy on the part of many Russians, a loss in confidence that individual action such as moving abroad can make a difference in their lives.

Second, they may indicate that Russians perceive the outside world as an increasingly unfriendly place, one both less interested in what happens to Russians and less willing to provide a place for them.

And third, they may point to an increasing sense of isolation among many Russians, a sense on their part that Russia must go it alone and either cannot or need not learn from the West.

The results of this poll, suggestive as they may be for Russia, also point to some important developments in other counmtries as well.

This contradictory pattern of attitudes, some positive and some negative, is almost certainly typical of developments in other post-communist states.

And thus the findings of this poll serve as a corrective to those who see the situation elsewhere as all good or all bad or who expect developments in this region to move in only one direction or another.

At the same time, these trends simultaneously highlight the importance of the West on developments in these countries and the limited impact of the West relative to other factors.

On the one hand, how citizens of these countries see the West and its attitudes toward them will determine the extent to which they want to follow Western models.

On the other, how they view the West will likely be more affected by developments inside their own countries than by anything the West itself can in fact do.

Consequently, the results of this poll may ultimately have a greater impact on the West and its approach to Russia and the other post-communist states than on these countries themselves.