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Gallup's Index Of Fear

Are these people happy with Azerbaijan's government?
Are these people happy with Azerbaijan's government?
Gallup today released results of a poll conducted in 12 of the 15 former Soviet countries (they left out Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) asking people how they think about their leaders. And the results raised some eyebrows in the newsroom.

As the Gallup report emphasizes, just 4 percent of Ukrainians approve of their country's leadership, which is "the lowest rating Gallup has ever measured in former Soviet countries," and is also "the lowest in the world." Given the long and tiresome months of political deadlock that we have seen in Ukraine (a model that seems to be emerging now in neighboring Moldova), that figure didn't really come as a surprise.

The real shock was at the other end of the chart -- 77 percent of Azerbaijanis said they approve of their government, as did 71 percent of Kazakhs and 62 percent of Armenians. Given the appalling lack of freedom in those countries and the fact that none of them can brag about any free and fair elections they may have held, those approval ratings seem -- at first glance -- startling.

But if you look at the chart a second time, a different picture emerges. You notice a big gap between the sixth least-approved governments (Latvia, at 27 percent) and the seventh (Kyrgyzstan, at 43 percent). On one side of that divide, you have, in order, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Moldova, Latvia. On the other side (the dark side), you find Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. (It is a safe bet which side Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan would find themselves on if polling were possible there.)

The Gallup chart is actually an index of fear. What it reflects is not so much attitudes toward the government as a willingness to openly express one's attitudes toward the government. As one member of RFE/RL's Azerbaijan Service told me, "If someone walked up to me in Baku and asked me what I thought about the government, I'd say it was great too."

A former director of our Kazakh Service said just about the same thing. "Imagine you are a Kazakh guy sitting at home and some guy with a tie knocks on your door and asks you what you think about the government...."

Conducting polls in authoritarian countries is, to say the least, a very tricky business, and Gallup should be careful to explain this when they issue such reports. They should, at the very least, point out the paradox between the 77 percent of Azerbaijanis who say they approve of their leadership compared to the thousands of people who risked arrest and beating to come out and protest when those leaders were "elected" in November 2005.

As RFE/RL reported at the time: "Police used truncheons, tear gas, and water cannon to disperse thousands of demonstrators protesting official election results, which gave a landslide victory to President Ilham Aliyev's party."

Or watch some video from the country's presidential election in October 2003 here and here.

It's true that Ukraine's political situation is a mess. But at least people there aren't afraid to say so. And that means something.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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