As the Kremlin passes a new set of repressive laws—this time on spreading fake news and disrespecting the authorities—the majority of Russian people remain only vaguely aware of these developments, according to the latest polls. Although public mistrust for the authorities persists, many Russian people approve of government action to punish those they dislike.

 

 

On March 7, the Russian State Duma passed its latest set of controversial laws—targeting journalists and internet users for “spreading fake news” and “disrespecting the authorities.” The two bills were officially signed into law by President Putin on March 18.

Like with so many laws before, the latest set has seen next to no public discussion in Russia. In fact, according to the latest survey by the independent Levada Center published in early April, only 18 percent of Russians said they knew about these laws, while 39-40 percent had “heard something” and 42-43 percent had “heard nothing” about them.

Meanwhile, the penalty for publishing false information of social significance “under the guise of accurate reports” range from 30,000 (~$450) to one million rubles (~$15,000). “Disrespect” for the authorities will carry a much heavier fine—300,000 rubles (~$4,500) and 15 days in jail for repeat offenders.

Commenting on the poll, Levada Center director and sociologist Lev Gudkov underscored the fact that this lack of awareness of the new laws is neither a new phenomenon nor surprising, since 75 to 85 percent of Russians normally take no interest in “politics.”

What is interesting, however, is the fact that despite being only vaguely informed about these particular laws, the majority of the respondents (64 percent) were confident that the purpose of these laws was to prevent any criticism of the authorities from reaching the public space. Only 23 percent believed that the two laws actually aimed at improving the quality of news output (13 percent were undecided). Again, as Gudkov points out, mistrust for the authorities is nothing new—it was shaped long time ago and is often reflected in the polls.

Mistrust for the authorities extends into the media realm where it shows, however, as a different attitude—demand for stronger state control over public behavior (a “strong hand”), including censoring the internet. Whereas 53 percent of the respondents disapprove of the law on “disrespecting the authorities” (39 percent approved), only 35 percent disapproved of penalizing journalists and internet users for “spreading fake news” (55 percent approved). There is a clear contradiction here: on the one hand, Russian people have little trust in the authorities and realize that those in power protect only their own interests; on the other hand, Russians expect these same authorities to act as a source of legitimate power to punish alleged “offenders.” In this case, the media.

The breakdown of the respondents into demographic and socio-economic groups sheds some light into who supports what. It comes, again, as no surprise that Russian pensioners are the most consistent and numerous supporters of the Putin regime: 27 percent believe that the law on banning fake news is about providing reliable information on the internet. Similarly, 24 percent of people aged 40-54 and 26 percent of those aged 55-plus agreed with this view. Only 13 percent of Russians aged 18-24 shared that opinion, as did 21 percent of those aged 25-39. 

When it comes to the level of education, there is a surprising development: the highest support for such a view—25 percent—was voiced by Russians who hold a higher education degree. All other groups in the education category—22 percent of those holding a vocational college degree, 22 percent a high school diploma, and 11 percent of those without a high school diploma—were more skeptical of the law. 

To be fair, the latest laws, like many other controversial initiatives put forward by the Kremlin, have a rationale rooted in reality, as was spelled out by an editor of REGNUM, a non-government news agency in Russia, who explained that, with the advent of social media, the problem of unverified information suddenly going viral has become quite dire. The law forces journalists to be more careful with their sources, she said. The problem is that, again, like with other restrictions, these laws can easily be used as tools of intimidation and for silencing dissent, regardless of the very real problem of fake news. Such is the nature of the Kremlin’s duplicitous policies: under the pretense of addressing a real problem that concerns the public mind, the people are stripped of another vestige of political rights and freedoms.

How should these results be interpreted? While one can argue that social groups that are more dependent on the government (e.g. pensioners) are more willing to support the authorities and justify their actions, what is it that makes educated professionals conform? Gudkov argues that they, too, might be dependent on the government for career-growth—through employment in government structures—or might rationalize that the country’s future economic development is associated with the state.

What, then, is the takeaway from this poll? This is a classic case of compartmentalized attitudes and contradictory values that exacerbate political apathy in Russia. There is, simultaneously, a demand for a “strong hand” and a profound mistrust in the government; a lack of political awareness and the presence of strong opinions; and demand for “quality information” coupled with paternalistic reliance on the state for taking care of the problem. According to Gudkov, such state of public nonparticipation and “refusal to take responsibility for what is happening in the country” represent “a typical manifestation of political apathy, characteristic of authoritarian regimes.”

The problem is that compartmentalization and inaction can appear as a functional defense mechanism in the short term, but they never work in the long term. Sooner or later, reality breaks through resulting in severe depression or psychosis. One can only imagine how this will manifest itself in political terms.

 

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