This year’s Transatlantic Trends survey prepared by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, included Russia, for the first time. One of the major findings of the survey has been a pronounced drop in favorable opinions about Russia on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans have grown more skeptical about Russia by 6 percentage points, while Europeans registered a drop in favorable opinions of 13 percent. Only the Bulgarians and Slovaks continue to be largely well-disposed toward Russia. Unfavorable opinion of Russia was highest in Sweden, France, and Germany, where about two-thirds of those surveyed held negative views of the country.
The interesting thing is that the Russian picture is entirely the opposite. Half the Russians polled had a favorable view on the United States. Roughly two out of three looked positively on the European Union, with Germany being the absolute favorite with almost three quarters considering it a friendly nation. It is also striking that almost half of the Russians polled believed that their country and the United States have enough common values to cooperate on international issues, and more than half considered that there were enough common interests between Russia and America to warrant such cooperation. The corresponding figures for the EU stood at a whopping 60 percent and 63 percent, respectively.
What this shows is several things. First is the clear disappointment in the West with the Medvedev interregnum which many had thought offered a way for Russian transformation. Second, Putin’s return to the presidency provoked an even deeper souring of the mood on Russia. Third, the Russian Awakening, begun a year ago, produced a mix of early hope, followed by disillusionment with the opposition, and ending in indignation over the authorities’ actions. Fourth, there has been a long Russian-Western stand-off at the UN Security Council over Syria. Finally, the Pussy Riot case capped it all in a grotesque manner.
The opposite side of the ledger is no less telling. Despite the strong anti-American streak in state-controlled media in Russia, most Russians, while strongly disagreeing with U.S. government policies on some issues like U.S. global leadership—nearly two-thirds see it as undesirable—or military intervention abroad—a clear majority said they would support a Russian veto at the UN blocking such intervention in Syria—were able to distinguish between U.S. government policies and the American people, or even the U.S. government as such. Most Russians are more confident in the U.S. elections than in elections in which they themselves vote.
Despite a rise in xenophobia directed against many recent migrants from the South Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as against people from the Russian North Caucasus flocking to the major metropolitan areas of Russia, most Russians feel pretty relaxed about much of the rest of the world. Besides the United States and EU countries, Japan, China, Turkey, South Korea, and Israel were credited with favorable ratings. Only Iran and, predictably, Georgia were viewed negatively. Although not in the GMF survey, the Baltic States are usually put in a similar category by Russian pollsters.
Western opinion of Russia will probably continue to be largely skeptical as long as Russia fails to meet the standards of democracy and human rights. There may be new drops in Russian ratings as the political and social situation in Russia grows more tense, and the Russian government leans harder on its increasingly more radical domestic opponents. The irony is that a more democratic Russia, which will eventually and gradually emerge, will be as unlikely to accept U.S. global leadership and EU regional leadership as the Russia of today.
There is more hope on the Russian side. Even as the world media were preoccupied with the Pussy Riot story, the Russian patriarch made an historic visit to Poland, and engaged with the Polish Catholic church in a reconciliation effort to help transform the difficult relationship. Logically, the reconciliation process need not only deepen, but also expand to include the Baltics. Elsewhere, while Turkish opinion has turned against Russia on Syria, Russian figures on Turkey, where a lot of Russians go on vacation, have remained highly positive. The Russian government, too, has been careful not to criticize Ankara’s stance on Syria. Having finally joined the WTO in August, Russia is now looking to the OECD as the next target. This, however, will be an essentially political decision, and the Western publics’ views of Russia will matter a great deal.