Impact of Public Opinion and Elections on Russian Foreign Policy, 1996-2000
In a recent seminar at the Kennan Institute, William Zimmerman, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, discussed the role that public opinion and election outcomes have on Russian foreign policy. Zimmerman drew his remarks from the research that he gathered for his recently released book, The Russian People and Foreign Policy: Russian Elites and Mass Perspectives, 1993-2000. The results of this research illustrate the evolution of Russian politics and provide better understanding for U.S.-Russian relations. Zimmerman explained that his research was organized around three central themes; consequences for Russian foreign policy following the political/economic collapse of Soviet Union, possible links between political economy and foreign policy preferences, and the extent to which Western perceptions and foreign policy apply to the Russian Federation.
Gathered from mass surveys and elite interviews conducted from 1993-99, the data used in Zimmerman's research compared mass and elite perspectives on foreign policy issues. Zimmerman concluded that mass publics are more isolationist, meaning they are less likely to support the use of international force or participate economically in the global economy. Interviews with Russian elites showed that most qualify as internationalists, meaning that they want to cooperate economically, but would not hesitate to use force in an international dispute. The data showed that elite preferences are systemically related to East-West political and economic interactions.
According to Zimmerman, the arguments among realists about the chaotic or irrational role of mass publics does not appear to apply to the Russians, who he claims have shown prudence on a number of occasions. Zimmerman continued that the Russian public seems to have specific opinions on foreign policy issues that they are able to link with the policy orientations of Russian presidential candidates. Using data from the 1996 and 2000 elections, Zimmerman illustrated how foreign policy orientation could be used to predict how people would vote in the presidential election.
Zimmerman noted that elites have always been more supportive of liberal democracy than mass publics, but recent data shows that the Russian masses are becoming less supportive of democratic reform. In surveys taken from 1995-2000, survey respondents who thought that a liberal democracy was the right political system for Russia dropped from 50 percent to roughly 30 percent. Judging by the responses of most Russians, it appears that most would prefer a political democracy, but remain unwilling to sacrifice the social supports that were present under the Soviet system.
Zimmerman concluded by speculating about the recent hostage crisis in Moscow, and its effects on Russian politics. He stated that the reaction of Russian elites and mass public would largely depend on the total number of people who were harmed by the gas. Perhaps more importantly, Zimmerman continued, is the idea that in the wake of last week's events, a division over reaching a political settlement with Chechnya may arise between elites and the mass public.