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Analysis & Opinion
04.04.08 A Normal European Country?
By Yelena Biberman

“It turns out we are not as unique as we thought. It turns out that we are European,” Vladimir Andreenkov, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Comparative Social Research (CESSI) said ironically at the Mar. 28th RIA Novosti press-conference unveiling the very latest European Social Survey (ESS) findings.

Since its inception in 2001, the ESS monitors changing social values within Europe. As ESS co-founder and director Roger Jowell put it, the project aims to provide “a means by which societies may judge themselves – at least partly – according to how their citizens feel about and fare in the world they inhabit.” The ESS methods and datasets, based on over 30,000 face-to-face interviews across Europe, are publicly available.

Twenty-five European countries participated in the latest round of the biennial survey. While the project’s coordinators were eager to include Russia, it took several years to convince the Russian side to participate in the project, said Vladimir Magun, head of the Department of Personality Research of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The CESSI ultimately stepped up to undertake the project and funded the 2006-07 survey of 2,400 Russians.

The numerous topics several leading Russian sociologists presented at the conference included those of political culture, socio-economic structure and the role of religion in Russia.

Measuring Russian democracy

In examining Russia’s political culture, Anna Andreenkova, director of ESS in Russia and vice-director of CESSI, sought to measure Russia’s progress toward democracy and whether Russia’s democratic path is different from that of its European counterparts. In other words, is Russia’s political culture that of a normal European country?

Andreenkova found that three basic types of political culture exist in Europe. In the first type, citizens are highly integrated into the political system (e.g. Northern states such as Scandinavia, Iceland, the Netherlands and Switzerland). In the second, citizens are only moderately interested in politics and are generally critical of their country’s political system (e.g. Central and Southern Europe, Britain, Ireland). The third type is characterized by citizens having little concern for matters relating to politics and governance (e.g. Eastern Europe, the “new democracies” Portugal and Turkey).

Russia belongs to the third category. Its citizens are characterized by a mid to low level of interest in politics, low political competence, and a very low level of political participation, with the exception of voting (though Russia’s electoral activity is still lower than that of an average European country). Russian citizens also give a fairly low rating to the way in which the Russian democracy functions and the effectiveness of the country’s political leadership. They also demonstrate a very low level of trust in all political and government institutions.

However, this type of political culture is not unique to Russia, Andreenkova said. “Other countries that are still in the process of establishing a democracy are in the same boat,” she pointed out. “The countries whose political culture is particularly similar to Russia’s are Poland and Bulgaria. Russia’s political culture also has much in common with that of Portugal. The political cultures of Ukraine, Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia are slightly ‘ahead’ of Russia’s.”

Overcoming social inequality

The ESS revealed that Russia is mainly composed of hired employees, as their fraction constitutes 95 percent of all workers. In all Western European countries, except Denmark and France, hired employees (as opposed to those who are either entrepreneurs, self-employed or engaged in a family business) make up less than 90 percent. There are also fewer individuals employed in the service sector in Russia. However, Russia is not distinct from many European countries in this account. The proportion of hired employees in all Eastern European countries, except Poland, also turns out to be greater than 90 percent.

There are more reasons for optimism. In Russia, the fraction of high and medium-level professionals is 30 percent, which puts Russia ahead of all former socialist countries and several Western ones – Cyprus, Spain, Portugal and even Great Britain.

“Thus, on the road to postindustrial development, Russia will face the serious task of adjusting the composition of its workforce,” said Ludmila Belyaeva, director of the Center for the Study of Social and Cultural Changes of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The religion of the nonreligious

Russia turns out to be a secular society where religion serves more as a cultural rather than a spiritual identity, explained Maria Mchedlova, senior associate at the Center for Religion in Contemporary Society of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology.

Roughly half of the Russians surveyed said that they are not religious at all, 22 percent said they were unsure about their degree of religiosity, and only 29 percent consider themselves religious (with only 3 percent of them deeply religious). About one-fourth of the Greek Orthodox and one-fourth of Muslims do not think of themselves are religious, and see their religious identity as more of a cultural tradition.

“Therefore, the actualization of religious identity within the Russian population speaks less of its return to Faith than of the increasing role of the cultural-civilizational traits for the individual and the society as a whole,” said Mchedlova.

This tendency is also supported by the finding that, in Russia, religion serves as one of the most important criteria of one’s socio-cultural identity. A surprising majority of those surveyed said that they experience closeness to individuals who share their religious identity, even if those individuals do not practice their religion. Muslims (62 percent) and deeply religious (68 percent) were more likely to experience this feeling of closeness. However, half of the Greek Orthodox and nearly a third of non-believers (29 percent) also have this feeling.

“Currently, the ESS is one of the most frequently used comparative studies by the academic and educational circles. Thousands of articles, dozens of books, dissertations and other scholarly work has been produced using the ESS data,” Andreenkova pointed out.

With the support of the political heavyweight, Russia’s former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Russia is also scheduled to participate in the next round of the ESS. The findings will help shed more light on Russia’s direction from what is now a clear starting point – a solid position in the eastern part of the European cultural space.
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