Poll finds Soviet citizens ill-prepared for reforms EUROPE AT THE CROSSROADS: THE TIMES MIRROR SURVEYBY: Frank Starr

September 16, 1991|By Chief of The Sun's Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The majority of people in Russia and the Ukraine "are not prepared for capitalism," have only an "embryonic" appreciation of pluralism and attach little importance to personal and political freedoms.

These and other findings of a major poll by the Times Mirror Co. starkly demonstrate the difficulty confronting reformers trying to establish a new economic and political system in the former Soviet Union.

The belief that people who make a profit are probably doing something illegal and a preference for state ownership of most businesses collide head-on with a stated wish for a "market economy."

Likewise, there is little faith that people get ahead by virtue of hard work.

Such views, combined with deep ethnic divisions and fragmentation of society's institutions, carry the possibility of "incalculable violence," the poll-takers concluded.

The poll of 1,123 Russians and 586 Ukrainians was conducted in May by the Soviet Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology for the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. Additionally, a post-coup telephone survey Sept. 1-3 questioned residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad).

One of the most encouraging results of the survey was the generally greater willingness to accept economic and political change among younger (under 25), more educated, urban people. Surprisingly, there was a sharp gender gap, with women being consistently less tolerant of change and less willing to take risks.

The fragility of the popular commitment to democracy emerged dramatically in responses to a series of questions on issues at the heart of the democratic system. Most bluntly, perhaps, 26 percent of Russians expressed explicit disapproval of a multiparty system.

By a slim margin, they chose a democratic government (51 percent) when asked whether that or a strong leader (preferred by 39 percent) was better to solve the country's problems.

While saying they welcome openness and democracy, they would deny free speech to "fascists" and outlaw political parties deemed anti-democratic.

The latter view, however, apparently evolved in the experience of the August coup. Before it, 54 percent of Russians and 47 percent of Ukrainians would have outlawed undemocratic parties. But residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg after the coup favored freedom for all parties, 46 percent to 38 percent, compared with a 42 percent to 52 percent division in those cities before the coup.

Despite their appreciation of the newly liberated media, Russians and Ukrainians show little understanding of the principle of a free press. Majorities of Russians and Ukrainians chose state ownership of radio and television (53 percent), and 41 percent favored state ownership of newspapers.

While many Soviet people "think that they want a free market economy," the pollsters concluded, "they do not understand the basic components of what a market system means in practice." Public support for a market economy, the poll suggested, may be fueled more by a desire for economic relief than by a clear understanding of and commitment to free enterprise.

When questioned about public vs. private ownership of 13 segments of the economy, the poll found a clear preference for privatization in only one sector -- farming. And that preference was stronger among the population at large (three out of four) than among farmers (60 percent).

The younger generation is more tolerant of private enterprise, favoring private shops and restaurants as well as both kinds of ownership for banks, consumer goods factories, health care and schools. But Russians and Ukrainians by huge majorities (79 percent and 86 percent) and all age groups want heavy industry owned by the state.

A person in a Kiev focus group explained simply: "While we have a dictatorship of jealousy, it's hard to have private property."

Majorities in both Russia and the Ukraine favor letting prices rise to make more products available. But the poll-takers suggest that that may be more indicative of exasperation with empty shelves than belief in a free market.

A third of the people in both republics believe that prices should be kept low even if that means scarcity.

And there are signs of low respect for business people. $l Majorities in both republics think that people who own cooperatives have a bad influence on Soviet affairs, and the public is divided, 51 percent to 44 percent, over whether the state should limit profits.

The legacy of 70 years of socialism has left a clear distaste for capitalism. When asked to select a system for the future, 46 percent of Russians chose some form of socialism, and only 40 percent chose capitalism. In the more Western-looking Ukraine, 49 percent chose capitalism over socialism (38 percent).

The correlation between support for pluralism and support for a free market suggests to the poll-takers that, "if efforts to change the economic system fail, it might undermine support for pluralism."

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