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VCIOM Director: They are scared to talk about the Soviet past in the Baltic States

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One of the unique traits of Baltic state studies is the deficit of information on the population’s public opinion on a series of very important questions. One way to fix this problem is the Eurasian Barometer project which does inter-country studies of the public opinion on post-Soviet space. Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) Director Valeriy Fyodorov who is part of the Eurasian Barometer project has told RuBaltic.Ru about the Baltic states views of their Soviet past, their official government rhetoric, interest towards other countries and the demand for new ideas and politicians:

- Valeriy Valeriyevich, please tell us about the Eurasian Barometer project which studies public opinion on post-Soviet space and which VCIOM takes part in.

- It is an international non-commercial partnership uniting sociological center representatives from 12 countries of the former USSR. The agency was formed in 2005 and since then, usually twice a year, we do representative polls in post-Soviet space countries on the same questions everywhere. These countries are united by only one thing – that they once were part of one country.

The questions can be of different nature. There are questions about integration – whether they think we should unite? If so then in what form and with whom? And with whom not to unite with?

There are questions about social well-being – how do you evaluate your life in your country? Is it getting better, worse? Do you trust the president, the parliament, the government of your country? Sometimes there are questions about Russian language – it is something that still unites the post-Soviet space. There are questions about mutual interest in each other. For example, tourism in the post-Soviet space: are Lithuanians interested in going to Kazakhstan or say, Kyrgyz to Latvia?

- Let’s talk about mutual interest. Do the people in the ex-Soviet republics retain an interest in each other? Where it’s higher and where it’s lower?

- As a whole the interest remains. There are of course certain exceptions: Azerbaijan for example is more focused on other regions now – Turkey, Near East and Middle East, etc. Or the Baltic States who are now part of the EU. So many countries already have specific interests, except the integrational core of the post-Soviet space – Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

But, whatever the geopolitical course the country maintains, the mutual interest is still considerably high.

It’s very high with the older generation – among those who grew up and socialized as Soviet citizens. Among the younger generation the interest is higher in some places and lower in others – it depends on whether the young people see the possibility to find work and build a life for themselves not only in their home but also in one of the former USSR countries. For example, young Lithuanians and Latvians see their future tied to Great Britain, Norway and other Scandinavian countries while for people in Transcaucasia and Central Asian countries have Russia and Kazakhstan as the more realistic choice. From that there is either an abundance or a lack of interest.

- What are the feelings toward the Soviet past in the Baltic States? What is the dominant evaluation of the Soviet period of history? Is there a divide on these questions in the Baltic States’ society?

- The Baltic States basically have enforced censorship on this question – anyone who speaks in favor of the Soviet past or at least says that not everything was bad, that it wasn’t just Stalin and Gulag, but there were also good moments – he is under extreme pressure.

He is immediately spurned, declared a Stalinist, traitor and executioner of his own people.

So it’s hard to say anything good about the Soviet past in this situation. And it would be naïve to think that we have the opportunity to freely talk about this with people in Baltic States. You know, Soviet symbols are banned in Baltic States and equated to Nazi symbols. Lithuania has criminalized denying “Soviet occupation”. Where’s the free talk to the respondent there?

Of course it’s one of the most conflicted topics and of course we can see the so called “history policy”.

When the ruling elites of the Baltic States base their supremacy not on their efficiency, not that they lead their countries to a better future, but on the fact that they saved their nations from the abyss of the “dark past”.

In this case, the “dark past” is of course tied to the USSR.

So talking to people in Baltic States not in private, but on record, publicly is very hard. They just feel that it’s unsafe.

- There is an opinion in Baltic States that Russia uses the older generation’s nostalgia over the Soviet period as an instrument of “soft power”. Do you agree?

- Any country uses anything it can as “soft power”. France uses its cuisine, the United States and Great Britain – their language.

Russia, honestly speaking, doesn’t have that many options in “soft power” instruments so it would be foolish to pass up on such a huge resource, that is memories and life experiences of tens of millions people. That’s not the question really, because this is an obvious axiom. The question is whether these values are broadcast to the new generation or is there an inter-generation rift. Most former USSR countries have a rift of that kind. I already mentioned that Lithuanians, or say Estonians, of the older generations who actually lived in the Soviet system and felt all of its flaws themselves nevertheless still are more positive towards their Soviet past and modern Russia than the young people who never lived in the USSR and do not tie their future with Russia.

To the young the sun rises on the West, so our “soft power” is losing its pull.

- You yourself did a lot of traveling in Baltic States. What are your personal impressions of the modern Baltic States?

- A feeling of great distance between real life and real people on one side and the political elite, their political discourse on the other. The elites have definitely left the Earth. On one hand, they build their supremacy on their accomplishments of saving the country from Soviet occupation and the Soviet blight. On the other hand, only a handful of decisions they actually make on their own.

Unless of course it’s not about the non-citizen problems in Estonia and Latvia, they look at Brussels, at London, Berlin and Washington. The part of independent national policy is unbelievably small.

Of course their rhetoric has become pretty outdated. There is a lack of new and realistic ideas, projects and strategies. Those politicians who propose realistic ideas…not many manage to keep their posts. For example, Nils Ušakovs is an exception, he kept his post. And in Lithuania the similar attempts of Viktoras Uspaskichas have led nowhere. Why? Not because the people didn’t trust him, but because the ethnocratic elites stand firm in not letting outsiders into their circle.

In my opinion, this huge problem is a powerful landmine under the Baltic States’ future.

- Do the people (based on your polls or your personal observations) have an understanding of this dramatic rift between the official rhetoric of the government and the real problems?

- Undoubtedly so, it shows in the elections. It’s no accident that the aforementioned Uspaskichas got so much votes that it scared the remaining elites and led to them uniting against him. In Latvia we also know that Nils Ušakovs is the best mayor of Riga in decades, it’s a unanimously accepted fact, because in the quite shaky economic conditions the city is reviving.

So of course, there is a demand for new ideas, a demand for new people who will stop repeating the same old mantras that worked twenty years ago but no longer have any meaning or content.

Translated by: Pavel Shamshiev.

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