Opinion polls reveal attitudes to the national projects

Five months after President Putin first announced the national projects, we have done a poll aimed at analyzing what the chief potential “beneficiaries” – ordinary citizens – think of them. The state’s intention to focus more closely on the social sphere meets with approval from 69% of respondents.

The national projects in social policy are one of the most important areas of effort for the federal authorities. The extent to which they are successful will have an impact extending far beyond the spheres of life that these projects are intended to transform: health-care and education, the housing market and agriculture. A broader spectrum of issues is being addressed. What will the quality of life be like for Russian citizens? Will our country be attractive for its own citizens? Will our human capital be competitive internationally?

Five months after President Putin first announced the national projects, we have done a poll aimed at analyzing what the chief potential “beneficiaries” – ordinary citizens – think of them.

The state’s intention to focus more closely on the social sphere meets with approval from 69% of respondents; only 5% disapprove, and a quarter are indifferent. This generally positive evaluation is due to accumulated expectations that the state would revise financial policy in favor of social spending, especially given the “chronic” budget surplus and the growing Stabilization Fund.

Citizens believe that President Putin’s intentions are sincere; they believe he is motivated by concern about the situation in Russia and attempting to change people’s lives for the better, rather than driven by political considerations. Thirty-five percent of respondents say the national projects are being launched in an effort to reduce social tension; 33% say the motivation is Putin’s concern for the people’s welfare and a sense of responsbility to the nation. Other important factors motivating Putin include the favorable economic situation, with oil and gas prices rising (27% of respondents), and an effort to provide some sort of compensation for inflation, the rising costs of housing and utilities, gas and electricity (30%).

Our poll indicated less support for the evaluations of the national projects that are most widespread in the media and among analysts. Only 16% of respondents say that President Putin is trying to boost his own popularity and draw attention to himself. Only 9% think he is preparing to seek a third term in office. And 7% say the national projects indicate Putin’s intention to make a graceful exit, leaving a good memory of himself.

The intentions announced by the authorities are acknowledged as entirely realistic; the state has enough money to implement President Putin’s plans in full. And the measures themselves are regarded as essential and overdue. Only 6% of respondents say they don’t believe Putin’s intentions are serious and regard his statements as empty promises. Most respondents, 61%, maintain that the federal budget can well afford the promised spending. Only 13% fear there might not be enough money, while 8% say that if the money is available, it would be better spent on different goals.

To what extent was the choice of four areas correct? And why are there only four? There has been quite a lot of debate over those questions. We attempted an indirect measurement of attitudes to the chosen areas, by asking respondents to name the fields they regard as priorities for state spending in 2006.

Respondents named the following priorities: health-care, medicine, sports (40%), housing and utilities (34%), education (34%), and social policy in general (33%). Also in need of additional funding are defense (29%), security and law enforcement (23%), and environmental protection (21%).

Thus, the choice of national projects generally fits in with the public’s expectations. Although our wishes greatly exceed what the state is capable of doing immediately, social policy issues are the obvious priority. It should also be noted that spending on defense and security has already been rising rapidly in recent years.

However, respondents are not convinced that implementing the national projects will result in substantial improvements to the state of affairs in Russia. A third of respondents do believe that the situation will improve substantially, but 48% do not believe this, despite their support for President Putin’s intentions.

Besides, can the proposed measures really produce qualitative changes in the designated areas? Forty-nine percent of respondents say that President Putin’s proposals will provide a powerful stimulus for improving the work of scientists and researchers; 42% say the same for teachers and state-sector health workers. However, a third of respondents say that raising salaries won’t suffice to improve the performance of teachers and state-sector health workers; their entire work system needs in-depth reforms.

Will the national projects help reduce corruption and unlawful economic transactions in health-care and education? Only 33% of respondents are inclined to think they will; 54% don’t expect any changes for the better.

We can identify several reasons for these opinions about the actions of the authorities.

Firstly, there’s the low level of awareness about the national projects as such. Almost half a year after they were launched, only 48% of respondents have heard of them at all, while only 8% consider themselves well-informed. Meanwhile, 41% of respondents say they don’t know anything about the national projects – and this figure is 53% among the youngest age group.

The second reason is that people don’t understand what the national projects are about, or how they will be implemented. Only 20% of respondents see the national projects as an organizational method, new to the Russian system, for solving complex socio-economic problems. Consequently, only 39% of respondents say it was worthwhile to establish the Council for Realizing the National Projects, chaired by President Putin; 25% say the Cabinet could have handled the administration of the projects.

Finally, there’s a reason which is hard to exporess in figures. Most citizens approve of the goals of the national projects, and would be glad to see those goals achieved. But they don’t hold any great hopes of the authorities, and don’t expect the authorities to produce substantial improvements in their lives.

Our society’s experience over the past 15 years, especially the numerous reforms, has taught people not to trust the authorities or regard them as an instrument of positive change. For most of our fellow citizens, civic sentiments end the day after they cast their votes in an election; from that point, they live according to the principle of “you leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.” The authorities are acting in a watch-and-wait mood on the part of the citizenry – occasionally sympathetic, more often critical.

In political terminology, “national” means “affecting the whole country, the whole society.” Two-thirds of respondents agree with that definition. And the efforts of the federal authorities obviously won’t be enough to make the projects truly national. The national projects are a signal, a message, sent out by the federal authorities to the public: throwing the ball to us. Will we catch it, or will we choose to remain spectators, uninvolved in the big game?