Lithuanians’ opinions of Putin and Trump leaves questions for experts

Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump
V. Putin and D. Trump, DELFI

Surveys show that Lithuanian citizens have similar views on both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Almost a quarter of the country’s citizens are inclined to sympathise with each. Why is this the case, and what does it say about our society?

This was discussed on the Lietuvos Rytas TV show Lietuva Tiesiogiai, where journalist Mindaugas Vasiliauskas spoke to Vilnius Institute of Policy Analysis chairman Šarūnas Liekis and General Jonas Žemaitis War Academy lecturer, political scientist Giedrius Česnakas.

An opinion poll commissioned by the Delfi news portal from Spinter Tyrimai showed that the actions of US President D. Trump are viewed positively by only 6% of citizens. Another 17% of respondents chose a somewhat positive answer. Meanwhile, the Washington based Pew research centre, which ran opinion polls in 33 countries, showed that 23% of Lithuanian citizens trust in Russian President V. Putin’s actions. Mr Liekis, how do you view such results? D. Trump and V. Putin are practically the same in the eyes of Lithuanian citizens?

Š. Liekis: You see, this is primarily citizens’ awareness. Probably what people watch, what they become acquainted with, what topics impact them personally. Considering that if you look, various news media outlets overall allocate little room for foreign politics.

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On the other hand, Lithuania itself has access to all Russian channels, a large part of residents know Russian, live in that information space. It is clear that the processes in Russia itself, other than the authoritarianism that we are all aware of, are reasonably contentious.

If you ask Lithuanian citizens, what they want from the government, it would be some resolve, a firm hand. Data from Western Europe, by the way, shows the same. Western Europeans want this too.

In such a situation, where the world is governed by influential leaders, who are viewed as more or less rational, when we have D. Trump, V. Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then their ratings likely end up similar.

Considering all the trends of how much a statistical average Lithuanian resident might know of D. Trump and V. Putin, this mostly reflects sympathies and antipathies in society.

Mr Česnakas, do you have a logical explanation of why Lithuanian citizens, if one could put it this way, view the enemy V. Putin and the friend D. Trump as equivalent?

G. Česnakas: I think that we would need more detailed sociological studies, but some assumptions can be made. V. Putin’s better than one could expect ratings are primarily through Russian speaking or ethnic Polish individuals in Lithuania. Studies made before the show that they typically view Russia’s actions positively and V. Putin as a strong leader.

As for the majority, ethnic Lithuanians, who perceive positively – people get used to the context, the discourse. If we see that Russia is continuously misbehaving, we get accustomed to it, cease noticing. Here we can turn to the USA and D. Trump. It would seem they are our ally, one of the most important ones. Why then is the perception so poor – because Lithuanian society is fundamentally used to viewing the US president and the US itself with a sort of halo as if a paradigm.

What we see on the media and it is not entirely justified – it’s D. Trump’s various declarations on the future of NATO itself, its vitality. Other reports, which are discussed in Lithuanian news media, they clearly create a different discourse. We expect that our ally will be more serious, better than we expect, but it looks otherwise. Thus, the disappointment is more significant. This is influenced by psychological familiarity.

Surveys released last year showed that 16% of respondents trusted V. Putin in Lithuania, while this year the figure rose to 23%. We can talk of various error margins, differing methodologies, but probably the conclusion can be made that trust in V. Putin is if not growing, then at least not declining. Mr Liekis, would you agree that we have become accustomed to the threat and perhaps sometimes give less credence to potential threats and people, who monitor Russian politics, notice certain more positive aspects, while averting their eyes from negative aspects of the governance of Russia?

Š. Liekis: It is clear that Lithuanian citizens do not grasp that V. Putin, Russia, is a strategic competitor of Lithuania and a strategic threat to Lithuania. This is the only revisionist power, which poses a threat to Lithuanian independence, the freedom of speech, everyone’s expectations, free-living, being in the European Union, NATO, and so on. This is a real competing country.

There’s a lack of this competitor’s tale in Lithuania. What the media describes is how bad it is, how the roads aren’t asphalted, what a mess it is, what the police has done wrong. But in essence, we have no strategic description of what poses a threat to Lithuania. Prior studies have shown that the slice of a positive evaluation of Russia and overall the Soviet past, as Russia is still associated as taking over the rights of the Soviet Union, we see it in practically all strata.

In Pagėgiai the situation is not much better than in Šalčininkai, if we look fundamentally. Other studies that have been performed prove this. The situation is terrible in the sense that we have no strategic narrative as a state of who our enemies and potential enemies are.

This is also clearly expressed by institutions.

Š. Liekis: It might be implied for them. Realistically looking at the model, it’s an authoritarian, fictitious government. Look, they are doing something in Syria, territorial expansion, occupying Crimea. What if Lithuanians increased their territory? Everyone projects on their government, what they have, and whether that government can do something. Most likely, this is what the studies are recording – the appeal, the model.

However, no one considers that the country you view favourably poses a threat to you. If you have a look, in Russia, all war clubs are trendy, where they play games with a historical theme. For example, Napoleon is a very positive figure in Russian games. If you asked the statistical Russian, whether Napoleon is a positive or negative figure, regardless of all the wars and all else, most would probably say positive.

Or if somewhere in Tajikistan or Iran you were to ask about Iskandar – most would probably say yes. Everyone sees in that figure something of an embodiment of their expectations. This does not mean that this is your friend, but it is a positive figure, which resolves specific problems. We lack a strategic narrative of what place we are in, what world we want.

The past, future and present are closely linked; thus we must create a better articulated strategic narrative from the state’s side so that there would be a clear understanding of what is right and what is wrong. If you asked a statistical Lithuanian, what is bad about V. Putin’s Russia, they would struggle to articulate and explain it.

Mr. Česnakas, would you agree that our state institutions might seemingly be making efforts to talk about propaganda, other examples of what is wrong in Russia, but there is a lack of a strategic narrative?

G. Česnakas: I would partially agree. There are individual journalists and certain institutions, who talk about it all the time, but people grow weary of it and no longer wish to hear a repeat of the same.

Something of a block emerges, an automatic rejection because you have to display not just how bad Russia is and all that, but also its broader interests, private life for people to see. This is lacking.

Typically the narrative is that Russia is wrong, that it’s expansionist, that V. Putin wants to take over the world and everything. But people are starting to reject this. Just look at the news portals, the comments on them – it might not be a great indicator, but they directly say that the journalists are once again writing about the same and asking why they should read, considering that they already know what will be said. More holistic access is lacking.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasises that there is another Russia – the opposition Russia, Russia forums are organised. This is not fully put on display and we have essentially gotten accustomed to Russia being a threat, we live with it. What can you do?

Š. Liekis: There’s probably a lack of information on such core questions. What we have is statistics on how forces in Kaliningrad are increased, but it’s not linked to a real threat to Lithuania most of the time.

While it is being talked about, but everyone would ask the government – what are you doing to repel this threat, not NATO forces, but you yourselves. As I put it, where’s my gas mask? If something happens, what does the state give me? There’s often an unwillingness to answer these questions.

Problems of informing poorly are permanently resolved through propaganda measures. In other words, the country is poorly telling, but this is all replaced by propaganda noise. The quality of how this is all done is truly insufficient.

G. Česnakas: In essence, we have two information bubbles formed. One watches Russian television either on their TVs or online, while the others shut themselves in Facebook and discuss how bad Russia is. Or we have the so-called “vatniks” [those blindly favouring Russia and/or the Soviet era] and those, who discuss how great things are and thus miscommunication emerges.

One group is in one bubble, the other in another and simply put, there emerges aspects of information reception and rejection. And it leads to such results.

Are such results cause for concern for the country?

G. Česnakas: I believe that the survey results are not a superb indicator, which indicates what the public would do if hour x or day x came. The state, Lithuania itself, its institutions should show their preparedness to overcome existing challenges.

We talk a lot about challenges; we talk a little about how we plan to overcome them, however ones such as the Alytus fire, other examples show that the state is incapable to effectively, rapidly respond to a crisis and potential conflict is without a doubt a crisis.

There isn’t a full belief that the state will be prepared to turn on all its mechanisms to ensure every Lithuanian’s life, rights and freedoms, all the rest.

Returning to D. Trump, when he was just elected, there were numerous concerns that he could draw closer to Russia, undermine the interests of the Baltic States. Mr Liekis, has this narrative contributed to and remained to now, making people mistrust D. Trump?

Š. Liekis: If we are to recall the elections themselves, what happened during them, on election night, the absolute majority of Lithuanian analysts emphasised that D. Trump definitely won’t be elected.

We could list names, I wasn’t invited to comment anywhere, nor Giedrius though all ordinary people knew that D. Trump’s statistics showed that he would be elected. This is despite the number he lost by – 3 million votes.

However, all those commenting, the so-called strategic community, they were all against D. Trump. They were left surprised to find D. Trump, the president of the United States the following morning. It is clear that his style of governance, which clashes with established institutional culture, causes outrage and doubt for many.

All the media, which is accessible, the TV channels, if you look at the USA, other than something like Fox News, practically everyone criticises D. Trump. All these actions, the lack of logic often shows that there is cause for concern and discussion. Someone being the American president does not guarantee and secure them from mistakes, inconsistencies and all other matters.

Every politician must face this. Finally, there is the question of what they are oriented toward in terms of values. The question of human rights is currently not discussed; the human rights of refugees arriving from Mexico to the USA are emerging. Much has changed. D. Trump has dramatically altered the USA, set a specific tone of where the USA is headed under his leadership.

His image isn’t the best. As long as we are convinced in Lithuania that the USA will come to Lithuania’s defence and has its commitments – the manoeuvres and other things that are happening around Lithuania, the military, diplomatic cooperation, it shows that everything is fine. On the other hand, if everything changed on day x, I imagine that the USA, D. Trump’s reputation would change and in certain regions, it is happening. In South Korea, for example, or in the Philippines.

There are numerous places where the USA faces a slew of challenges due to D. Trump’s stance. Where there is a relationship between the local military and foreign policy establishment, where there’s a healthy relationship with the USA, the partnership is maintained – people are less critical there. Speaking of the information sphere, the Russian channels are essential for D. Trump.

We see what percentage of Lithuanian people view V. Putin rather positively; thus, it should come as no surprise that there’s some, who are negatively inclined regarding D. Trump.

Mr Česnakas, do such survey results, public opinion polls serve the opposite side, can they be exploited for propaganda, disinformation attacks?

G. Česnakas: Not just this data can be exploited for disinformation and propaganda. If you find an opportunity, you can exploit it successfully, a great example is the German distrust of D. Trump. I think that the Germans have something of a right when D. Trump says that all imported cars will be taxed.

The Pew centre, having performed polling in numerous countries, found that V. Putin is more trusted around the world than D. Trump.

G. Česnakas: It was a sample of 33 countries; thus, there isn’t a massive difference in trust. Most of the world is used for American dominance. When the US president says that NATO is outdated, that they won’t buy French wine, German cars, that they will establish tariffs or are doing so in China, it’s clear that people are left thinking that he dislikes them and ask, why they should like him back.

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