Monday, May 18, 2020

Why are Georgians Nostalgic about the USSR? Part 1

Several surveys in recent years suggest that close to half of the Georgian public considers the dissolution of the USSR a bad thing. After nearly 30 years since gaining independence, why do so many Georgians look back with nostalgia towards the Soviet Union? Reasons for Soviet nostalgia in other contexts are usually associated with how people experienced transition from state socialism to capitalism. The economic hypothesis explaining nostalgia argues that a perception of being part either “a winner” or “a loser” of the transition is associated with nostalgic feelings towards the Soviet Union. Other hypotheses introduce politics into the equation. According to this explanation, those who reject democracy on ideological grounds are more likely to be nostalgic as are those who think that democratic institutions are too feeble in delivering state services. Are these explanations true for Georgian Ostalgie? This series of blog posts explores these and other potential explanations to Soviet nostalgia.

The 2019 Caucasus Barometer survey asked respondents whether the dissolution of the USSR was a good or a bad thing, as well as the reasons why. Respondents were considered nostalgic if they reported that the dissolution was a bad thing. However, it is worth keeping in mind the exact wording of the question when reading the analysis. Overall, 42% of the public think that the dissolution of the USSR was a bad thing, and a statistically indistinguishable share (41%) report it was good, leaving about 16% who were not sure.

When it comes to why it was a bad thing, by far, the most common reason is that respondents believe that people’s economic situation has worsened. And they’re not necessarily wrong.

Georgia had a particularly difficult economic transition during independence. Overall purchasing power is much higher today than before the transition, however, it only recovered to pre-transition levels in 2006 according to World Bank data.

At the same time, average purchasing power hides the high levels of economic inequality in Georgia. Inequality increased from an estimated GINI of 0.313 in 1988 to 41.3 in 1998. In 2018, it stood at 37.9 according to the World Bank data. Concomitantly social services were cut.

This likely explains why a majority of respondents that are nostalgic report that the economic situation has worsened to explain why they think the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a bad thing. The fact that some respondents directly cite a lower number of workplaces as a reason for believing that the dissolution was a negative thing, attests to this. The second most common reason is related to the conflicts that followed independence and the lost territories.

What sets nostalgic Georgians apart? A logistic regression model looking at attitudes towards democracy, Russia, political party preferences, and a number of demographic measures suggests a number of characteristics. Age is an important predictor, with older people being considerably more nostalgic.

Education also appears important, as individuals with more education are less likely to be nostalgic. Wealth has a less clear role, appearing only slightly relevant for overall attitudes, and more relevant when we look at those citing economic reasons for their attitude. This suggests that those who regret the dissolution of the USSR are those who suffered the most during the transition. This also suggests that as the economy improves and newer generations come of age, nostalgia towards the USSR may decline.

While age, education, and wealth are relevant, they are not the only factors. Attitudes towards democracy and towards Georgia’s orientation to Russia also seem to separate nostalgics from non-nostalgics. Those who believe that Georgia should forego NATO and EU membership in favor of closer ties to Russia as well as those who think that Georgia is not a democracy and that democracy is not necessarily the best form of government, are more likely to also believe that the dissolution of the USSR was a negative thing.

Similar patterns emerge when disaggregating the reasons for nostalgia, with wealth being more relevant for those who mentioned the worse economy as a reason for nostalgia. Interestingly, feeling close to a particular political party does not seem to be relevant for these attitudes, once other factors are held constant. One exception is when looking at identity-related responses for the attitudes. Respondents who feel close to pro-western opposition parties are less likely to believe that the dissolution of the USSR was a bad thing because ties with other nationalities became less common, travel to other former Soviet Republics became harder, or for people judging each other because of their identity. Ethnic minorities in Georgia are more likely to report these reasons than ethnic Georgians.

Nostalgia towards the USSR seems to be primarily related to an individual’s experience of the transition, and their current attitudes towards democracy and Russia. This connection might suggest that skepticism towards democracy and the West is related to individuals’ experiences of the transition. However, more direct analysis of attitudes towards democracy is needed to test this idea.
The next blog post looks at the characteristics of Georgians who view the dissolution of the USSR positively.

Note: The above analysis is based on a set of logistic regression analyses. Respondents were considered nostalgic if they believe that the dissolution of the USSR was a bad thing. Besides this, additional analyses grouped together the reasons respondents gave for their first answer to the question “Has dissolution of the Soviet Union been a good or a bad thing for Georgia?” The economic group consisted of respondents reporting worsening economic situation and a declining number of workplaces as a reason. The conflict group consisted of respondents reporting the war with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian civil war, and lost territories as reasons. The inequality group consisted of respondents who reported the privatization of social services, and the increasing gap in wealth between rich and poor as reasons. The identity group consisted of respondents who reported severed ties with friends and relatives, increases being judged due to identity, and more difficult travel to other former Soviet republics as reasons.

The independent variables are a positive attitude towards democracy, the belief that Georgia is a democracy, support for foregoing EU and NATO membership in favor of closer ties to Russia, distance of the respondent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ethnicity, party support, age, sex, type of settlement (capital, other urban, rural), employment status, wealth, and education. The data used in the blog is available here. Replication code of the above data analysis is available here.

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