Comrade, your opinion please

DEMOCRATIZATION, an unwieldy word for an unwieldy process, sputters and lurches along in Moscow. Recently, 939 somewhat leery Muscovites participated in a public-opinion poll run by the Institute for Sociological Research for that most voracious consumer of survey data, the Western press - specifically the New York Times and CBS. Polls, of course, are relatively new, rather informal add-ons to the machinery of democracy. But their influence on politicians and political decisionmaking, in the United States at least, is pervasive and occasionally perverse. In any case, the Soviet Union's chief democratizer, Mikhail Gorbachev, has often expressed an interest in the data drawn from surveys of opinion.

Polls have been conducted in the Soviet Union since the late '60s, but polls for Western clients, with questions of interest to Westerners, are new.

What emerged from the recent survey was a snapshot of a people basically supportive of their country's new direction, but harboring doubts. There seemed to be wide backing for such specific steps as multi-candidate elections to local legislatures, or soviets. That's right in line with Mr. Gorbachev's push to make legislative bodies more than rubber stamps for policies created by Communist Party planning committees. Nearly a third of the respondents aged 44 and younger balked at the notion that the country's one-party system can promote democracy. Gorbachev, of course, believes it can.

Those conducting the telephone poll in Moscow noted that many interviewees were suspicious and had trouble believing that their views would really be kept anonymous - which hints at a broader consciousness of repression.

Clearly, the Soviet people are only just warming to the idea of becoming participants in government rather than its passive objects. Substantive public opinion polling is just one more ingredient that could help that process along.

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