At the Helm of a Tired Nation

In Russia, an appointment to the post of Prime Minister usually sends a politician's ratings to unheard of heights. Under Yeltsin, Prime Ministers Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin all saw their popularity skyrocket upon their being tasked to head the government. The same applied to Putin in 1999, when he was charged with leading the second military campaign in Chechnya from the Prime Minister's chair. Interestingly, the only comment Russians made about Putin at that time was that they couldn't say anything bad about him. Most weren't able to say anything good, either. Once he became president, confidence in Putin became based almost exclusively on the contrasts between him and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin had been an ailing old man, while Putin was young and athletic. Yeltsin had always been in the limelight and had thoroughly enjoyed it, while Putin kept in the background. Yeltsin had rarely left Moscow, while Putin made trip after trip across Russia with lightning speed (in one famous episode, he flew in a fighter jet to the war-ravaged Chechen Republic).

However, perhaps the most essential contrast between the two men was that Yeltsin was a reformer, while Putin represented stability. As a result, Yeltsin was adored by some and hated by others, with the latter category eventually dominating. However, by the end of Putin's first presidential term, it became clear that the new President favored consistency over a rollercoaster ride of reforms. Historically, Russians had never expected anything positive to come from the political elite anyway, so the fact that Putin brought nothing at all augured well for his career.

Later, the windfall of petrodollars facilitated small, but regular increases in wages, pensions and unemployment benefits. Poverty decreased as the middle class began to feel safer, while some "oligarchs" became even wealthier. Interestingly, public gratitude for this turn of events went almost entirely to the President. Russians placed blame for problems such as the wealth gap, rising inflation and, most importantly, the cancellation of social benefits (in exchange for token sums of money), exclusively on the government, and not the President himself.

Even more confounding is the fact that today 60-80% of Russians do not link their family's own material well-being with Russia's economic growth or election results. Instead, Russians recognize increasing chasms developing in society (for example, between the rich and the poor) and continue to have almost no confidence in social institutions.

Boris Dubin heads the socio-political research department at the Moscow-based Levada Center

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