Vladimir Putin's popularity ratings: Ups and downs

Drawing by Iorsh

Drawing by Iorsh

Sociologist Denis Volkov looks at the highs and lows that Russian president’s rating has seen over the last 15 years and what conclusions one can draw from them.

In the first several months of 2014, the number of Russians who approve of Vladimir Putin's actions as president rose from 65 percent in January to 82 percent in late-April. Simultaneously with that, the approval ratings of the government and the prime minister received a boost, as did overall optimism and Russians' readiness to vote for the ruling party. First, the president's rating rose by 4 points on Russia's performance in the Olympic Games.  The country’s involvement on the events in Ukraine and Crimea joining Russia gave him a further 11 points. Finally, Putin's televised phone-in with the nation, practically the whole of which was devoted to the situation in Crimea and Ukraine, allowed him to consolidate the success. It added a couple of more percentage points to the president's rating at a time when other ratings already began to drop.

The merger with Crimea gave the ratings a boost for several reasons. The threat of a military conflict always means that one has to choose between “us” and “them,” which inevitably prompts people to rally around the leadership of their country. The peninsula's “return” to Russia (as the president put it) is perceived by the majority of Russians not just as historical justice restored and as an alleviation of the phantom pain for the lost status of “a great power” but as a noble act. The opinion that Crimea should return to Russia and that the Russian leadership should defend the interests of Russians in former Soviet republics has been prevalent since the early 1990s.

An overwhelming majority of Russians are convinced that in Ukraine, Russia has extended a helping hand to the Russian-speaking population, has defended them from an inevitable death at the hand of ‘fascists’ and ‘nationalists’ who have come to power in Kiev, as this is what the country's main TV channels have been saying for months. Moreover, in the opinion of the majority of Russians, Western governments are only hindering the resolution of the crisis, while pursuing their mercenary goals. “The Ukraine story” has been presented to the Russian population in a very attractive light and very competently, which varies greatly from the way it is seen in Europe and the USA.

Finally, it matters too that, in the opinion of the majority of Russians, the reunification of Crimea and involvement in Ukrainian affairs has hardly cost Russia anything. The Crimea events took place without any loss of life; as for the Western sanctions, Russians do not really believe in them and cannot assess their consequences, since this is something that evening TV news hardly ever mention. While it is evening TV news (primarily on the three main state-owned channels) that 90 percent of Russians learn about domestic and world events from. The Internet serves as the main source of news for 15-20 percent of the population, although there too the audience of independent and good-quality information resources that represent a variety of views and opinions make up just a fraction. An overwhelming majority of Russians do not have access to information that offers anything other than the official line.

This latest soaring of Putin's rating is not unique. A similar thing happened back in 1999, after the explosions in Moscow apartment blocks and the start of the second Chechen war (when Putin's approval rating rose from 31 to 80 percent in a matter of three months) and during the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, when in September his rating reached record-breaking 88 percent. However, alongside these major events, there have been dozens of smaller instances of mobilization (and media and propaganda campaigns), which inevitably served to boost the president's popularity: take for instance, the scandal with the bronze soldier monument in Estonia, imports of poor-quality Polish meat, gas wars with Ukraine and spy rows with the UK and the USA. Any significant foreign policy conflict has been used by Kremlin spin-doctors to bolster the leader's rating. This, as does the case with Crimea, manifests the huge capacity of the Russian political regime to adapt to the changing situation.

However, omitting details, the 15-year-long history of Putin's ratings (in the posts of president and prime minister) can be divided into two main periods: a period of growth (from 1999 to 2008, with a break in 2004), followed by a period of waning popularity. Over a period of three years between 2008 and 2011, Putin lost about a third of his supporters. His rating was at its lowest in December 2011, when a wave of protests against election fraud hit big Russian cities (at the time Putin enjoyed the support of 63 percent of Russians, with 36 percent not approving of his actions). Then his presidential campaign improved his rating for a while. However, after that, for some 18 months (till February 2014) Putin's rating stayed practically the same, fluctuating at about 65 percent. In other words, no situational mobilization of public opinion could change a long-term trend that had been set by the economy. The Crimea story has for a while improved the image that Russian politicians have in Russians' eyes but it has had no effect on the overall assessment of the economic situation. That is why Putin's further popularity as well as the stability of the political system as a whole will depend on how good or bad economic growth is.

The writer is a sociologist with the Levada Centre

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