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Russia: Putin's Ratings Remain High Despite Scant Progress On Domestic Issues

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to break new ground by enjoying spectacular public-opinion ratings well into the third year of his presidency. As the country endures yet another summer of disasters, Putin's reputation has seemingly remained untarnished. Is the president's popularity at home the result of his ability to learn from mistakes and sense voters' moods? Or does it simply reflect Russians' traditional attitude toward political leadership?

Moscow, 23 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- August, which is vacation time for most Russians, is a surprisingly trying time for their leaders.

When the "Kursk" nuclear submarine sank two years ago in one of the country's worst tragedies in recent memory, the world expected the ratings of wildly popular President Vladimir Putin to sink with it.

Putin decided not to interrupt a vacation on the Black Sea coast as officials gave contradictory statements about the fate of the 118 crew members who perished in the accident. But the president's 70 percent ratings suffered only a small dip before quickly bouncing back. They have remained strong ever since.

Another streak of disasters has hit Russia this August as well, including floods that left some 59 people dead in southern Krasnodar Krai. And following this week's Mi-26 helicopter crash in Chechnya, which left 116 Russian servicemen and civilians dead, Putin did not wait to be on the receiving end of public criticism. Instead, he delivered the criticism himself. On 22 August -- declared a national day of mourning -- he met with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to deliver a stern and lengthy lecture in front of television cameras. "We must draw serious conclusions from the analysis of this crash and previous crashes, regardless of their scale and consequences. Even the preliminary analysis shows that, as a rule, the blame must be placed on officials' negligence," Putin said.

Russians are listening to, and approving of, such scoldings. That is, at least, according to the ratings. The president, who in August 1999 was catapulted from unknown entity to prime minister in a move that shocked observers, remains wildly popular. A recent public-opinion poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), the country's top polling organization, registered 73 percent of Russians interviewed as saying they still approve of the president's performance.

Andrei Ryabov is a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He said the poll figures are not coincidental: Putin and his advisers track public opinion closely and work hard to meet its expectations.

When state wage arrears recently began to grow once again, Putin appeared on television to dress down a number of cabinet officials in public, including Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, who is responsible for social affairs. The president was expected to do the same during a 23 August visit to the Far East, where heating routinely fails in the long, freezing winter months.

Ryabov said: "The average Russian provincial sees how many good-for-nothing ministers and governors there are -- useless people who can't realistically help him in any way. And then there's the president, alone, who by himself is trying to do something, change something. He puts pressure on all those people. He's trying to push forward the lumbering, backward Russian state machine."

But Ryabov said Putin's scolding and threats, such as a recent pledge to enact a law making it easier to remove governors from their posts, are not directed at the guilty themselves. Rather, they are chiefly meant for public consumption, not for the ultimate aim of reforming the state, but to shore up the political goldmine of public-opinion ratings.

VTsIOM director Yurii Levada also attributes Putin's high marks to the fact that most people consider Putin to be above those usually, and often disparagingly, referred to as "the authorities."

It might seem odd that it was Putin himself who made most of the promises to boost centralized power and enact a "dictatorship of the law." In fact, according to an interview with Levada in the August issue of "Argumenty i fakty," the president remains popular in part because he is seen as not connected to the actual course of events.

Accordingly, general opinion of the government is much lower. Only 5 percent of those polled this month approve of the performance of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. And the government as a whole earned an astounding minus 18 percent, a result calculated by subtracting negative answers from positive to arrive at a so-called "pure percentage."

Most people say the government is unconcerned with the population's well-being. Rank-and-file Russians routinely complain that despite the strident promises to strengthen the rule of law, crime and corruption remain unchecked. At the same time, while the country's petro-dollar-fueled economy grows, funding a high-end construction boom in Moscow, it has not benefited the vast bulk of the population.

Pensions were raised in July, but the populist move was almost completely nullified by an increase in utilities prices that followed shortly thereafter.

Nonetheless, the economy reflects well on Putin, a perception based on one of the many favorable comparisons to his predecessor, former President Boris Yeltsin, who presided over a crippling economic crisis in 1998. The economy has since sprung back to life, with an all-star panel of economists saying on 20 August that there is little chance of another crisis taking place anytime soon.

Ryabov said the economy does not play the main role in the popularity ratings. "It creates a kind of pleasant background. That is, there's nothing really negative, no defaults, no big inflation. There's none of that, so essentially, that's already enough," Ryabov said.

But it is Putin's articulate and decisive bearing, his physical fitness and youth that fare best in comparisons to the aging Yeltsin, who was sometimes drunk, often incoherent, and increasingly ailing and bloated. "The people want to have at least one hero in this country," Levada said. "Putin is the hero of hope -- and hope is always the last thing to die."

That hope is especially strong because of the corruption and stagnation that characterized the Yeltsin era. Ryabov said many Russians feel the hardworking Putin cannot possibly address all of the country's problems at once and are prepared to wait for improvement. "The revolution of expectations that created the image of a new national leader -- young, decisive, who fights for real improvement in the country -- that revolution of expectations still exists," Ryabov said.

Ryabov said Putin's popularity also compensates for the catastrophic erosion of trust in other political and social institutions, including parliament and political parties, in addition to the government. Many of those institutions that remained outside Kremlin influence have themselves scrambled to line up behind the president. The southern Magadan regional legislature this week was the latest to propose extending the president's term from four to seven years.

All this has some critics saying Putin is little more than a savvy politician capitalizing on public disenchantment with the government. But Viktor Kremenyuk of the U.S.A.-Canada Institute said Putin's bearing should not be criticized as cynical because the president makes no bones about his own nature. "Putin never really presented himself as a supporter of moral values. It's not part of his upbringing or his previous life -- he's not guilty of that. He's a pragmatist, a healthy pragmatist, who looks at problems without a romantic coloring, so it doesn't make sense to accuse him of cynicism," Kremenyuk said.

But Russia's worst domestic problem, the war in Chechnya, seems to have eluded rationalization. Putin came to power in 1999 starting Russia's second war in the breakaway region, a campaign he said would be decisive and short. Three years on, with Russian soldiers dying daily, the guerrilla conflict shows no signs of abating.

Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, writing in the 22 August issue of the English-language daily "The Moscow Times," said Monday's helicopter crash helped expose the war's futility. Even the itinerary itself was indicative: The aircraft was flying only a short distance in the relatively safe area of northern Chechnya, conveying passengers who still preferred to fly rather than risk taking ground transportation exposed to fire. This time, a ground convoy might have been safer.

Felgenhauer added that the Kremlin's response, to name and suspend a scapegoat, army aviation commander Colonel General Vitalii Pavlov, does not acknowledge the war's disastrous nature and cleaves to the official line that the campaign in Chechnya is over.

With munitions and other military equipment running short because of a post-Soviet decline in defense budgets, Felgenhauer said a fall in world oil prices may be enough finally to force the Kremlin to accept that the situation in the breakaway republic is a dead-end.

Putin's astounding popularity, meanwhile, may be explained by differing phenomena at various levels of Russian society. According to Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, the political elite wants the president to be well-liked because it wishes to preserve the tremendous wealth, influence, and opportunities it reaped thanks to the social, economic, and political revolutions of the last decade. High presidential ratings help sustain enough stability for such purposes.

The rest, many of whom, Ryabov said, "have not gained even a small parcel of land," have nonetheless learned how to eke out a living for themselves, giving them a similarly conservative mindset. It's a view Ryabov described as: "'Let's not move back to the communist past, but let's not have any new reforms. The main thing is to have stability and order.'" This frame of mind has proved fertile ground for Putin's political ambitions.

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