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Russia: Analysts Say Putin's Sky-High Ratings Reflect Expectations, Illusions

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian President Vladimir Putin's soaring public-opinion ratings set a new record at 83 percent following Moscow's hostage crisis in October. At the same time, however, Russians are critical of his handling of specific issues, like the economy and Chechnya. In that and other matters, Putin's situation is not unlike that of his American counterpart, George W. Bush, another popular leader who has faltered on certain policy issues. But despite the similarities, analysts look to homegrown traditions to explain Putin's ratings, saying the statistics reflect the public's expectations more than the country's real economic and social conditions.

Moscow, 2 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's public-approval ratings arguably represent his most important political asset. And what an advantage they provide, in shock value, if nothing else.

Political observers have long been expecting Putin's numbers to drop, but two years into his presidency, they have hit a new high at a staggering 83 percent, prompting some to wonder what makes Putin so popular, and what, if anything, such polarized figures really mean.

The poll, carried out in late November by the country's top polling organization, the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM, shows a 6 percent jump from 77 percent approval in September and October.

The jump came a month after Moscow's hostage crisis, providing the first confirmation that Russia's tough-talking president emerged from the event looking good to his electorate.

The public generally supported Putin's decision to storm the theater where Chechen rebels had taken some 800 people captive, despite the deaths of 129 hostages, most due to the effects of a sedative gas used to knock out the hostage takers.

Sociologist Boris Kagarlitskii is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies. He said Russians who witnessed the Kremlin's handling of the hostage crisis were either impressed or frightened by what they saw. "Either people support the gas attack or they are terrified. But in both cases they shut up, so there is no problem with domestic dissatisfaction," Kagarlitskii said.

Putin's high approval ratings have always been a major factor in his political might. But even as his overall ratings grow higher, other poll results tell a different story. Only 52 percent of people in the VTsIOM survey said they trusted Putin, while 15 percent said they trusted no one in the government.

Questions on specific issues like economic policy showed even less-sparkling results, with only 33 percent of respondents approving Putin's economic program and 62 percent viewing it as a failure to various degrees.

An overwhelming 73 percent, moreover, said Putin had failed to "defeat the rebels in Chechnya," the promise that got him elected and on which he has maintained an unwaveringly hard line.

VTsIOM Director Yurii Levada says Putin's situation is similar to that of U.S. President George W. Bush, who likewise maintains high public-approval ratings despite the fact that many of his supporters criticize specific Republican Party policies, including those on the economy.

Both Bush and Putin saw their ratings rise in the aftermath of traumatic events: the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the events leading to the second war in Chechnya, respectively. Both men are waging self-described wars on terrorism, and both have been quick to stress national solidarity over diverse political debate.

Levada said, "In the actual tone of the [Russian] administration's actions, the point of view exists that anyone who criticizes the actions of the president and authorities is acting against the interests of the state."

Levada added that unlike the United States, Russia does not have a society that is used to pluralism and an exchange of different points of view, another condition contributing to Putin's high ratings. "There is a great deal of trust in the president, but [there is trust in] no one else on Earth. That allows Putin to maintain exceptionally high ratings despite the fact that he lacks major successes," Levada said.

Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin is co-leader of the Liberal Russia party. He questions the accuracy of public-opinion polls and whether they can be said to reflect the public's real sentiment. He noted that the seeming contradiction of people criticizing Putin's policies even as they support the man himself reflects a general feeling of desperation. "That many people in our country are disappointed with the dragged-out transition period -- with a period of social disintegration and the instability of their own socioeconomic and legal situations -- leads them to see the head of state as their last hope," Pokhmelkin said.

It's a tendency, Pokhmelkin said, that leads to a widespread attitude of "state paternalism" in the public consciousness -- something he said is a historic tradition in Russia.

Pokhmelkin said Russians are less likely than Americans to see their heads of state as mere mortals, representatives of the people with human qualities themselves. That helps account for the wild swings between low single-digit approval ratings for former President Boris Yeltsin and Putin's highs -- emotional extremes that are seen less often in the West.

So far, Pokhmelkin concluded, Putin has answered the call by providing a measure of stability, a "sacred cow," as he put it, in Russian politics.

But Pokhmelkin added that as a result, Putin will not be guaranteed an easy time in the next presidential elections and could suffer a quick fall.

Pollster Vladimir Andreenkov is director of the Institute of Comparative Social Research, or CESSI. He said polls conducted by his organization confirm the pattern visible in VTsIOM's surveys: that respondents are highly critical of economic policies and are skeptical of reform but support the president in general, nonetheless.

Andreenkov agreed that Putin's perceived provision of much-sought-after stability helps explain the phenomenon. "[Putin is a] person [perceived to be] trying to solve problems, both economic and military, in Chechnya and so on. Here's a person who's trying, who's acting. He essentially speaks and acts correctly. Well, the result isn't very good, but at least he's doing the right thing," Andreenkov said.

Andrei Ryabov is a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He agreed that both Putin and Bush have positioned themselves as successful fighters in their respective wars on terrorism. But he added that both need to be seen to be achieving continuous successes to maintain high ratings, and that makes them vulnerable to shifts in events. "I think the criterion for Putin's victory is, above all, the reduction of the threat of terrorist acts and the reduction of the threat to the country's national security. At the same time, if such tragic acts [as the hostage crisis] take place again in the future, they will undoubtedly weaken his authority in public opinion to a significant degree," Ryabov said.

Putin boosted his short-term ratings following the hostage crisis by acting tough, Ryabov added. But in his overall war on terrorism, it will be far more difficult for him to achieve tangible gains against terrorist groups. In this way, Ryabov said, Putin is putting his high ratings at risk.

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