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Ten Years Of Putin In A Manually Controlled Country

Not quite the King of Prop?

Not quite the King of Prop?

This summer marks 10 years since Vladimir Putin came to power. In the course of its regular surveys of public opinion, the Yury Levada Analytical Center posed a series of questions in July to Russians about how they view the results of the activity of Russia's second president.

Summing up Putin's decade in power, Russians were surprisingly reserved in their assessments of his presidency. On average, they noted twice as many failures in various spheres of state activity as achievements and successes. Even though trust in Putin remains high and he remains the dominant figure on the Russian political scene with an unjustifiably high rating (he enjoys the trust of 78 percent of the population, which is 10 percent less than a year ago -- President Medvedev's rating is 72 percent), the financial crisis has nonetheless cast doubts on the basic achievements of his political leadership: stability and the growth in the material well-being of the population.

Quite a large number of Russians (39 percent in all) consider Putin's primary success in all his years as president the rise in living standards, the increase in salaries and pensions, and the economic upswing, which restored people's sense of optimism and self-confidence and their hopes that the crises and upheaval of the 1990s were now behind them and that the country was heading for a period of stable and sure development.

Disgruntled Types

But almost as many people (30 percent) evaluated Putin's accomplishments in these areas as not very effective or even as a failure. At the same time, these assessments vary considerably depending on the social status and resources of the respondent. People satisfied with Putin were to be found more frequently in the disadvantaged environment of provincial towns and villages than in large towns and capital cities, where the intensity of social and economic life is much higher. The higher the education level, professional qualifications, level of awareness, and income of the respondents, the more critical their assessments of Putin's economic policy tended to be.

In other words, the higher the level of development of market relations and infrastructure, the higher the level of dissatisfaction with Putin's leadership of the country. (Muscovites were almost three times more likely to brand Putin's economic policy a failure than were residents of provincial towns.)

Quite a large number of Russians considered Putin's much-trumpeted campaign against corruption and bribery particularly unsuccessful (35 percent of respondents on average; again it was Muscovites who were most likely to assess negatively this aspect of Putin's policy -- 47 percent of those questioned, compared with only 31 percent in small towns).

The same holds true for the "struggle against crime" (19 percent thought he had failed totally in this. I would remind you the number of registered crimes in Russia is between three and five times higher than in most European countries.)

Respondents considered equally unsuccessful Putin's efforts to curb the influence of the "oligarchs" (23 percent mentioned this). The central tenets of the populist program with which Putin began his activity as Yeltsin's successor, and thanks to which he almost immediately achieved visibility and acquired mass support, have remained unfulfilled.

Strong Suit?

It seems odd that far fewer respondents named among Putin's successes the "strengthening of Russia's positions abroad" (only 7 percent mentioned this, and only 3 percent gave a negative assessment), and the improvement in relations with neighboring countries (5 percent, 3 percent negative), considering that these are the spheres of activity in which in public opinion surveys in previous years he scored the greatest success and approbation in Russian society.

But we should bear in mind that the poll was conducted at a time when the euphoria and national elation in the country in the wake of the short Russian-Georgian war had already subsided and been superseded by alarm at the ongoing economic crisis, rising unemployment, and general uncertainty about what tomorrow would bring.

In addition, there was a growing awareness that Putin's aggressive policy had landed Russia in international isolation, with the threat of serious losses. Although Russians in general do not believe that the negative reaction of the international community to Russia's actions in Georgia, to the strengthening of authoritarianism, and to violations of human rights will last for long, the results of opinion polls still testify to a decline in approval of Putin's foreign policy course.

Nor were respondents very convinced that the Chechen problem has been "finally solved." The installation in Chechnya with the help of federal forces of the harsh regime of Putin's protege, Ramzan Kadyrov, evokes doubts among the majority of Russians about how secure his position is and whether Putin's decision was justified. The war against the separatists, who have been crushed in Chechnya itself, has spilled over into neighboring republics where acts of terrorism and exchanges of fire with militants have become everyday routine.

Forty-eight percent think the gap between the rich and the poor has increased noticeably over the past decade, while 31 percent think it has not changed compared with the Yeltsin era. 46 percent believe that government corruption and theft have neither increased nor declined, 27 percent think the level has increased, while 17 percent think it has fallen. The influence of the bureaucracy and the arbitrary nature of bureaucratic decision-making likewise remains practically unchanged. In other words, not that much has changed in relations between the state and the population during the first decade of the 21st century.

Looking For Reasons

Why is it, then, that despite their sober and critical approach to trying to grasp the nature of the Putin regime, the absolute majority of Russians praise what he has done and are ready to vote for him again in the next elections? As in other authoritarian regimes that were installed after a period of prolonged upheaval and civil instability, conflicts and collisions, public opinion in Russia does not want change; it is afraid of change, and wants to hope that things will get better.

Responding to the question "Why do many people trust Putin?" the majority of respondents (35 percent) replied as follows: "People hope that Putin will continue to come to grips with the country's problems." Almost as many (31 percent) replied that "people do not see anyone else they could rely on," and only 28 percent of respondents attributed Putin's popularity to the fact that they "were convinced that Putin can successfully manage to solve the problems the country faces."

In other words, the basis of mass support, the organized consensus of his regime, is built on a combination of mass hopes and illusions and the perception that there is no alternative leader. The opposition is discredited and squeezed out of the political arena, propaganda insistently spreads the main message of the present regime: There is no alternative to Putin; his departure would lead to a new round of fierce struggle and upheavals, so be patient!

The state-controlled media do not allow any undesirable information that would show Putin in an unfavorable light, while business has learned the hard way whom to be loyal to in this country. So we should not be surprised that 63 percent of those questioned were convinced that the concentration of virtually total power in Putin's hands is "to the good of Russia," while only 16 percent believe that "this will bring Russia nothing good."

Even though it is over a year since Putin quit the post of president of the Russian Federation, a large number of respondents still believe that power in the country belongs to him alone. Medvedev is not perceived as an independent political figure insofar as the majority of Russians (66 percent) believe that he does not act independently, but under Putin's control, implementing the same policy as his predecessor (82 percent believe that).

If elections were held next Sunday, the largest number of voters would vote again for Putin (38 percent of those who intend to cast ballots). Only 23 percent would vote for Medvedev. The two remaining candidates cannot be regarded as serious challengers to the duumvirate: Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov would poll 6 percent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- 4 percent.

Lev Gudkov is director of the Levada Analytical Center. He wrote this commentary for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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