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Russia: Sociologists Evaluate Putin's Popularity

Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to deliver his state of the nation address to the parliament on Saturday. In his speech, Putin is expected to give his assessment of the past few months and outline his plans for the future. But what do Russians think about the man they overwhelmingly supported in the presidential election just over three months ago? Has there been any shift in public opinion? Sociologists give their analysis after the results of a public opinion poll by the Agency for Regional Political Studies, ARPI, was made public today. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow.

Moscow, 6 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Polls indicate Russians have become a happier people since Vladimir Putin became president, and they still put a lot of hope and trust in the man they elected on March 26.

But pollsters disagree about how long this honeymoon will last. While some ARPI analysts think the ongoing war in Chechnya and continuing economic troubles are slowly beginning to erode his popularity, others think that Putin's image as "the good tsar" will give him unlimited credit at the expense of his presidential team.

Inga Zakharova is an ARPI analyst. She says Putin's approval ratings have decreased slightly in recent weeks, from a high of 61 percent in May to 54 percent in July. Part of this is natural, she notes: "Maybe because Putin was received with great emotion, and people were expecting immediate changes that did not take place. So people begin to assess the situation they ended up in more realistically. What happened, what could happen in a hundred days? What is really happening? And then they remember their hopes and they start to evaluate what they really have more with the intellect, more with the mind."

He may have been inaugurated just two months ago, but Putin has been in power since Boris Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve. Zakharova says that some people are already expressing disappointment at Putin's lack of palpable action on key fronts, especially the economy. When asked to name their greatest concerns, Russians usually put inflation first. Zakharova says worries about an increase in prices have grown, with almost a quarter of those surveyed expressing concern on the issue.

She also points to a change in attitude on Chechnya. Asked what they would do about the rebellious republic, only a quarter of Russians surveyed said they would favor sending troops to Chechnya, if the war started today. By comparison, last fall, a full 60 percent of those polled supported military action.

Another analyst from the same institute presents a different picture. Nikolai Popov says that Russian public opinion will go on supporting Putin no matter what. Calling Putin a "Teflon president" -- like the frying pan surface that nothing sticks to -- Popov compares Putin to former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed high personal support despite the unpopularity of some of his actions. He says such uncritical allegiance is a mentality inherited from tsarist times and further developed by the Soviet system. "To a certain extent, people still have a monarchist consciousness. The super-boss, the tsar, the president -- it doesn't matter what he's called -- he is the symbol of greatness or whatever. Anyway, raising salaries is not a tsar's business. And in that respect, the former authorities, Yeltsin during his two terms, and the present powers benefit from this resource -- the possibility to separate responsibility from the great leader of the country and [leave it ] to some manageable prime ministers," Popov says.

According to Popov, if people begin to complain about their continuing poverty, they will blame the government, not the president. "And if something fails, the people will understand it that way. [They] are already understanding it that way. Just to give you one figure -- while support in favor of Putin changed in a very insignificant way over the past three months, the assessment of the government worsened noticeably after just one month in power."

But a public relations specialist who helped Putin prepare his presidential campaign said this week that Putin must act quickly to fulfill some of his promises, or risk losing public support. Gleb Pavlovsky told the Russian weekly "Kommersant" that Putin didn't deliver quick results of his promise to fight corruption and tame the oligarchs, he could be challenged by rival politicians who will seek to capture public support by being even more "Putinist" than Putin himself.

Pavlovsky has his own agenda in making such statements, implying there is popular demand for harsher actions. Nevertheless, sociologists do agree that Russians still see toughness as a positive political quality.