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Letting The Air Out?

Putin (left) tests the theory that what goes up, must come down.
Putin (left) tests the theory that what goes up, must come down.

Readers of this blog will know that we have taken a skeptical view of Vladimir Putin’s lofty popularity ratings in Russia. For many years it was standard to report that about three-quarters of Russians express support for Putin without analyzing the context of Russia’s “managed” political system.

In December 2008, I wrote a post dissecting Putin’s popularity and attempting to explain how tenuous it was (actually, that post was based on an analysis I wrote during the December 2007 Duma election campaign). I wrote that “Putin’s popularity ratings are a bubble that exists within a political vacuum, a bubble that nonetheless needs to be continuously pumped up with injections of hot air from state television.” (I took a certain amount of flak for this position (or is it a "senile rant"?), such as here.)

The Levada Center, which does the most reliable polling within this artificial political vacuum (recording the level of created popularity for Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, not their actual popularity in any open-society terms), shows that Putin’s popularity rating is holding fairly steady at about 80 percent: From January to February it rose from 78 to 80 percent. The popularity of the government that he heads stood at 58 percent in January 2009 and was 54 percent last month.

Interestingly, the number of Russians who believe the country is on the right course, according to Levada, is 48 percent (up from 43 percent in January 2009). As you can see, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine understandably has a much easier time inflating the ratings of concrete individuals than it does manufacturing support for more abstract notions like the “government” and various policies.

Even that 48 percent stating they think the country is moving in the right direction is clearly overstated, given other Levada Center findings such as that 94 percent of Russians feel they have no influence over what happens in Russia, one-third are worried about human rights abuses, 68 percent say they don’t feel protected by the law, and only 4 percent say they feel their property is secure.

The Kremlin propaganda machine, of course, does not just give – it also takes away. It is very skilled at marginalizing people. No one remembers, for instance, that Mikhail Kasyanov was Putin’s trusted prime minister for nearly four years, but all Russians “remember” that he was known as “Misha 5 2 Percent” for his alleged and never proven (even in Russia’s controlled judicial system) corruption [NOTE: The nickname Misha 2 Percent has been corrected from the original post. Thanks to the reader who pointed out the error]. Pro-Kremlin analysts love to claim that people like Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Milov, and Andrei Illarionov are “nobodies” – without acknowledging that they have been systematically and purposely marginalized.

Recently, noted and tireless human rights advocate Sergei Kovalyov (former Duma deputy, former Russian human rights ombudsman, heir to the legacy of Andrei Sakharov, etc,) celebrated his 80th birthday – and the Kremlin PR machine could celebrate too, as a Levada Center poll found that 83 percent of Russians had never heard of him. Airbrushed out of the picture.

But I digress. Getting back to Putin, although his popularity rating is holding steady at about 80 percent, there are tantalizing indications that that could begin changing. RFE/RL’s Russian Service spoke to Moscow-based journalist and political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky, who explained:

As far as Putin is concerned, his authority in the country remains greater than Medvedev’s. And his popularity rating is substantially higher than that of any democratic leader in the West – Obama or Sarkozy. Incidentally, it only takes firing all barrels of television for a couple of weeks and throw out just some of the kompromat on Putin and his rating would plummet. But the interesting thing is whether the Internet campaign under the slogan ‘Fire Putin’ arose spontaneously or was organized from higher up. Or are the authorities just allowing it to happen. Or are they powerless to stop it? There are no answers to these questions.

Asked for his personal opinion on these important questions, Radzikhovsky answered:

There has been no direct order from Medvedev’s entourage to launch an attack against Putin, of course. But it is a fact that they are turning a blind eye to something that half a year ago they wouldn’t have tolerated. Over the last 11 years, a significant amount of discontent with Putin has accumulated, even if you don’t look too deeply at his activities. And now there is also the [global economic] crisis. But it is unlikely that these moods could have been converted into real political activities against Putin.

Radzikhovsky also rightly warns against thinking that the political balance between Putin and Medvedev is a zero-sum game:

There is no such connection here that what is a loss for Putin is a gain for Medvedev. There is an entirely different problem. If Putin’s authority crashes down, then Medvedev’s authority will crumble right down with it. So if Medvedev – let’s imagine for a moment – is calculating that if he gets Putin down to zero then he will be lifted up, that is a fatal mistake. Without Putin, particularly if he falls precipitously, Medvedev, of course, can’t survive.

As much as I hate to advise this, I’d say that now is a very good time to watch Russian state television closely. Not that I’d expect to see them let loose with the kompromat on Putin any time soon, but it will be interesting to see if they scale back on efforts to lionize him. Merely doing that would be sufficient to let the air out of his balloon, although I agree with Radzikhovsky that doing so is politically suicidal for Medvedev.

One indication that we might see something like this is the strange silence of Nashi. Remember the proto-fascist youth movement that brought us the For Putin! Movement and Walking Together and so on and so on? Remember back when came out in the hundreds of thousands in their matching Putin t-shirts and practically anointed him the national leader? They have been strangely silent as the anti-Putin Internet campaign has unfolded. They keep holding tiny protests about supposedly anti-Russian activities in the Baltic States and they protested against McDonald’s in the wake of the Vancouver Olypmics – but when protesters go after Putin directly, they have nothing to say? This is more than a little strange.

As Radzikhovsky says, “they are turning a blind eye to something that half a year ago they wouldn’t have tolerated.” Will that be reflected on Russia’s television screens? And will we see that 80 percent popularity rating begin to descend toward reality? Stay tuned.

P.S. I’d estimate that Putin’s real popularity rating – if such a thing can even be said to exist in Russia’s managed political environment – is about 40-45 percent. This, of course, is remarkably high for someone who has held power for more than a decade. However, I also think that rating would fall very quickly in an atmosphere of real political competition. That is, the rating is inflated not only by propaganda, but also by the suppression of all political alternatives. Russians (like everyone else, I guess) fear chaos, so Putin’s “popularity” benefits enormously as long as occupies the political stage all alone.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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