MOSCOW – One week ago, the Kremlin was jolted by a new opinion poll that showed trust in President Vladimir Putin had fallen to the lowest level in nearly 20 years as Russia's preeminent political figure.
On May 31, however, one day after a Kremlin spokesman publicly questioned the results, a new survey was released by the same state-funded pollster that did the earlier one. It showed, instead, public trust in Putin at a markedly higher level.
The reason, it seems, is the pollster’s decision to change how its questions are worded. And that's got Russians suspecting political meddling.
Valery Fyodorov, the general director of the company widely known as VTsIOM, told the Interfax news agency May 31 that the change in wording of the question asked of respondents resulted in a dramatically different result.
Previously, the pollster, whose formal name is the Public Opinion Research Center, asked an open-ended question: "Which of the following politicians do you trust?" Respondents were then given a list of well-known political figures, including Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and others.
Under the new methodology, the pollster asked close-ended questions -- "Do you trust or not trust?" -- followed by a similar list of figures.
Under the older methodology, Putin’s trust rating fell to the lowest point of his nearly 20 years as the country’s preeminent political figure, according to the poll released May 24.
A related question asked in the same poll found that a majority of Russians approved of Putin's job performance.
That result prompted a response from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who told Interfax that it didn’t make sense that there were two seemingly contradictory results.
"To be honest, we are of course expecting an analysis from our respected specialists to understand how this data correlates: how, for example, trust can fall while his electoral rating rises," Peskov was quoted as saying.
With the new question, used in a survey conducted on May 29, Putin's trust rating was drastically higher. Putin's "distrust" rating, meanwhile, fell to even lower levels under the new methodology.
In an interview with the newspaper RBK, Fyodorov defended the shift in wording, saying it was easier for people to answer.
"I am confident that the picture of public sentiment obtained through this new innovation will be not only broader, but also more understandable to our audience and the journalistic community," he said.
The drastic shift led other Russian sociologists and pollsters to question the reliability of VTsIOM's data, and whether the results were being skewed for political purposes.
Denis Volkov, a top pollster at a respected private company Levada Center, told the newspaper that the results from the close-ended question were more acceptable to the Kremlin.
"When indicators change so much after criticism, it all looks quite doubtful," said Dmitry Rogozin, a researcher at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
"If previously someone had doubts about whether to trust or not hapless sociologists, now you can say for sure: don't trust data which begins to change after public discussion begins," he said.