Staunton, December 9 – Many people now say that they do not believe the findings of pollsters that 86 percent of Russians approve of Vladimir Putin, Denis Volkov says; but in fact, the figure is correct – it has been replicated many times – although it does not mean what either the Kremlin leader’s backers or his opponents think it means.
In an article in today’s “Vedomosti,” the Levada Center sociologist says that most people who hear this number do not put it in the context of the answers Russians give to a multitude of other questions about the authorities and thus “they make mistaken conclusions that Russians support any decisions of the authorities and are its enthusiastic supporters.”
Moreover, “instead of examining the details and trying to make sense of the entire mass of contradictory data,” they tend to dismiss the number as such and call into question “the honesty of sociologists, the adequacy of sociological methods in Russian conditions or the openness of respondents” (vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2015/12/09/620191-86-putina).
At the same time, Volkov continues, such people tend to assume that the 10 percent of the population “which doesn’t support Putin and speaks against the annexation of Crimea are “automatically part of ‘the democratic minority.” That conclusion, the sociologist suggests, is equally ill-advised.
He begins his discussion of the issue by suggesting that while one cannot know in every case why Russians answer the way they do, there is compelling evidence that the level of those willing to respond has remained unchanged over the last 20 years and that most Russians do not focus enough on politics to make the kind of calculations that are routinely ascribed to them.
It is true that some people tell pollsters what they think those in power want to hear, but “such behavior is characteristic in the first instance for a narrow stratum of elites, for those who are well informed about what is going on and use primarily quality information from independent sources.” Under Russian conditions, “this is not more than 10 percent” of the total.
“According to our research,” Volkov says, “only a few percent of the population takes not of the persecution of the opposition and pressure on NGOs. Only five percent can say of themselves that they are well informed. The majority isn’t interested in what is going on, doesn’t focus on politics and does not have clear political preferences.”
Those attitudes explain why popular support for Putin is so high. “Yes, a significant segment of Russians considers that open criticism of the authorities may create definite problems.” But it must be remembered that “on many questions, the majority simply does not have its own opinion.”
The regime’s control of media matters, of course, because most Russians get their news from three or four TV channels, but at least as important is that most Russians are conditioned to the idea that there is only one candidate for any job and that the opposition is not especially attractive.
And that in turn means, Volkov continues, that “approval [in Russia] is not an evaluation by the population of specific political decisions but a general acceptance of the course which the authorities are following.” And that tends to hold even among those who live in major cities and have access to alternative sources of information.
Two years ago, Putin’s rating was lower because of all the problems the country faced, but “the annexation of Crimea became a turning point which allowed the Kremlin to win the sympathy of even its most consistent critics and win the support of the majority” because many felt that this marked “the rebirth of the greatness of Russia lost after the disintegration of the USSR.”
“Consciously exploiting the existing post-imperial complexes, the authorities obviously calculated that the annexation of Crimea would strengthen support for the regime. But the strength and prolongation of this effect most probably has turned out to be unexpected even for them,” Volkov says.
The Levada Center has been surveying Russians about Putin every month since August 1999, and it asks each time more than just about the public’s general attitude toward him. As result, “we know that a little less than 60 percent of the population trusts him as a politician and that only about 55 percent are prepared to vote for him in presidential elections.”
Russians are divided about many things and even about Crimea, but despite that, “almost 90 percent assert that it isn’t necessary to return” the peninsula to Ukraine: ‘what’s done is done,’ say people in focus groups.”
“It is interesting,” Volkov says, “that the 10 percent of those who oppose Putin and the annexation of Crimea are hardly ‘the democratic minority,’ but in fact are a quite varied company consisting in part of the audience of independent media, a small fraction of Muscovites and a significant segment of Russians form the least well off portions of the population.”
Few of them are supporters of liberal parties whose total backing now is “no more than one or two percent.”
Putin’s approval ratings have varied over the last 15 years. At four points, it achieved a level of 84 to 89 percent: in 1999, 2003, 2007-2008, and 2014-2015. Each of these was at a time of military action and opposition to the United States. Thus, although Volkov does not put it this way, his high ratings at those times reflect a kind of “rallying around the flag.”
Twice, Volkov points out, Putin’s rating fell to 60 percent – in 2005 and 2011-2012, largely as a result of economic difficulties. In each case, the fall was accompanied by “massive all-Russian protests, given that at those times “more than a third of the population” was dissatisfied with the authorities.
In a situation like this, “any incident can lead to a chain reaction and provoke an open expression of dissatisfaction,” Volkov says. “However, the situation is complicated by the fact that the opposition in the eyes of the population doesn’t look attractive. Today, the authorities appeal to the simple citizen” and present Putin as his or her best option.
The current economic crisis has not led to the decline in approval many expected, at least in part, Volkov suggests, because Putin was able to prevent panic by suggesting that the crisis would last no more than two years and that Russians need to be patient. Whether he will be able to maintain that if the crisis continues longer is very much an open question.