The editors of Nezavisimaya gazeta take up the same issue in a lead article today. They argue that “after the unpopular pension reform, Putin landed in a situation when he simply could not allow himself any new sharp reduction in his rating;” and that is exactly what handing over the Kuriles would lead to ( ).
The Putin electorate, the editors suggest, “thinks and reacts quite simply. Even without understanding the vital importance of the Kuriles for Russia,” these Russians “intuitively will not accept concessions.” And unless the Kremlin takes steps to prepare the population for such an action, it will have the most negative impact on Putin’s rating.
According to a Public Opinion Foundation poll last month, 77 percent of Russians in the country as aw hole and 84 percent of those in the Russian Far East say that “the Kuriles must not be handed over even in exchange for serious compensation.” And their reasons are ones Putin has not addressed.
In his December press conference, Nezavisimaya gazeta continues, Putin “connected the resolution of the territorial dispute” with Japan with the presence in that country of American military bases. But polls show that for Russians, that is “not a key motive.” Only two percent mentioned that as a reason for their attitudes toward the transfer.
“The majority of opponents of handing back the southern Kuriles explain their position in quite simple emotional and patriotic terms: ‘we shed blood for these lands,’ ‘they have been ours historically’ … and ‘we will not give up what is ours.’” Thus, the Russian population wants Putin to take a hard line and avoid compromises.
And if he doesn’t, he is going to lose their support. “Forty-two percent declared that their attitude toward Putin in the event of handing over the islands would get worse. Everything thus depends on what the Kremlin really wants” and what it is prepared to sacrifice to get it, the editors argue.
If Putin wants to go ahead with an agreement with Japan, he will have to work hard to convince its own population that this is a good idea. If he goes ahead without doing that preparatory work, he will see his ratings decline perhaps to levels that will call his legitimacy into question in ways that could spark the protests the pension debacle did not.