Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Toward a Tipping Point? 'Already' One Russian in Three Doesn’t Back Putin

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 4 – Polls not only reflect public opinion but help structure it as articles in the Moscow media this week about how the Kremlin and other power structures use them to promote their particular interests ( and

            That has left Russians and other observers of the Russian scene properly skeptical about most poll results, but there is another aspect of them that may merit attention: When polls show that a certain percentage of people support or oppose a particular politician, that finding is likely to lead others to follow in the same direction, to position themselves to be on the “winning” side.

            Such a pattern has been noted in almost all countries, but it may be especially typical of those which have less experience with democracy and are thus less comfortable with a situation in which those in power have nearly universal approbation and those out of it nearly universal disapprobation.
            For most of the past decade, Vladimir Putin has enjoyed support in the polls that any Western politician would envy but not likely expect. Now, the Russian president’s poll numbers while still impressive are slipping, with an ever smaller percentage uncritically backing him and an ever larger one expressing its disapproval.

            And that shift, highlighted in two Levada Center polls released yesterday (  and, raises the question as to whether Russia is moving toward a tipping point, one in which opposition to the Kremlin leader will grow in part because it already has.

            In reporting the poll, “Vedomosti” entitled its article “Already Every Third Russian Does Not Support Putin’s Actions.” While 52 percent still support him, the paper’s Maria Zheleznova noted, 31 percent said that they don’t, the highest negative figure Putin has received over the last 12 years (

            Aleksey Grazhdankin of the Levada Center told the paper that there has been “a certain erosion” over the long term in approval for Putin and other leaders, but Aleksandr Pozhalov, a political scientist, suggested that the current results reflected public unhappiness with price increases rather than anything more cosmic.

            An article posted on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal suggested that there were other causes at work as well and that these are likely to continue to have an impact except under certain exceptional circumstances which it said Putin might employ to try to reverse this trend (

            The article’s author, Andrey Polunin, focused on the poll find that “if presidential elections were to take place next Sunday, Putin would not win in the first round” because the percentage of those who say they would support him has fallen from 55 percent a year ago to only 47 percent now.

            Levada’s Grazhdankin told Polunin that Putin’s impression on Russian voters is “deteriorating slowly,” the result of the economic slowdown, the sense that things aren’t going to turn around anytime soon, and the failure of the Russian leader to fulfill all the promises he made during the last election. 

            Putin does get a bounce in the polls from sporting events like the Sochi Olympics, the sociologist continued, but circuses in the absence of bread ultimately are not enough.

            Dmitry Oreshkin, a political scientist, said that the slow decline in Putin’s popularity was a stable trend, but he argued that one should not assume that there is nothing the Russian president can do about it.  Putin was able to win the last election even though he was not as popular as he had been, and he could do so again by manipulating public opinion.

            Putin’s declining support, Oreshkin suggested, reflects the fact that he has been in office too long and people are tired of him. He is like an initially successful television show which “sooner or later” people get tired of and cease to watch.  Then, the show goes off the air. “The problem is that Putin is not a TV show and one can’t shut him off. He won’t permit that.”

            What is clear is that Putin cannot hope to turn the economy around and build his support that way.  A decade ago, he got credit for restoring economic growth. Now, he is blamed for economic hardship, Oreshkin said. That means he is likely to look to “non-economic” measures, such as a victorious war or the Customs Union as a measure of the recovery of Russian power.

            Vladimir Shapovalov, a specialist on politics at the Moscow State Humanitarian University, however, suggested that no one should “dramatize the situation” given that Putin still has the support of “almost half of the voters.”  People are tired of him, but such wearying is “an objective process.”

            Voters in Russia just as in other countries, he said, always “forget the achievements of a politician” and begin to focus only on “problems and shortcomings.”  Consequently, “the decline in the popularity of Vladimir Putin only confirms this general rule.”

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