Staunton, February 7 – Surveys show approval for Vladimir Putin continues at much the same level as a year ago among most Russians except the young, where it has fallen by a third, but expressions of support for him have collapsed to unprecedently low levels, a difference that reflects differences in how these levels are measured and what they mean, Lev Gudkov says.
“In the first case, when one is speaking about ‘approval,’” the head of the Levada Center polling agency says, “this indicates loyalty to a specific position [that of the incumbent] but when we ask ‘name five or six politicians which you trust’ that shows the support they have” (svpressa.ru/society/article/289283/).
The first figure shows “the level of conformism,” Gudkov continues; “the second genuine support.” Putin continues to get 60 to 65 percent on the first measure; but that says little about how much support he really has given that when asked to list politicians they trust, Russians now given him only 29 percent.”
That second measure shows a basic divide in the population between Putin’s “supporters who are mainly people dependent on the state: pensioners, people with a Soviet mentality, and government employees. His opponents are younger, between the ages of 18 and 35, specialists with higher educations, and entrepreneurs.”
Moscow sociologist Anna Ochkina adds that “approval presupposes a more rational and detailed assessment of a politician … Trust is a more complex and emotional characterization of one’s attitude toward him.” That is, “trust is a very personal thing” and is a sign of whether one sees oneself as part of a given community or not.
For many, Gudkov quotes her as saying, “trust is not simply about approving the president for something he has already done but as a kind of guarantee against future mistakes. For many, that is what trust is all about.” As a sociological indicator, “trust is closer to the real popularity of a politician” but not in every case.
Andrey Malyuk, a political scientist, counters that “popular approval of a politician converts into votes in elections.” That’s why Putin is now distancing himself from the unpopular United Russia Party. But at the same time, Putin doesn’t need the youth. They are too small a group to matter yet.
And everyone needs to remember that “Putin’s rating is declining more slowly than he is aging.” Navalny may see his rating rise, but Putin can keep him in prison nevertheless. What matters for the opposition leader in fact is not his rating but his ability to mobilize people ready to sacrifice themselves in the streets.
That and not problematic polling numbers is what is going to be at the center of Russian politics in the coming months.