Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foreign policy is playing just as well at home as he could hope. Two-thirds of Russians now believe their country is on the right track. This figure has risen markedly in just one year: in 2013 only 40 percent believed the country was going in the right direction.
Ever since the annexation of Crimea, for five straight months now, Putin’s personal approval rating has been over 80 percent. In August 84 percent of Russians said they approved of his performance, as compared to just over 60 percent in 2012 and 2013. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that indicates the Russian people have rallied behind their leader. For example, one reporter talked to Muscovites, usually a more critically-minded constituency, about their opinion of Putin and their memories of almost 15 years of Putin’s leadership. Nearly everyone has only good things to say about the president. As for memories, the annexation of Crimea appears to have overshadowed any negative developments of the past 15 years.
Suddenly, the problems of recent years seem to have receded into the background for Russians.
Suddenly, the problems of recent years seem to have receded into the background for Russians. A survey conducted in July showed that 43 percent of Russians believed the situation in the North Caucasus was “safe and quiet”, up from only 18 percent who thought so in January. The North Caucasus is a predominantly Islamic region, where shootouts, subversive acts, and police violence are routine news. However, the shift in public perception is not based on any new information from that region – for months now, the TV news shows from which an overwhelming majority of Russians get their current affairs information have been entirely dominated by reports about Ukraine. Likewise, without any news from a parliament that was in recess in August, people in Russia think more highly of the Duma than they did one year ago. The cabinet’s approval rating has also gone up.
The polls show that Russians have even grown softer on the labour migrants who were last year seen as unwelcome or worse. In the run-up to the Moscow mayoral elections held in September 2013, Moscow voters rated labour migrants as their number one problem. But a poll taken in July this year showed that the percentage of Russians who support the idea of ethnic-based residence restrictions on migrants from the Caucasus or Central Asia has significantly decreased compared to October 2013.
Public triumph over the annexation of Crimea not only colours opinions on current policy, but also stretches to cover people’s memories of past events. This month marks the tenth anniversary of the horrific tragedy in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, when terrorists seized a school building with over 1,100 people in it. Three hundred and thirty-four people were killed, most of them children, and there are serious grounds to believe that these deaths were in part the result of a bungled rescue operation in which the government seemed to be more concerned about annihilating the terrorists than about saving more of the hostages’ lives. Fewer than half of those polled in 2013 believed that the government had done everything possible in order to free the hostages. This year, the number has grown to 62 percent.
The shift in public opinion on Beslan may be partly the effect of time – the Kremlin has consistently marginalised discussion of the Beslan tragedy. But an even more important reason for the change is the Russian people’s overwhelming and unquestioning support of their leader. Almost universal approval of the annexation of Crimea and of Putin’s other policies in Ukraine has reinforced Russia’s habitual trend: people tend to surrender responsibility and do not hold the government to account.
Putin’s policies have given a new boost to his support, but they are taking a toll on the Russian economy. It remains to be seen whether the public’s unquestioning support will weaken if people’s own well-being is affected. Maybe not, if Soviet perceptions offer any insight into the present moment. In the late Soviet period, despite the ubiquitous grumbling over consumer shortages, long shopping lines, and propaganda lies, organised protests were unheard of. Public opinion polls were not conducted, let alone published, but the common official parlance had it that the working people expressed full support and approval of the policy of the (Communist) Party and the government.
However, as recently as 2011-2012, mass protests in Russian cities showed that at least some constituencies had abandoned the Soviet mindset and were ready to stand up for their rights.Over the past decade, many people have taken part in rallies to express economic grievances – the largest protests took place in 2005 against a social benefits reform and in 2009 at the time of the financial crash. Now, it may be possible that a deterioration in living standards could push people to rethink their unconditional approval and resume a more critical view of government performance.
In today’s Russia there are no mechanisms for channelling public discontent and no public structures capable of political organisation.
Even if a shift in public opinion does take place, in today’s Russia there are no mechanisms for channelling public discontent and no public structures capable of political organisation. The Kremlin’s power is unchecked: there is no genuine political opposition, and no alternative political figures are even remotely popular among the Russian people. If the government fails to keep the people reasonably content, it can rely on the powerful and loyal forces of coercion, such as the police, the Investigative Committee, and the state security apparatus. And if Putin’s astronomically high approval rating begins to decline, the Kremlin can simply block the publication of polling data.
Maria Lipman was until recently the editor-in-chief of the Pro et Contra journal, published by the Carnegie Moscow Center. She writes regularly for the New Yorker online and has featured as editor and contributor in several books on Russian domestic politics.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.