This piece was originally published on the website of the Canadian International Council on 9 March.
On 18 March, Vladimir Putin will almost certainly be elected to his fourth term as President of the Russian Federation. If we include his first term as Prime Minister from 1999-2000 and his second from 2008-2012, when he was for all intents and purposes still President in all but name, by the end of this next term he will have been Russia’s leading politician for a quarter century. Only Joseph Stalin will have been longer at the pinnacle of Russian and Soviet power.
Scoring consistently over 80% in Russian opinion polls, on the face of it Putin indeed seems to be uniquely popular. His ratings tend to be considerably higher than those of politicians in democratic states, often more than double theirs -and this despite the fact that Putin has now been in the saddle roughly twice as long as his democratic counterparts tend to be.
Take, for example, American Presidents. Of the last ten, the average popularity of the chief executives tended to be under 50%. Only Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton scored over the norm. George Bush was an outlier: he enjoyed a 60% average approval score but was a one-term President.
Or another Western example, Angela Merkel, oft-described as “the most powerful woman in the world” finished 2017, after twelve years in the job of German Chancellor, at 40% in the opinion polls. This is approximately the same level of average support as Margaret Thatcher enjoyed as Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century – just before she was purged.
I would be more prone to accept that Putin was supported by, say, sixty percent of the population, if he had delivered the goods that Russia needs for the twenty-first century.
He hasn’t. He has not used Russia’s huge energy riches to lay the groundwork for an economy that could secure prosperity for the population independently of high oil and gas prices.
He has championed an over-centralized, authoritarian and neo-tsarist governance paradigm, at a time when this geographically vast country needs devolution and diffusion of power, democratic controls and a vibrant civil society to bring it successfully through the twenty-first century.
He has failed to build bridges to the country’s former Soviet partners and the major international actors with which Russia shares the world stage. Instead, Putin’s policies have led to conflict with some of them and soured relations with almost all of them.
So, why then should we take Putin’s polling numbers at face value? There are several arguments that say we should not.
The opinion polling process in Russia is subject to historical, technical and political realities that differ from the modalities western polities are accustomed to. Western polling practices are far from perfect, Russian ones much less so.
When a Russian pollster approaches a potential respondent, as in western countries, the latter will be asked to give their name. This is typically done over the phone and can easily be recorded. But in Russia, where there is a history of mass suppression, this virtually guarantees that the person being questioned will not say what they think but will give what they believe to be a politically correct – and a safe – answer.
There is also evidence that suggests that the interview process is grossly unrepresentative. A Russia-based analyst has argued that a very small portion of the respondents selected for the interview process actually responded. The number he put forward was between 10 and 30%.
Then there is the issue of the credibility of the polling organizations. Russia has essentially three. Two are generally thought to be too close to the government as to be independent. The third, Levada, has recently been branded as a foreign agent as it has received funds from foreign – read Western – sources. It has announced that as a result it will no longer be publishing its polling results during the election process.
In any event, Vladimir Putin needs high polling results whether he warrants them or not. At home, these send the message that Vlad is the man and that it would be folly to oppose him. Outside Russia, Putin’s high numbers tend to be interpreted as giving him a certain legitimacy: he must be doing something right if he is so high in the polls.
No Putin, No Russia
Yet, the most telling argument is that if Putin is so popular, why does he need to make it impossible for any serious challengers to run against him in the 2018 election?
The unofficial leader of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny, organized significant protests against the sham electoral process that brought Putin back to the Presidency in 2012. He has since built a formidable social media network that compensates for his lack of access to mainstream Russian outlets. He has mounted a vigorous anti-corruption campaign against Putin’s entourage. “Legally” prevented from participating in the March 2018 elections, he has been calling for a boycott. Note that it was also Navalny who once observed that the day before the Soviet Communist Party collapsed, it was at over 99% in the polls.
The other candidates Putin faces are for the most part historical has-beens and political figures whose independence from the Kremlin is questionable. A partial exception is Ksenia Sobchak, a saucy and politically astute candidate whose father was Putin’s mentor when he was an aspiring bureaucrat in St Petersburg in the 1990s. In allowing her to run, Putin inserted an entertaining diversion into an electoral campaign that would otherwise have been almost totally without interest.
That said, the 2018 election remains all about Putin. At various times, people in his entourage have even suggested that the incumbent President was essential for the survival of the Russian Federation. In 2014, Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff was quoted as stating “No Putin, No Russia”.
There may be more than a grain of truth in this. Putin has constructed a system that has made him the indispensable supporting beam of an entire governance edifice. There are no mechanisms in place for an orderly succession.
Russians in their majority want change but they want it without chaos. This is understandable but dictatorships rarely work like this. As long as Putin is on the scene, he is the putative guarantor of a seeming stability.
This is a construct that is built on sand. Putin will, of course, not be around forever. And when he goes, the system he has championed will collapse, more likely than not in extreme violence.