A popular president is not enough to keep a society together

August 30, 2002

President Putin is riding high in opinion polls, and much higher than his government. Richard Rose explains why.

Since Vladimir Putin was plucked from bureaucratic obscurity in August 1999 to become prime minister and then president of Russia, his life has been transformed. Instead of being dependent on the patronage of the Kremlin, he now dispenses patronage from the most powerful office in the land.

Putin's popularity with the electorate is consistently high - an achievement that Tony Blair, Bushes senior and junior and Bill Clinton have failed to match - with approval ratings regularly running above 70 per cent of the electorate. However, Putin's personal appeal has not rubbed off on the government that he heads. Its approval is steady at about 40 per cent, barely half that of the president, and approval of the Duma, Russia's parliament, is lower still at about 25 per cent.

Party preferences underscore Putin's inability to project his personal popularity onto political institutions. Although nominally independent, he endorsed the Unity party in the last parliamentary election and approved its subsequent merger with Fatherland. Nonetheless, the Communist Party usually comes first and the merged Unified Russia party second in the monthly poll of party preferences by VCIOM, the All-Russia Centre for Public Opinion Research.

Ideologically, Russians are divided in two ways. The primary division is between those who are indifferent to partisan principles and those who are not. More than a third say they have no distinctive set of political values. The second division differentiates those who sympathise with a Communist outlook from those who say they are democrats or favour a market economy.

The indifference that Russians show toward parties and ideologies reflects Putin's own rejection of the labels of left and right in an effort to be "president of all the Russians". Part of his strategy is to avoid antagonising any large group, whether workers on the former state collective farms or the new rich who have turned political connections into great wealth. Another part is to make gestures designed to appeal to all groups from monarchists and Orthodox church-goers to career Communists.

In a prosperous, healthy and happy society, a president who does little but smile and appear presidential can contribute to political stability by doing nothing. But Russian society is not prosperous. It is chronically unhealthy and profoundly unhappy about the course of government under President Putin. There is an appreciation of freedom from an oppressive one-party state, but also anxiety about the absence of order that is manifest in everything from crime in the streets to crime in the government.

Given the demoralisation of Russians when Putin entered high office, things could hardly get worse. The New Russia Barometer surveys by Strathclyde University's Centre for the Study of Public Policy and the monthly VCIOM polls (see www.Russia Votes.org ) show what has changed since his arrival in the Kremlin. While not seeing things as being better, the average Russian now sees things as less worse than they were three years ago. The month before Putin became prime minister, 34 per cent thought the political situation was explosive and 53 per cent thought it tense. Now, 9 per cent see the political situation as explosive; however, 51 per cent still see it as tense. Only 3 per cent see the political situation as favourable and less than a quarter think it quiet.

The month before Putin became prime minister, 77 per cent of Russians thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, compared with 8 per cent seeing things going the right way. In the latest VCIOM survey, 40 per cent think the country is going in the wrong direction, while 40 per cent think it is headed the right way. The median Russian does not know whether the direction is right or wrong.

In the wake of the rouble's collapse in August 1998, economic conditions could only get better - and they have, with the assistance of a big rise in oil prices, a chief Russian export. Economic pessimism is falling. In July 1999, 79 per cent thought that the country's economic situation was bad, compared with 14 per cent thinking it so-so and 1 per cent saying it was good. Now, only 50 per cent think the country's economic situation is bad, compared with 36 per cent saying it is so-so and 3 per cent describing it as good. Similarly, the proportion describing their household's economic situation as bad has fallen from 60 per cent to 37 per cent, while those saying it is so-so have risen from 36 to 53 per cent.

Russians aspire to live in a normal society, and their ideas of normality are much the same as those of people anywhere else - a society where people are safe from crime, where money does not lose its value through inflation, where welfare services help if things go wrong, and where children have opportunities. But only 9 per cent think Russia is a normal society, and 50 per cent are not sure whether it will ever become so.

The good news is that the stability that Putin has introduced at the top of government has made it easier for people to adapt to the big shocks of the post-Soviet era. In July 1999, almost half said they would never adapt to changes that followed the collapse of the command economy and the one-party Soviet state, and less than one-third said they had already adapted. Now, 51 per cent say they have adapted and 21 per cent believe they will adapt in the near future; those saying they will never adapt has dropped to less than a quarter.

The bad news is that the society to which Russians are adapting is not the one they would like - democratic, prosperous and orderly. It is a society that most Russians see as corrupt, sometimes dangerous and governed by a regime halfway between democracy and dictatorship.

The challenge that Russians present to Putin is to find a way out of the morass without reverting to the terror of Stalin, the stagnation of Brezhnev or the bandit privatisation of Yeltsin.

Moreover, future events could turn opinion against the president. The biggest popular anxiety is that the cost of heating might reflect the world price of energy rather than political deals between politicians and business oligarchs.

Other anxieties include the possibility of an HIV-Aids epidemic, an outbreak of ethnic violence in another region besides Chechnya, and another nuclear power station accident. Although no one wants such disasters to happen, September 11 reminds us that the popularity of presidents can be very much at the mercy of unwanted events.

Richard Rose is director of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy, University of Strathclyde.

The survey results summarised above are drawn from Elections without Order: Russia's Challenge to Vladimir Putin by Richard Rose and Neil Munro, published by Cambridge University Press, £14.95 paperback, and the associated ESRC-funded website, www.Russia Votes.org .

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