Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity appears to resist the laws of political physics. Despite the price of oil sinking below $50 a barrel and the Russian economy falling into a tailspin, Putin’s approval ratings hover above 80 percent, seemingly defying gravity.
But the numbers should not be taken at face value.
Deeper scrutiny is especially important because the more Putin’s sky-high popularity ratings are mentioned, the more they become accepted wisdom. Western news media and political analysts frequently report on them without providing critically needed context.
First, Putin’s popularity has been achieved in an information vacuum. An informal set of censorship rules, actively enforced by the Kremlin, makes it virtually impossible to discuss important issues and question official actions through the mass media. Today, independent voices rarely reach into Russian living rooms over the airwaves. In recent months, the government has tightened its noose, pressuring even outlets serving niche audiences, such as the news Web site Lenta.ru, the newspaper Vedomosti and the Moscow station TV Rain. Meanwhile, feverish state propaganda feeds Russian television audiences an unchallenged and delusive flow of information designed to show the country’s leaders in the most positive light while blaming problems on “fascists,” “foreign agents” and “fifth columns.”
Second, Putin’s political repression makes certain that only the bravest and most self-sacrificing individuals challenge his rule. Emerging opposition leaders are either removed, smeared or co-opted before they gain sufficient popularity to present a threat. A popularity figure of 80-plus percent simply tells us that Russians cannot conceive of an alternative to Putin.
Third, well-educated professionals are emigrating from Russia in massive numbers. According to Rosstat, Russia’s federal statistics service, more than 300,000 people left the country from 2012 to 2013, a migration that tellingly coincides with Putin’s stage-managed return for a third presidential term; the rate of departures climbed even higher after the annexation of Crimea last year. By comparison, approximately 70,000 people left from 2010 to 2011. The cream of Russian society is voting with its feet, leaving a stultifying, ever more corrupt environment for greener pastures that allow them to productively apply their talents.
Fourth is the reliance on diversionary tactics, such as the annexation of Crimea, to deflect attention from the country’s deepening economic problems. In the past, the Kremlin has relied on high oil prices to improve living standards. Putin’s sudden embrace of nationalism and territorial expansionism suggests a desperate gambit to keep his numbers from slipping.
All of this should tell us something. Today, the Kremlin must work far harder than it has to manufacture regime support. Its fiercer propaganda and harsher repression suggest that the Russian population is less willing to accept Putin. To compensate, the state apparatus has been shifted into overdrive.
While the fear and opacity that shrouds the Russian system prevents our knowing the true extent of Putin’s popularity, we do know that the incumbent authorities intend to remain in power indefinitely, regardless of their performance. Ordinary Russians understand this as well. The massive state investments in coercion and manipulation are necessary because the country’s leadership lacks a true democratic mandate.
Applying closer scrutiny to Putin’s ratings is critical because Western observers often fall into the trap of viewing Putin the way they would a democratically elected leader. Despite the coercive context that underlies Putin’s ratings, Western media all too often report survey findings blithely, sometimes even with a sense of fascination and awe, suggesting that politicians in democracies would be grateful to enjoy such high levels of support.
But this presupposes that envious democratic leaders would want to crush the fundamental elements of democracy, including independent media, civil society and political opposition, to achieve Putin-like “popularity.” We should not accept a definition of popularity that is achieved via truncheon, censorship and propaganda.
Putin may well retain the support of certain segments of the Russian population. But given the degree of state-controlled “manufacturing” inherent in generating his “popularity,” uncritical reporting of Putin’s stratospherically high approval numbers does a disservice by feeding into the misguided notion that he is unassailable.
Shrewd leaders understand well that the perception of power molds its influence in reality. The Kremlin’s propaganda outlets toil relentlessly to shape this perception for their captive domestic audiences. Observers beyond the Kremlin’s reach do not have this excuse and should take a far more critical view of Putin’s standing.
Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.