The Buzz

Putin's Popularity, Explained

If nothing else, Vladimir Putin is a great political survivor. When protests broke out in Moscow four years ago against his return to the presidency, many in the West wrote him off (a widely cited work proposed to tell How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin). However, on December 3 Putin delivered yet another annual 'State of the Nation' address as President of Russia. Rarely has he been so popular.

Even today, Western commentators often give the impression that they've 'seen the future and the future is not Putin.' But surveys by Russia's independent Levada Centre provide little evidence of a brewing people's rebellion. On the contrary, the Kremlin is one of only three institutions that more Russians trust than distrust (the army is at 64 percent, and the Church and other religious organizations are at 53 percent). Fully 80 percent of respondents said they 'completely trust' Putin.

How should this be understood?

Mainstream Western media usually cast Putin's popularity as the result of Russians' heavy reliance on government-controlled television, i.e. 'brain-washing.' But such a one-sided view may misrepresent the relationship between power and public opinion. Tellingly, only 34 percent of Russians say they trust the media.

The 'brain-washing' theory also misses what is possibly the most significant feature of modern Russia: for the first time since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union (if not the 1917 revolution) government policies reflect the attitudes and opinions of the conservative majority of Russians rather than a Westernizing, neo-liberal (or Marxist) elite.

Since 1996, the Levada Centre has been asking Russians what they want of their presidents. Their expectations have changed little. In 2012 (that is, even before the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis), Russians' top four priorities were: restoring Russia's great-power status (57 percent versus 54 percent in 1996); law and order (52 percent versus 58 percent); a fairer distribution of the national wealth (49 percent versus 37 percent); and increasing the state's role in the economy (37 percent, unchanged).

Such attitudes reflect continuing nostalgia for elements of the Soviet system and dissatisfaction with the Westernizing path followed after the USSR's collapse. In 2012, only a minority (16 percent, up from 13 percent in 1996) believed Russia should continue to pursue the liberal reforms of the Yeltsin era and even fewer (5 percent down from 6 percent) thought convergence with the West something to be desired.

Today, however, 70 percent of Russians say they're proud of their country, whereas less than half did so a decade ago. Significantly, since 2014, 68 percent of Russians believe their country to have regained great power status.

Overwhelming support for 'buying Russian'—above all, when it comes to groceries (91 percent)—confirms consensus around import substitution (a self-imposed response to Western sanctions) as a long overdue helping hand to Russian industry and, especially, farms.

Of course, this coincidence of government policies and public opinion doesn't make Russia a democracy. But such polls frequently function as democracy's proxy in the West, so why not in Russia?

The main point is, however, that Russia's 'conservative turn' since Putin's return to the Kremlin in March 2012—widely deplored in the West as a creeping authoritarianism with roots only in the wiles of Putin's mind—may be closer to the world view of Russia's conservative and patriotic majority than most Western governments would care to admit.

In foreign and economic policy, Russia's post-Soviet government may never have cleaved as close to the views of the majority as it does now. That's the view of Igor Okunev, a vice-dean at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, whom I spoke with recently in Moscow.

"Historically, the Russian government has always been more liberal than the Russian population. Unlike Gorbachev and Yeltsin, what I think Putin has decided to do is accept this and use it as the basis for his support. That's been his strategy since the protests of 2011. That was when he decided to abandon the liberal minority and embrace the conservative majority."

Mikhail Remizov, director of Russia's Institute of National Strategy, shares this view, saying in a recent interview: "Russian democracy must by definition be conservative, populist, nationalist and protectionist." Until 2012, he said, the conservatives "who really enjoy the sympathies of the majority of the nation occupied the place of an opposition. Real power remained in the hands of the neo-liberal elite that had run the country since the 1990."

This has now changed. "Putin is falsely presented as a nationalist," said Remizov. "In a Russian context, he's a sovereigntist. But in general, the agenda of the Kremlin today is formed by the opposition of the 2000s: the conservative, patriotic majority."