Putin’s Popularity Masks an Uncomfortable Reality
Published: September 3, 2014 (Issue # 1827)
It has become increasingly common to hear — even from opposition politicians — that it is in Russia’s best interests for President Vladimir Putin to remain in power as long as possible. Otherwise, they say, things could get even worse.
I agree with that argument, but with one caveat: If Putin loses power, things could get even worse for the West as well. That might sound like heresy to some, but just hear me out on this.
According to a recent Levada Center poll, Putin’s approval rating has dropped slightly since the beginning of the month, probably due to the recent food imports ban. Despite this, his current approval rating of 85.5 percent is still impressive.
Observers typically ascribe the astronomically high approval rating to recent events in Ukraine and the Western sanctions that act on most Russians the way a red flag acts on a bull.
That explains the surge in Putin’s popularity, but it does not explain why his ratings have remained consistently high ever since he served as prime minister in the late 1990s under former President Boris Yeltsin. It is rare for any politician in any country to enjoy such support for so long.
One of the reasons for the initial rise in Putin’s popularity lies in the traditional mentality of the Russian people, who tend to believe less in their own strength and more in a national hero or savior.
After a litany of disappointing Soviet leaders — such as Leonid Brezhnev, who was senile; Yury Andropov, who was only half-living; Konstantin Chernenko, who was already half-dead; Mikhail Gorbachev, who spoke well but led poorly; and power-hungry but drunken Boris Yeltsin — the Russian people hoped to finally “win the lottery” and land a leader in whom they could place their full confidence.
Most Russians were sincerely convinced that Putin was the only man capable of implementing “national projects,” getting fifth- and sixth-generation combat aircraft into the air, raising pensions to European levels, resolving the demographic problem, eliminating corruption, commencing the drilling of Arctic oil and so on.
In the face of such expectations, most leaders would not hold the public’s trust for long. So what exactly is his secret? Contrary to what some liberal opposition leaders claim, most Russians do not support Putin out of sheer stupidity. It’s just that the old set of traditional priorities still remains.
During his tenure as leader, Putin has achieved a great deal that Russian citizens value. He continues to “keep a tight hold” over the country’s affairs — an undeniable sign of progress in the eyes of many, given the chaos of the 1990s.
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