Putin is losing popular support. Now Russians are going to take politics into their own hands
The coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout have been the top concern of people across the world and naturally this has affected ratings of governments and heads of state.
In some places, those in power struggling with unpopularity have managed to gain public support. For example, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s public approval rating jumped from 50 percent in February to 70 percent in March. In France, beleaguered President Emmanuel Macron had a 51 percent approval rating in a March poll, the highest since February 2018, before it fell back to 33 percent in June.
In April, the UK government saw the highest approval ratings in nearly 10 years – 52 percent – before slipping back to 39 percent in June. In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, saw support soar from 27 percent in February to 39 percent in June.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been struggling. The pandemic did not give him a boost, and in fact just solidified the downward trend his approval rating has been suffering over the past two years.
Austerity measures, such as a particularly unpopular pension reform, have caused anger in the general public, even among his supporters. The collapse of oil prices and a looming economic crisis – a second for Russia in the past 10 years – have also severely affected public opinion.
Putin’s decision to introduce constitutional changes, which would allow him to stay in power until 2036, when he would be 84 years old, have also been particularly unpopular. Although the Kremlin may consider this the best time to push through these amendments, given that protests are banned due to the coronavirus outbreak, they are making the Russian public that much more frustrated. The idea of Putin remaining in power for life is causing indignation even among his staunchest supporters.
In a May poll conducted by independent research centre Levada, just 59 percent approved of the Russian president, down from 69 percent in February. Just five years ago, amid the Russian intervention in the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s approval rating stood at 85 percent. Support for his presidency was never so low, even during the anti-government protests of 2011-13.
Other indicators of public support have also fallen dramatically. In another May poll by Levada, just 25 percent of people said Putin is among the Russian politicians they trust – the lowest value this indicator has had for the past 20 years he has been in power (even during his premiership in 2008-12). In January this year, public trust in him stood at 35 percent; just three years ago, it was as high as 59 percent.
The Russian youth are particularly opposed to Putin; just 10 percent of respondents aged 18-24 responded that they have trust in the president. Distrust is high even among the less educated, poorer citizens and among those who reside in smaller cities and villages. This is quite unusual given that since 2011, Putin has been trying to polarise the electorate, pitting the educated middle class of the bigger cities against the poorer rural classes. By now, it is clear this strategy is no longer working for him.
This downward trend has been registered even by VCIOM, one of the large state-linked pollsters. Last year, it had to change its methodology after the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov criticised the results of its survey which showed that only 31.7 percent of respondents had trust in the president; after the change, the number jumped to 72 percent.
A focus group study conducted by sociologist Mikhail Dmitriev and psychologist Anastasiya Nikolskaya early this year showed not only that popular dissatisfaction with Putin presidency has increased sharply, but also that it has become more politicised.
If in the past, public discontent focused on social matters, such as the pension reform, ecological issues, the low standard of living, today Russians increasingly are upset about the absence of rule of law and democratic rights and liberties.
Apart from that, Dmitriev and Nikolskaya’s research indicates that there is increased aggressiveness in society; their respondents were more emotional in their replies, not shying away from using swear words about those in power or even hanging up during the interviews.
Given the coronavirus restrictions, this pent-up anger cannot be released in the streets, so it will continue to simmer. What the Kremlin is counting on is that the economy will pick up after the pandemic and public discontent will decrease.
But there are two problems with this assumption. First, the prices of oil and gas are unlikely to recover immediately after the pandemic is over. Therefore, there are no clear prospects for a quick economic recovery. Second, the upcoming “popular vote” on the proposed constitutional changes scheduled for July 1 could add more fuel to the fire.
Independent legal experts have argued that the legal validity of “popular vote” – a term used by the Russian government to highlight that this is not a referendum – is suspect as the Russian constitution stipulates that it can be amended only through a referendum. But a referendum by law needs 50 percent voter turnout for its result to be valid, which could be difficult to achieve, given popular disapproval of the amendments.
For this reason, a special law on “popular votes” was passed which does not require minimum voter turnout and vote monitoring processes are minimal – something independent election monitors, like Golos, have criticised.
A recent Levada poll suggests that around 44 percent of respondents would vote in favour of the proposed constitutional changes, which also include appealing provisions on pension indexing and minimum wage guarantees. VCIOM has not released a poll asking if Russians approve of the amendments.
Given that many people also plan to boycott the vote, mass falsification may not be necessary to get a positive outcome, which is probably what the Kremlin hopes for. But this will not solve its problem. Whatever results are announced on July 1, the majority of Russians will continue to be angry about Putin’s insistence on staying in power for life. In this sense, the eruption of popular protests is inevitable.
The Kremlin knows that and it is trying to pre-empt them. The Constitutional Court recently ruled that demonstrations will be allowed only in certain areas designated by the local authorities. How this new rule will be applied remains to be seen, but it is likely that it will prevent the opposition from holding any demonstrations with permission from the authorities. This, in turn, means that any future political protest will be severely cracked down on by the police, fuelling public anger even more.
Another source of instability in Russia may turn out to be the elections in neighbouring Belarus on August 9. It is still unclear who longtime President Alexander Lukashenko will allow to run as his opponent, but recent protest activity indicates that Belarusians are growing increasingly impatient with him and are ready to challenge his repressive rule. Any unrest in Belarus could spill over to Russia, given that the two countries are not only tightly connected economically, but also psychologically.
In this context, Putin’s move to extend his rule, which was meant to bring more political stability given the absence of a clear successor, may end up destabilising the country and ushering in a revolutionary moment for Russia’s growing opposition.