20 years under Putin: a timeline

Last week, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating dropped to 59 percent—its lowest ever level. Some observers attributed this decline to Putin’s handling of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. But Yana Gorokhovskaia argues that when it comes to approval ratings, perception of the president’s performance matters more than facts.

 

 Fluctuations of Putin's approval ratings often draw media attention, but they don't quite reflect the depth of his public support. Photo: kremlin.ru

 

On May 12, Russia recorded the world’s second highest total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases despite strict lockdowns in major cities. Many commentators have pointed to Putin’s reluctant leadership during the pandemic and his strategy for delegating responsibility for the crisis to regional leaders. Now it seems as though the crisis has taken a toll on the president’s popularity. New polling by the Levada Center released last week shows that Putin’s approval rating has dropped to 59 percent, 4 points below the previous lowest level recorded in March 2013. 

How should we interpret this decline in Putin’s popularity? Research on public opinion in Russia has found that people are not afraid to express their opinions about the government in surveys, and that evaluations of government performance do indeed inform people’s views. However, unlike in democracies, the relationship between government performance and public opinion is mediated by a key feature of Russia’s authoritarian regime: the lack of an independent media. As such, while fluctuations in Putin’s popularity are an entertaining indicator to watch, public opinion polling of this type has limited utility for revealing the true depth of Putin’s support.   

 

Putin the popular

Putin’s astronomically high approval ratings have always been viewed in the West with some amount of suspicion as the possible product of preference falsification—a phenomenon that entails communicating an opinion that is different from one’s own in order to agree with popular sentiment and avoid censure. Professor Timur Kuran, of Duke University, famously argued that preference falsification explained how quickly, and seemingly out of nowhere, communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989. Those authoritarian systems relied on “the general willingness [of people] to support [the regime] in public: people routinely applauded speakers whose message they disliked, joined organizations whose mission they opposed, and signed defamatory letters against people they admired, among other manifestations of consent and accommodation.” [1] Because actual support for the regimes was thin, when public discourse began to turn against the communist leaders following the revelations of glasnost, the cascade of dissent quickly snowballed into revolution. 

Yet public opinion research in Russia seems to suggest that only a relatively small portion of Putin’s approval rating can be attributed to dishonest answers from respondents who would rather conceal their actual opinion about the regime. Professor Timothy Frye of Columbia University, and his co-authors, used a list experiment—a survey technique that helps uncover people’s opinions on sensitive topics—to analyze whether there was significant inflation in Putin’s approval ratings due to respondents’ preference falsification. They concluded that “the bulk of Putin’s support typically found in opinion polls appears to be genuine.” [2]

Not only does it seem as though Putin’s popularity is genuine, but various studies [3] probing deeper into public opinion suggest that Russian citizens are basing their evaluation of the president and regime on performance. Specifically, Russians seem to value economic performance, domestic order, and international standing. Although Russia’s actual gains in all three areas can be debated, improvement in these areas appears to be highly prized by citizens and reflects well on Putin.

 

Revisiting popularity ratings

If Putin’s popularity reflects, for the most part, his support among Russian citizens and is based on the government’s performance, then dips in his popularity ratings are a valuable political barometer. Yet just as his popularity is declining, support among Russians for constitutional reforms that would allow Putin to remain in power until 2036 is growing. The Levada Center recorded an increase in support for the reforms from 40 percent in March to 47 percent in April, during the onset and escalation of the poorly-handled coronavirus crisis. What explains the disconnect between the decrease in Putin’s popularity and the increase in support for him to remain president?

One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that approval ratings in authoritarian regimes should be interpreted very differently from those in democracies. In democracies, leaders have to account for their performance not only to their constituents but also to rival politicians and an independent media. These different sources of criticism rarely allow the approval ratings of democratic leaders to rise above 70 percent except for under extraordinary conditions of war or crisis. One would expect, therefore, in a democracy, that a slump in a leader’s approval would result in a mirror decline in citizens’ support for extending his or her tenure. However, Russia’s political landscape lacks an independent opposition, political alternatives to Putin, or an independent media. The information that citizens receive, by which they can evaluate government performance, is indirect and mediated. This mediation is done, primarily, by pro-regime media. 

Putin is, according to economist Sergei Guriev and political scientist Daniel Treisman, an “informational autocrat.” His regime’s deficiencies are known to elite insiders, but much effort is expended to prevent ordinary people from learning about any mistakes or policy failures. This is accomplished through the distortion of information flows. A tightly controlled and censored media is therefore an essential tool for maintaining Putin’s high approval ratings. Statistical analysis of public opinion in Russia that accounts for respondents’ media consumption habits confirms that people who watch state-controlled television news more strongly approve of Putin and his administration.

 

Disapproval or bad messaging?

Events and policy failures certainly impact Putin’s approval ratings. While the annexation of Crimea was highly popular, pension reform was not. Both sentiments were reflected in public opinion polls. However, taking the features of authoritarian regimes into account means that popularity ratings are strongly influenced by efforts to shape public perception through the media.

It may be, then, that while the regime was targeting public opinion in connection with the planned referendum on the constitutional reforms—which would explain the steady increase in support for the reforms among the public recorded by Levada—it was neglecting messaging about the coronavirus that would highlight Putin’s successes. As the crisis worsened, Putin’s approval ratings, based on the public’s evaluation of his handling of the crisis, declined. While fluctuations in Putin’s popularity reveal some information about Russia’s political ecosystem, we should be careful about how much stock we place in decreases in Putin’s popularity that might be explained better by a slowdown in positive media messaging rather than a real dip in his public support.

 

References:

[1] Timur Kuran, “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989,” World Politics, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Oct., 1991), p. 26. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2010422?seq=1

[2] Timothy Frye, Scott Gehlbach, Kyle L. Marquardt & Ora John Reuter. (2017) “Is Putin’s popularity real?” Post-Soviet Affairs,  Volume 33, 2017: Issue 1, p. 2 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1060586X.2016.1144334

[3] See: Derek Hutcheson and Bo Petersson. (2016) “Shortcut to Legitimacy: Popularity in Putin’s Russia,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 68 (7): 1107 – 1126; John Willerton. (2017) “Searching for a Russian National Idea: Putin Team Efforts and Public Assessments,” Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 25 (3): 209 – 233; Timothy Colton and Henry Hale. (2014) “Putin’s Uneasy Return and Hybrid Regime Stability,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 61 (2): 3-22.

 

Yana Gorokhovskaia is a political scientist researching civil society and local politics in Russia. From 2016 to 2019, she was a postdoctoral scholar in Russian Politics at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.

Russia under Putin

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