Power and reality: no insulation – neither hopes nor illusions – remains between Putin’s popularity rating and resentment directed at Putin


“Polls show decreased voter support for United Russia and the Duma,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta announced on Monday. These poll results were awaited for a long time, since the start of January – once the holidays ended in Russia and the “benefit revolts” began.

The pollsters used to publish their figures weekly, but a delay occurred this time. The pollsters delayed, redoing their calculations, to “specify the results.” At a certain point, no further delay was possible, and the figures were released; observers commented on them and, as usual, arrived at opposite conclusions.

In its analysis, Nezavisimaya Gazeta relied on poll results provided by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM).

Attempts by the Duma’s United Russia faction to shift responsibility for the failure of social reforms onto the Cabinet or regional leaders have not succeeded, Nezavisimaya Gazeta concludes. According to FOM, the proportion of respondents who disapprove of the performance of the Cabinet is only half the share of respondents dissatisfied with the actions of United Russia, whereas “Fradkov’s team has twice as much support.”

According the newspaper, results of assessing the Duma’s performance are “astonishing:” no one at all was prepared to describe the Duma’s performance as excellent. Only 3% of respondents said it was good; 28% called it satisfactory. Meanwhile, 33% of respondents described the Duma’s performance as poor, and 19% called it very poor.”

Thus, stresses Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “the people are blaming the Duma which passed the patently unfeasible monetization law, guaranteed to produce social unrest.”

However, says FOM, the Cabinet’s approval rating has also dropped from 9% in December to 6% now: “But that’s still twice as high as approval for the Duma.” The proportion of respondents who describe the Cabinet’s performance as poor or very poor has risen from 22% to 28%, “but even this negative result is nothing like what the Duma majority managed to achieve.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, United Russia’s leaders “should not flatter themselves by assuming that the public’s disapproval is directed at the whole Duma.” In the public eye, United Russia, “which is fanatically persistent in passing any and all bills submitted by the Kremlin or the Cabinet, no matter how short-sighted or poorly-planned they are, is responsible for the unpopular reform.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta says: “So United Russia’s support is plummeting: this is already a fact established by opinion polls. The only question now is whether the Kremlin will launch a new party-building project or try to work some sort of miracle to rescue its existing brand-name party.”

Vremya Novostei newspaper derives the contrary conclusions from the same and says that “moderately active in protection of the passed law on the monetization of benefits United Russia was the only political party, which managed to preserve a rather high rating within 21-22%.”

If it compared to United Russia’s results at the Duma elections (37.6%) one cannot fail to admit that a decline is evident. However, the situation is much worse in other parties.

When the protest actions were at their acme, the CPRF rating was only 9% (12.6% at the 2003 Duma elections). The influence of the story with the vote of no confidence to the Cabinet on the reputation of the CPRF is yet unknown. According to Sergei Reshulsky, coordinator of the CPRF Duma faction, the communists managed to collect some 100 signatures of deputies.

As reported by Russkii Kurier, in addition to the leftists these include members of the Motherland faction, independent deputies and even 3 United Russia members.

Besides, if the matter comes to voting the People’s Party faction, deputies of single-mandate constituencies and, as is rumored, at least 30-40 United Russia members (whose rank subjected to the ferment, which began after the pensioners launched their action of protest) promised to support the CPRF’s initiative.

Thus, during the voting the vote of no confidence main gain support of some 150 deputies – one-third of the overall number of deputies. Once can’t fail to notice that this tendency is quite grave, though redistribution of forces at the Duma is out of the question.

According to Russkii Kurier, “no grounds are likely to exist to suspect the chaotically emerging tactical opposition of fundamental stubbornness and resolve to finish this. To a greater extent should one argue about willingness of a group of deputies to tickle the nerves to the executive branch against the backdrop of the public tension, which has become extremely strained in January.”

Undoubtedly, notes the newspaper, as nobody else the deputies know that the president “hates to bargain” and tolerates no pressure. “But the temptation to manifest the dissent proved to be so overwhelming that the stakes are almost done.”

No wonder: hitherto the political parties have failed to gain score on the monetization of benefits.

On reverting to the FOM results published by Vremya Novostei once may observe a sad picture: even the Motherland faction the protest of which was the loudest, which initiated a hunger strike in favor of banning the law on the benefits, preserved its permanent and quite shameful 3% (9% at the 2003 elections).

Dmitri Rogozin’s menacing statements on the transition to more radical methods of struggle were in particular eclipsed by sarcastic media publications on the birthday anniversary which Sergei Baburin, Duma deputy speaker, leader of the People’s Volition party and recent Rogozin’s associate, calmly celebrated next door to the hunger strike. “It should be noted that lawmakers close to Baburin complained that the hunger strike in Rogozin’s office literally next door, had forced them to curtail the celebration somewhat. Allegedly, it is improper to drink champagne when our comrades are going through such physical and moral suffering.”

However, the suffering proved to be vain (but for the loss of 8 kilos by Rogozin, which the media joyfully mentioned) – even during the hunger strike his presidential contender rating (if the elections were conducted next Sunday) remained at the level of 1%.

As for the LDPR, its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky made repeated public statements in support of the law on monetization of benefits. Nonetheless, he leads the rating of trust for leaders of parties at the Duma with 9%, while his party which refused to join the adherents to the vote of no confidence to the Cabinet, has preserved its constant 5-6% of the vote (11.5% at the Duma elections).

FOM key expert Ivan Klimov explained to Vremya Novostei that “a wish to vote in favor of a certain party and the current causes for indignation of the people belong to various planes.” In other words, unlike the social benefits, the Russian electorate is not treating the political parties seriously, as well as many other conquests of the domestic democracy.

In reporting that Vladimir Putin has once again “restrained Duma members who have lost their sense of proportion” by forbidding the Duma to restrict freedom of speech under the pretext of countering terrorism, the Vedomosti newspaper recalls the results of polls done by the Levada Center in autumn.

It turned out then, three weeks after the Beslan tragedy that the majority of citizens wouldn’t object to abolition of some constitutional liberties and rights (the matter then concerned interim measures, but this specification is not reassuring if one looks at the Russian traditions).

Thus 60% of respondents were ready to abdicate the liberty of traveling Russia and going abroad; 57% agreed to eavesdropping their phones by the special services; 59% didn’t object to banning public organizations and the media which “cast doubt on the president’s policy with regard to terrorists;” 82% were ready to allow the special services attempting on the lives of terrorists who are taking refuge in other countries.

According to Vedomosti, the polls were repeated three weeks later – all indicators dropped by 2-3%. The results would have probably been more consoling some time after, but the country is not secure against a new terrorist attack now, notes the newspaper.

“One can argue the methods used by the sociologists, but one cannot fail to admit that the citizens, who are ready to spend hours at meetings in cold because the free travel by public transport has been canceled, are suspiciously indifferent to the abolition of rights and liberties, their own as well.”

FOM analysts quoted by the Vremya Novostei newspaper, which is considered the mouthpiece of the presidential administration, say that “a lack of realistic social policy” is the major problem of the current opposition. But in the opinion of Novye Izvestia, part of the pool of publishing houses coordinated by Boris Berezovsky, the chief opponent to the Kremlin, the major problem of the Russian opposition is actually a lack of opposition as such.

“No parties remain in present-day Russia. Having no aversion for methods applied by the special services the Kremlin’s political consultants have done their best to grind and marginalize flanks of the political sphere and allow the combined bureaucratic unit occupy the entire center,” Mikhail Fedotov says in Novye Izvestia.

According to the author, this political system is only good as a decoration, “which screens a totalitarian or an authoritarian regime,” while it is “unrealistic” and impracticable for solving real problems.

The story of monetization of benefits is an evident example to this: due to the factual elimination of the normal multi-party system the authorities have to give account to “crowds of elderly people, who are rattling empty pans instead of holding a civilized, well-reasoned, objective dialog at the Duma.”

However, as Yuri Boldyrev, a renowned democrat and a founder of the Yabloko party, noted in the an interview with the same issue of Novye Izvestia, “the matter of democracy doesn’t concern the evil force of the power, for which I have no illusions, as you can understand. This concerns ability of the public to realize its interests, rally and become an independent personage.”

In the opinion of Boldyrev, the Russian electorate evidently face “the crisis of faith in itself and its ability to get organized, plus the lack of dignity.” This is why the “deprivation of benefits offends the people, whereas an indecent fodder broadcast by the state-owned television doesn’t, as well as the deliberate deception during election campaigns, which has been cultivated for a decade already.” Therefore, the threat of an “orange revolution” (the favorite topic of the press over past several weeks) could be discarded easily.

Russia prove to have neither Mikhail Saakashvili, nor Viktor Yushchenko of its own, says Kommersant-Vlast magazine examining the probability of a new February revolution in our country. Rogozin has surely failed to come about as leader of the opposition, whereas Zyuganov would never be able to become such, says the magazine: “He’d had his hour of glory long ago, yet under Yeltsin.” Most likely, Russia is not under a threat of a real revolutionary explosion in the near future. However, says Kommersant-Vlast, the time of definitive conclusions is yet to come.

The protests of pensioners are gradually tapering off. In general, the ministers are not afraid of them – the Cabinet was appointed by the president, not the parliament; and all the parliament can do, as ever, is try for a vote of no confidence – a rather clumsy publicity stunt.

According to Kommersant-Vlast, something else is more important: “The regime, which Putin has nearly completed and which has sharp intensification of vertical powers, almost a complete absence of a ground for adjustment of political and economic interests as its typical traits, has malfunctioned unexpectedly for its creator.”

In the preparation of the monetization authorities of all levels (by no means the federal government and governors alone) committed the maximal number of mistakes, says Kommersant-Vlast. It should be noted that the decisions are now passed on top without any debating at all.

Being hypnotized by the stably high president’s popularity rating, nobody has objected to this until lately: “However, the failure of January indicated that the recent administrative mechanisms are only functioning under manual adjustment by the president, which is unlikely to bring the previous effect back.

“The authorities will only be multiplying its errors. At the same time, the security structures, which make the foothold for this regime, keep pushing it to the dangerous line,” the magazine stresses.

Sergei Ivanov’s idea on the universal military service may cause new mass disorders, in which the youngsters will be involved. In this case, he won’t surely succeed Putin and the Kremlin will encounter the 2008 problem in all its magnitude.

Besides, states Kommersant-Vlast, “the masses have already realized that concessions could be obtained from Putin if the highway leading to Sheremetievo 2 airport is blocked.” Only a trifle is required now – finding a leader for the new “velvet” opposition, a leader who has not emerged as yet.

Meanwhile, Gazeta reports that the scrupulous FOM has found that confidence in Vladimir Putin is at an all-time low (42%): lower than it has been ever since his promotion to acting president in December 1999.

In the opinion of FOM Director Alexander Oslon, this sensational figure is due to the fact that some citizens, who are now worse off since benefits have been canceled, are linking this deterioration directly to the president’s policies for the first time.

So far, the losses in Putin’s rating don’t shake his positions, says Oslon: “But they may have an effect on arrangement of political forces in 2008.”

“The confidence in Putin has mainly fallen now mainly because the leftist electorate has turned away from him. Undoubtedly, not all adherents to the leftists will do that, but the potential for further collapse in his rating is tremendous,” Alexei Makarkin, an expert at the Political Techniques Center explained the situation for Profil magazine.

Indeed, the part of the electorate, which is more adapted to the realities of modern Russia (for instance, the entire business), is quite dissatisfied with actions taken by the incumbent Russian authorities.

According to aforementioned FOM expert Ivan Klimov, “all signs of a so-called syndrome of relative deprivation are evident in society.” To put it simpler, this means that more often the people’s hopes don’t come true and therefore, the people’s support, which is the president’s major resource, has been endangered.

Alexander Kinsburgsky, executive director of the Glas Naroda (Voice of People) center told Profil that, in his opinion, “no insulation – neither hopes nor illusions – remains between Putin’s popularity rating and resentment directed at Putin.” However, stresses Profil, the president’s popularity rating has only dropped by 5% so far.

Dmitri Oreshkin, head of the Merkator Group, commented to Kommersant-Vlast magazine in this connection that the situation is normal: “All politicians lose popularity in Russia in a couple of years.” This was what we observed in the case of Yeltsin and in the case of Gorbachev (who has for the first time since 2000 dared to severely criticize actions of the incumbent authorities, according to a recent report from Kommersant).

Formerly extremely popular President Putin is now on a decline, says Oreshkin; to raise the rating he needs to do something incredible: “Good deeds won’t help; on the contrary, they would be perceived negatively.”

Besides, according to Oreshkin, “Soviet techniques of establishing the guilty and shifting the blame to them might help be helpful for the president, or else a ‘small victorious war’: But where and whom should he fight? He will evidently lose it.”

“The governing structures have spoilt their reputation; I cannot recall a similar failure over the past decade. Moreover, not a single external cause exist: no war, crisis or a default,” Yuri Levada noted in his interview with Kommersant-Vlast.

As emphasized by Levada, the present-day unrest was easily predictable – results of a multitude of public opinion polls pointed to that last year. However, the Kremlin had self-confidently ignored these warnings. “Hence, the authorities have lost their link to reality, which is actually has the smell of a war,” concludes Levada Center director.

Gleb Pavlovsky, director of the Effective Politics Foundation, is the only one to discern no problems in the current situation. When asked by Kommersant-Vlast how Putin’s rating could be saved, Pavlovsky replied with a question: “Why should we? This presents no political problem. A rating needs to be raised during an election campaign, rather than for an incumbent president.”

Is there anything to worry about, indeed? Russia is not Ukraine, as Leonid Kuchma is noted in his due time; nowadays, after he has lost the “orange” elections his opponents threaten him with the prosecution.

All political techniques have been practiced to perfection in Russia long ago: for instance, an incomparably lower confidence hadn’t prevented Boris Yeltsin from solving the problem of successor.

Besides, we have enough time until 2008.

So, let the rating continue tumbling… If worst comes to worst, use a different method of counting – if Soviet techniques are recalled.