The results of the president’s first five years: Vladimir Putin is going out of fashion


March 14 marked a year since Vladimir Putin was re-elected for a second term. The press and the pollsters have been looking at the results of the past year and Putin’s entire five years in office. The conclusions are not reassuring.

The pro-presidential Vremya Novostei newspaper notes: “During Putin’s five years in office, his trust rating has fallen by over a third. In summer 2000, at the start of his first term, the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) reported that 58% of respondents trusted Putin. The latest polls show this is now down to 40%.”

According to VTsIOM, the first serious blow to Putin’s trust rating came in October 2002, following the Moscow theater hostage-taking: it fell to 42% at that time.

Subsequently, as the presidential election approached, the figures started rising; by spring 2004 they were up to 58% again.

Following the Beslan school hostage crisis, the rating dropped once more, stabilizing by late 2004 at 50%.

Vremya Novostei explains: “Very negative events affect the president’s trust rating: it drops by several points each time, then rises again, but not quite as high as its previous value.”

The last noticeable fluctuation took place in early 2005 when the monetization of social benefits sparked protests throughout the country.

Overall, says Vremya Novostei, “the trust of Russian citizens in their president is decreasing, slowly but surely, with every passing year.”

Then again, according to VTsIOM, the president’s rating might have been expected to fall more significantly, with a social crisis under way. But VTsIOM polls indicate that citizens have focused their anger on Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and the economic bloc of the government. In January 2005, only 27% of respondents approved of the government and its performance (the second-lowest result since early 2004, when the newly-formed Fradkov Cabinet scored 26%).

Thus, says Vremya Novostei, “it follows that Putin sacrificed someone else’s rating to the reforms he knew would be extremely unpopular.”

True, Putin’s own rating has fallen as well; but VTsIOM says reassuringly that no further decline is predicted, for one simple reason: “No other individuals in Russian politics are able to compete with the president.”

When asked how they would vote if a presidential election took place right now, 50% of respondents still say they would vote for Putin. If they are reminded that Putin will not be able to run for re-election in 2008 under the law as it stands, about 40% of respondents say they would not vote at all.

The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) presents a somewhat less uniform picture in poll results published by Novye Izvestia.

The FOM maintains that Putin’s rating peaked a year ago, before his re-election, rather than at the start of his first term. At this time, 48% of respondents said his performance as president was excellent, while only 7% described it as very poor.

By the start of 2005, at the height of public protests against the monetization of benefits, only 32% of respondents still rated Putin’s performance as excellent, and by mid-February this rating had dropped to an all-time low of 31%. Meanwhile, disapproval had risen to 13%.

At present, according to the FOM, 33% of respondents describe Putin’s performance as excellent and 15% say it is very poor.

The political analysts approached by Novye Izvestia agreed that the past year has been extremely unfortunate for the president. Mark Urnov, chairman of the Expertise Foundation, described it as a watershed year.

Indeed, a mere 12 months ago the regime appeared to be quite stable. Not any more: “We are losing our traditional allies abroad. As a result of the downright shameful YUKOS situation, we have significantly damaged our image in the West.” There are even calls for Russia to be expelled from the G8.

Domestic affairs aren’t going any better: “Even though oil prices and the corresponding budget revenues are incredibly high, we are still seeing wage payment backlogs in Russia.” Moreover, the state is carrying out “social reforms which are correct in theory, but entirely ill-considered in implementation.”

Another expert approached by Novye Izvestia, Sergei Markov from the Political Studies Institute, said: “The people understand perfectly well that economic growth is not affected by whether pensioners are or aren’t allowed free travel on public transport. But rather than dealing with substantial structural issues, the government has chosen to battle the pensioners.”

In Markov’s opinion, all this is due to the fact that “Putin was very active in his first term, but has reduced his political activity in his second term.” Thus, he is mostly being criticized for what he hasn’t done rather than what he has done.

According to Markov, the problem is that the authorities aren’t responding adequately to society’s demands. For example, in the wake of Beslan – when public opinion was “calling for action against corruption in the law enforcement agencies” – the Kremlin moved to appoint regional leaders. “Public opinion couldn’t understand what regional leaders had to do with Beslan.”

And this is why the president’s rating is falling, says Markov: “The regime’s social support base is breaking down. The regional elites are unhappy, and the private sector is also unhappy, due to the rapid growth of corruption and pressure from the state. Capital outflow has resumed.”

Markov says there is indeed no alternative to Putin as yet: “Until now, however, the people didn’t even want an alternative to Putin. Now they are starting to hope that someone else will emerge.”

National Strategy Institute director Stanislav Belkovsky agrees: “Putin has now lost a significant share of his momentum, and he’s no longer the president of hope. These days, he is more of a leader who is tolerated, and who will remain in power only until a substantial political alternative arises.”

“Even if Putin was a perfect president, it would be natural to expect people to start tiring of him after five years. But he isn’t perfect,” says Dmitri Oreshkin in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly. “And the Russian people are far from perfect. For one thing, they have a nasty habit of swinging from excessive adoration to equally excessive condemnation.” Oreshkin notes that Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin experienced this as well: “Putin is unlikely to avoid this fate… As if it were the president’s fault that everyone expected too much from him.”

“Putin has gone out of fashion,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Literally: “The politician who was once adored by all layers of society has ceased to be an object of worship in various forms of activity and the arts.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta cites some revealing examples: “People are no longer writing songs about Putin. Artists such as Dmitri Vrubel, sensitive to public demand, are no longer painting portraits of Putin.”

What’s more, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, even the politial in-crowd now considers it fashionable to be anti-Putin: “Of course, this is done discreetly and undemonstratively, since it is still an unsafe stance in today’s Russia.” And although state officials still display portraits of Putin in their offices, they are no longer doing so as a tribute to fashion: “It’s more like insurance against suspicions of disloyalty.”

Union of Right Forces (URF) leader Boris Nemtsov said in an interview with Novoe Vremya magazine that “Putin is ceasing to be fashionable” – and not only “on T-shirts,” but “in offices” as well: that is, both among the public and among state officials. Optimistically, Nemtsov believes this is a sign of rising “demand for democratic, liberal ideas.”

According to Nemtsov, “the question of whether an ‘orange revolution’ could happen in Russia is being discussed by every intelligentsia family in Moscow.” Nemtsov even considers it possible to speak of a “second wave of the dissident movement” arising, since “people are tiring of endless gray mediocrity and lies; they are tiring of the army barracks atmosphere and the officiousness we are seeing. So demand for freedom is going to rise.”

Nemtsov admits that opinion polls indicate no sign of this happening as yet. For example, an international poll done by Freedom House produced some discouraging results, indicating that the people of Russia value democratic liberties much less than the people of African or Latin American countries. Russia “answered all the poll questions like a country that is more inclined to dictatorship and authoritarianism.”

Nemtsov said: “Even Zimbabwe looks better. And I’m not being ironic at all.”

In Nemtsov’s view, people don’t understand the value of freedom, because they never had to pay a high price for it: “We didn’t shed enough blood for liberty… If we had paid a high price for our freedom, we would value it. Since we paid almost nothing, that’s reflected in our attitudes.”

Late last week, the Yuri Levada Center polling agency released the results of a poll on what people think of the reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev.

As the twentieth anniversary of perestroika approaches, according to Novye Izvestia, 48% of respondents in a poll done by the Yuri Levada Center say it would have been better if perestroika never happened, while 40% say the reverse.

When asked about the major achievements of perestroika, respondents named the following: glasnost, the freedom to travel abroad, an end to political repression, and the development of small business.

However, most respondents blame perestroika for the economic crisis of the late 1980s, the break-up of the USSR, and armed conflicts in former Soviet states. Twenty years after perestroika began, 71% of respondents say that if it had never happened, life would have continued to improve, while many shake-ups and the Soviet Union’s collapse could have been avoided. Only 16% of respondents say the country would have gone into crisis anyway, even without the reforms, due to growing social and inter-ethnic differences.

In commenting on these figures, Yuri Levada told Novye Izvestia: “Perestroika raised hopes that have never been fulfilled, and produced leaders who proved to be unattractive.” As it turns out, not everyone values the main achievement of perestroika: “the freedom to read and hear different things.” Not everyone is content with that, says Levada; and meanwhile, free enterprise has only benefited 6-8% of the citizenry.

Levada adds: “For most of our citizens, the time that was once despised as ‘stagnation’ now seems like the best period of the 20th Century. That’s because it was followed by crisis, the collapse of the USSR, and bloody conflicts.”

But when respondents are asked if they want to go back to that time, or whether returning to the past is a realistic prospect, they say no. Most say it is not realistic and can’t be done. All the same, “there is a lingering feeling that it would have been better to leave things as they were. Because there was order back then, and the Soviet Union was a great power.”

According to Boris Nemtsov, the whole problem is that Russian society has turned out to be “genetically unprepared to abandon state paternalism,” since “Russia’s thousand-year history is a history of slavery.”

Nevertheless, Nemtsov hopes that sooner or later, the people of Russia will come to value freedom: “The history of all revolutions – in France and England, for example – is about striving for freedom. I don’t think the people of France were all that desperate for freedom before the 1790s. But they did learn to value it, later on.”

At present, says Nemtsov, all we can do is wait and work to bring that happy future closer, by moving into opposition to the current regime, which is becoming less and less popular. “Attempts to cooperate with the regime, for the sake of improving the situation even slightly, have proved unworkable.” Nemtsov says that he will not “participate in that,” and he won’t “cooperate with Putin” either. “In general, I won’t cooperate with any leader who is engaged in building a dictatorship. Firstly, that would discredit my own ideas; secondly, it would be completely futile. It would be ineffective anyway.”

In Ekspert magazine, Alexander Privalov says: “These days, it’s fashionable to say that it’s impossible to go back to the past. Of course it’s impossible: there is nothing to go back to, and nothing to use for comparison. The years since the death of Chernenko have turned out to be immeasurably longer than they appear on the calendar: it’s no exaggeration to describe them as a whole era.”

Everyone has to decide for themselves what they think of this era. All the same, says Privalov, it should not be crossed out: “For one thing, our country gained freedom (or the opportunity for freedom). What’s more, everything could have turned out much, much worse.”

But it was back then, at the start of perestroika, that certain “unpleasant constants” became apparent – and these are still with us. The main one is “a consistent lack of strategy, the inability or reluctance to look ahead beyond short-term concerns.” There is also “the inability to imagine the direct consequences of decisions being made – not even calculating scenarios a decade in advance, but simply predicting immediate responses.”

In this respect, Privalov compares the current monetization of benefits with “Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol crusade,” only noting that fortunately, “the latest campaign has been an order of magnitude less destructive – that’s progress for you.”

From the distant pre-perestroika era to the present, says Privalov, “it’s as if the authorities and the people have been divided and living in parallel worlds; we can’t even manage to create anything like the bureaucratic, senile system of contacts between us that existed in the Brezhnev years, and actually did function, at least providing a source of jokes.”

In the meantime, it’s clear that a system of contacts does need to be re-established; and this is equally necessary for both sides, “or decision-making will continue to be secretive and based on circumstances, and therefore a long way from optimal.”

In his interview with Novoe Vremya, Boris Nemtsov says the authorities are demonstrating “that they are completely incompetent, with no understanding of how to govern.”

Nemtsov says: “Putin has created this system due to his KGB mindset of extreme distrust for everyone. He doesn’t trust anyone at all – and that’s the main reason why he has assumed all powers himself.”

The head of state is now striving to take responsibility for the whole country: “He has created a system that cannot work. It’s a failure. The hierarchy of governance, the purge of the Federation Council, appointing regional leaders – it’s all a legacy of his KGB background.”

In Nemtsov’s opinion, what Russia has now is “a bureaucratic dictatorship in its purest form, with all its characteristic features. It’s not very bloodthirsty, but it’s predictably vile: mendacious, corrupt, without prospect, and doomed. Even with oil prices at $40 a barrel, and an unprecedented $120 billion in gold and currency reserves, and $27 billion in the Stabilization Fund, the regime has managed to mess things up so badly that people are protesting in the streets… Obviously, the regime is incapable of keeping the situation under control.”

The Union of Right Forces considers that the regime’s current errors are provoking radicalism in Russia. In an extensive interview with Profil magazine, RAO Unified Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais says: “For Russia, fascism is absolutely the gravest fundamental political threat.” This makes it different from communism, which is a problem that has already been solved. Chubais says: “The Communist Party has no chance of winning the next election, or the one after, or the one after that. But the fascist-minded nationalist-patriots do have a chance of winning a presidential election.”

Chubais goes on to say that this threat is what makes it vital for the democrats to overcome their internal disputes and create a unified party – even at the cost of current leaders giving up leadership: “Let the right-wing party leaders forget about themselves for once, if only temporarily. Unless they can do so, we will either see a different democratic force emerge, or face total defeat at the next elections.”

As for the present regime, Chubais says that “the greatest good news in politics would be if the authorities refrained from taking any further action to concentrate political power.” Chubais explains what he means by that: “The increased state presence in the economy, and the further strengthening of the hierarchy of governance. Abolishing direct elections for mayors, for example. Refraining from actions like these would have a positive impact in itself.”

President Putin emerged on the political stage as a consolidating image, says Dmitri Oreshkin in Moskovskie Novosti: “The corporations of the bureaucracy made the pragmatic decision to view Putin as a moderate progressive, free from the personal flaws of the previous leader. The business community needed stability and protectionist measures; regional leaders hoped for more even regional policy; the bureaucracy and the siloviki were counting on getting more state funding and seeing the currency of state administration influence appreciate in value.”

But the president didn’t maintain equilibrium for long: “As time went on, he was more and more open in playing up to the corporation of the bureaucrats and the chekists from St. Petersburg, to the detriment of other players.” Thus, the concept of a strong state “shrank to the special services, the bureaucracy, and the defense sector. This system of priorities had no place for education, health-care, or civil liberties.”

Unfortunately, says Oreshkin, “these changes are irreversible for the president.” Losing support among his adherents, he’s “driving himself into the corridor of narrowing opportunities that bears the name of Ivan the Terrible or Stalin, when there’s no source of support in a time of revolt and betrayal other than the oprichniki.” This situation mostly favors “potential oprichniks, since expanding the political base of their leader, and its sovereignty, doesn’t suit their interests.”

Moreover, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Putin now “shouldn’t disregard the threat of a potential coup – a threat which potentially emanates from the people of his inner circle, who are not confident about their future.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the split between factions within Putin’s team – which has led to former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov’s sudden return to politics, along with other claimants to the presidency, long before the real election campaign begins – has provoked “an acceleration of the political calendar.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta maintains there is every reason to assume that the “events” will start unfolding before 2008, and a new Operation Successor would fail due to “internal antagonisms” with in the presidential team, which would only be exacerbatied as long as Putin’s popularity rating is falling.

According to Moskovskiye Novosti, the president may face an unpleasant choice: “either the Ivan/Stalin brute force scenario, or another attempt to expand the platform and reach agreement with somebody other than his own corporation.”

However, there is litle hope of the second option being chosen, especially since “the capital of trust has been squandered. Along with the rating.”