The cluster of leading politicians is almost the same as it was in 1999

A comparison of opinion poll results from 1999 to the present indicates that very few new faces have joined the ranks of Russia’s most well-known politicians. Putin came to dominate the polls within weeks of his promotion to prime minister, and has remained firmly in the lead ever since.

At the dawn of Vladimir Putin’s first term in office, one month after the election in 2000, one-third of respondents in an opinion poll named him as “man of the month.” Second place went to Putin’s newly-appointed prime minister, Mikhail Kasianov, named by 10% of respondents. Kasianov could well be described as “man of the month” for July 2005, judging by the quantity of newspaper articles devoted to his discount purchase of a dacha property formerly owned by Politburo member Mikhail Suslov. In the interval between 2000 and 2005, Kasianov was neither especially liked nor disliked by the public. In the Yeltsin era, prime ministers were discussed from the standpoint of whether they might be too strong, capable of competing with the president at the next election. In the Putin era, there is no question of competition; the prime minister shines with reflected light, and the implication is that if the people’s beloved president has appointed a person as prime minister, the people will trust that person.

Actually, observers are right to point out that over the past decade, the list of political leaders with any chance of being a contender for high office has been limited. Hardly any new faces have appeared, and a few leading players have left the stage. Here, for example, is how an opinion poll in far-off 1999 (May 1999, six months before the Duma elections) ranked the most promising politicians: Yuri Luzhkov (named by 16% of respondents), Yevgeny Primakov (14%), Grigori Yavlinsky (13%), Gennadi Zyuganov (11%), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (5%), Alexander Lebed (3%), Sergei Kirienko (3%), Viktor Chernomyrdin (3%). These respondents were mistaken in their estimates of politicians’ prospects.

And here is how a poll ranked “young political leaders” – as at September 17-19, 1999, three weeks after Putin was appointed prime minister: 10% of respondents liked Sergei Kirienko, 9% liked Vladimir Ryzhkov, 6% liked Grigori Yavlinsky, 5% liked Putin, 5% liked Boris Nemtsov, and 2% liked Irina Khakamada. Actually, just for the sake of comparison, the same poll asked people to rank Russia’s 20th Century leaders in order of preference – with the following results: Brezhnev 13%, Andropov 9%, Stalin 9%, Lenin 5%, Khrushchev 5%, Primakov 4%, Gorbachev 4%, Czar Nicholas II 2%, Kirov 2%, and Stolypin 1%.

After another two months of Putin as prime minister, the second war in Chechnya, and the Duma election campaign, the next poll showed a different ranking of confidence in political leaders. When asked which politicians they liked, respondents ranked them as follows: Putin 31%, Primakov 10%, Zyuganov 9%, Yavlinsky 7%, Zhirinovsky 4%. And ever since then, for almost six years now, this pattern has persisted: Putin is at the peak of the public confidence pyramid, and far behind him (with less than half Putin’s rating) are the same ten or so politicians, those who are most often seen on television.

Given that most poll respondents don’t actually know the policy programs of these politicians, nor the results of their activities, “liking” or “dislike” are usually based on how they look on television, what the president says about them, which other prominent individuals they associate with, or which scandal they figure in. As a result, the political deck of cards gets reshuffled rather frequently. In a May 2003 poll, for example, the preference ranking looked like this: Zyuganov 23%, Zhirinovsky 14%, Luzhkov 13%, Nemtsov 11%, Yavlinsky 11%, Boris Gryzlov 9%. By February 2004, preferences had changed: Sergei Shoigu 31%, Zhirinovsky 16%, Sergei Glaziev 15%, Luzhkov 14%, Khakamada 9%, Gryzlov 8%, Dmitri Rogozin 7%, Zyuganov 6%, Yavlinsky 6%, Kasianov 5%. All these percentages are relatively high, since this poll was done when interest in politics was at its peak – soon after the Duma elections, and a month before the presidential election.

Further reshuffles followed. Results of a November 2004 poll looked like this: Zhirinovsky 9%, Shoigu 8%, and 4% each for Gryzlov, Zyuganov, Luzhkov, and Rogozin. Finally, a May 2005 poll produced the following ranking: Shoigu 12%, Zhirinovsky 9%, Gryzlov 7%, Zyuganov 6%, Luzhkov 4%, and Rogozin 3%.

So if, for some reason, Putin ends up neither running for a third term nor designating a successor, it appears that two popular favorites would have the greatest chance of becoming president: Sergei Shoigu and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. That’s barring the possibility of some sort of “orange revolution,” of course. Thus far, polls indicate that Russian citizens are skeptical about such revolts. For example, when respondents were asked about the recent events in Uzbekistan, one-third of them said this was an attempt by the West to gain control of former Soviet republics, and 20% said it was the start of a popular revolution like those in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. A further 19% said it was a case of Muslim extremists attempting to seize power, and 28% were unaware of the events in Uzbekistan.