What Russian citizens really think of President Putin

Future contenders for the presidency – whether designated by the incumbent or outsiders – will get an unenviable legacy. Most of Russia’s problems remain unsolved; what’s more, they’re getting worse.

The change of presidents coming up in 2008, with somebody else (perhaps a completely unknown politician) replacing Vladimir Putin – the so-called Year 2008 Problem – is a matter of little concern for ordinary citizens. Senior officials and bureaucrats, on the other hand, are very concerned indeed: it’s a real problem for them, since the successor’s identity will determine whether any particular official is allowed to keep his job, or dismissed and perhaps even prosecuted. The people, however, don’t regard the forthcoming changeover as a significant event at all.

For example, a recent survey done by the VTsIOM polling agency showed two-thirds of respondents identifying alcohol and drug abuse as Russia’s most important problems, while only 10% said the same about the forthcoming change of administration and the succession problem. When asked to name their own most pressing concerns, 55% of respondents named inflation while only 5% named the search for a successor to Putin; the only lower-scoring responses were energy security and state administration reforms. This is the backdrop that needs to be considered when we look at the results of opinion polls asking how people would vote if a presidential election were held right now. Responses to such polls still boil down to this: we’d rather vote for Putin again – but if he isn’t among the candidates, then we just don’t care.

But what do people really think of Putin and the results of his actions as Russia’s leader over the past seven years? This is a question of some importance when it comes to assessing the chances of presidential candidates. If they are similar to Putin and offer some hope that his achievements will be repeated, their chances will be greater; and ordinary citizens consider it important to know which aspects of Putin’s legacy his successor will continue or abandon.

Evaluating Putin’s place in contemporary Russian history based on public opinion is no easy task, since public opinion is always contradictory, especially in a transition period. The initial rise in Putin’s popularity is attributed to his hardline stance during the second campaign in Chechnya. Indeed, when Putin was appointed as prime minister in August 1999, his popularity rating stood at 11% – but by mid-October he had become the favorite in the presidential race, thanks to intensive military action against the rebels and his most famous quote: terrorists should be “killed off in the toilets.” He gained an image as the champion of a strong state, resisting terrorists and restoring the Russian people’s self-respect, as well as a tough, macho hero, the people’s favorite. Approval for his performance as prime minister rose from 21% in mid-September 1999 to 75% in December, and he secured the position of successor. Throughout his period as president, Putin’s personal qualities impressed the people far more than any of his concrete actions or solutions to Russia’s major problems.

Some typical examples of this can be seen in the evaluations of Putin recorded by a ROMIR Monitoring poll in 2004. When asked about Putin’s good qualities, 33% of respondents named youth, 30% named physical health, 30% named activity, and 30% named professionalism. Less notable qualities were decency (22%), concern for the people’s interests (20%), lack of harmful habits like drinking or smoking (15%), charm (14%), team leadership (13%), political will (12%), communication skills (12%), and a pleasing appearance (8%). Morover, the average figures can be broken up to show differences between various respondent groups: 11% of women and 5% of men noted Putin’s pleasing appearance, 17% of women and 10% of men noted his charm.

Many analysts called Putin “the president of hope,” in the sense that citizens expressed confidence in him in advance, hoping that he would be able to do a great deal during his period in office – if not in his first term, then in the second. Indeed, when a VTsIOM poll in March 2005 asked how people felt about Putin, 36% of respondents said they felt hopeful; in a recent poll, that figure was 30%. But the number of respondents who said they felt respect for Putin went up, from 31% to 39%. In 2005, as in 2006, the next emotions named were confidence (17% and 22%) and liking (17% and 20%).

Another aspect of Putin-evaluations concerns the people’s impressions of “whose president” he is – that is, the societal layers whose interests he upholds. Although current polls show 78% overall approval for Putin’s performance, not all respondents believe that he upholds their interests. While 27% of respondents say he upholds the interests of everyone without exception (that is, he’s a president for “all the people”), 21% say he primarily upholds the interests of the security and law enforcement agencies (“siloviki”) – the special services, the Armed Forces, the Interior Ministry; 18% say that Putin upholds the interests of the middle class, or citizens with above-average incomes. Despite the Kremlin’s crackdowns on certain tycoons, 16% of respondents still say that Putin primarily upholds the interests of oligarchs, and another 16% say he upholds the interests of state officials and the bureaucracy; 15% say he upholds the interests of ordinary workers; 14% say he upholds the interests of managers and directors of large enterprises; 10% say he upholds the interests of the intelligentsia, and 8% name the arts and sciences elite.

All the same, there’s no jealousy involved here: regardless of whose interests Putin represents, he is seen as our common defender and protector. But now, with the end of Putin’s period in office approaching, citizens are starting to look back and consider what has been achieved over the past few years, and how our lives have changed. And in this respect, there are numerous contradictions in public opinion. On the one hand, people think that the situation is getting worse in almost all areas of life; on the one hand, they don’t feel comfortable blaming this on our adored president. When asked about the drug and alcohol abuse problem, 58% of respondents say it’s grown worse over the past five years and only 13% say it has improved. But Putin clearly has nothing to do with that. Sixty-two percent of respondents say that inflation has grown worse, and 15% say it has improved; 45% say that the terrorism situation has grown worse, 21% say it has improved, and 29% say it has remained unchanged.

When poll questions are worded in such a way that people are asked to evaluate not only the situation in various areas, but also Putin’s role in solving important problems, their assessments become much more optimistic and respectful towards Putin: in other words, more politically correct. Thus, 61% of respondents agree with the statement that “living standards have risen during Putin’s period in office,” while only 12% disagree. But when the question only refers to the problem of low living standards, without mentioning Putin, the assessments are quite different: 26% of respondents say that the situation has improved, 38% say it has deteriorated, and 29% say that living standards remain as low as ever. Thirty-nine percent of respondents agree that “the situation in the social sphere has improved during Putin’s period in office,” 21% say it has deteriorated, and 33% say it has remained unchanged. But when there’s no mention of Putin in the question, only 21% of respondents say that the healthcare situation has improved, 41% say it has deteriorated, and 31% see no changes at all.

When asked about Putin’s indisputable achievements, 62% of respondents name the improvement of Russia’s status in the international community, and only 7% say it has deteriorated. Progress in the Chechnya situation is also appreciated: 54% of respondents see an improvement there, only 9% say the situation has deteriorated, and 25% consider it unchanged. When Putin’s role is mentioned, national security looks better too: 44% of respondents say that Russia’s defense capacities have improved, only 11% say they have deteriorated, and 27% say they have remained unchanged. However, when the question only concerns the situation in the area of national security, without mentioning Putin, 29% of respondents describe it as improving, 20% say it is deteriorating, and 36% say it has remained unchanged.

Restoring order, fighting crime, reinforcing the hierarchy of governance: these areas are among Putin’s hobby-horses – but citizens don’t appear to see much progress here. A third of respondents say that the law and order situation has improved during Putin’s period in office, 37% say it has remained unchanged, and 23% say it has deteriorated. When the question doesn’t mention Putin, focusing on the crime and crime-fighting situation, 52% of respondents say it has grown worse over the past five years, 28% say it has remained unchanged, and only 12% say it has improved.

This is hardly surprising. A VTsIOM poll in September showed 23% of respondents saying that within the past two or three years they have encountered threats from the world of crime, become victims of some sort of crime (such as deception, fraud, threats to material well-being, threats of injury, abusive treatment, physical violence, threats to life, persecution, blackmail, murder of friends or relatives). What’s more, in a third of these cases the threats came from “law enforcement agencies, state agencies, or the judiciary.”

President Putin has often spoken of the need to fight corruption; he has established a special Presidential Council for that purpose. But the people aren’t seeing any real results in this area. When asked about anti-corruption efforts during Putin’s period in office, 32% of respondents say the situation has improved, 36% say it has remained unchanged, and 22% say it has deteriorated. When the wording of the question is more general, 45% of respondents say that corruption and bureaucratism have increased over the past five years, 35% say they haven’t changed, and 11% say they have decreased.

Most people seem to think that all is well with democracy under Putin. When asked about civil rights and liberties, and the development of democracy, during Putin’s period in office, 32% of respondents say that the situation has improved, 40% say it has remained unchanged, and only 17% say it has deteriorated. The interethnic relations situation looks worse, with most people believing that it has obviously deteriorated. Thirty-two percent say that interethnic relations have deteriorated during Putin’s period in office, 40% say they have remained unchanged, and 20% see an improvement. Evidenly, conflicts like the Kondopoga riots aren’t isolated incidents, and they have left a mark in public opinion: 31% of respondents say that there has been some interethnic violence in their neighborhoods within the past two or three years. People believe that the situation is likely to get worse. Recent polls by VTsIOM show 57% of respondents saying that interethnic violence could happen in their town or city.

Now let’s look at Putin’s pet topic: the national projects. The intention here was to launch a concentrated attack on Russia’s major problems: lack of housing, poor-quality healthcare and education, and inefficient agriculture, including social problems in rural areas: homes lacking gas or running water, healthcare shortages, primitive education facilities. Putin’s announcement of the national projects in September 2005 got an enthusiastic response: at long last, the authorities would do something about the people’s most urgent problems. Indeed, 78% of respondents describe the housing situation as poor; 74% say the same for the agriculture situation, 67% for healthcare, and 53% for education.

One year later, however, most citizens don’t really know or understand what the national projects are all about. Only 11% of respondents say they are well-informed about the national projects; 56% say they have heard something about them, but don’t know anything specific; and 33% honestly admit that they know nothing about the national projects. One year later, when asked about progress on implementing the national projects, only 10% of respondents say that the Quality Healthcare project is being implemented in their regions and they have a fairly clear idea of what is being done in that area; 9% say the same for the Modern Education project, 8% say so for Affordable Housing, and 4% say so for the Agriculture project.

Overall, half of respondents can’t see any improvements in the areas addressed by the national projects. And people have different expectations about the projects: 25% of high income earners expect that the national projects will produce substantial improvements in the lives of people like themselves – while only 4% of low income earners have such expectations, although the national projects seem to be aimed at them.

Future contenders for the presidency – whether designated by the incumbent or outsiders – will get an unenviable legacy. Most of Russia’s problems remain unsolved; what’s more, they’re getting worse.

When asked whether their Putin-related hopes have been fulfilled during the years since he came to power, 59% of respondents say yes and 23% say no. But the people love Putin in general: because the national leader is a colorful leader, a youthful and upbeat person. Meanwhile, his “boyars” (nobles) – the government, the Duma, regional officials – are held responsible for concrete actions. It’s not the Tsar’s job to know all the details about poverty, social benefits, of bureaucratic corruption. Putin is often called a Teflon president, like Ronald Reagan, for his ability to avoid being held to blame for Russia’s problems. But Reagan was a real pro at “non-stick” techniques: his approval rating sometimes fell as low as 23%, but he skillfully diverted any personal blame for crises. Then again, voters were particularly charmed by Reagan’s way of denying accusations of personal involvement in scandals or crises, but still taking responsibility: because “it happened on my watch.”

When Putin is replaced by a successor who clearly lacks Putin’s charisma and Teflon qualities, all of Russia’s problems that remain unsolved or have been swept under the rug will crawl out of the woodwork – and the soft, timid voice of popular discontent will turn into more audible grumbling.