No cult of personality for Putin

Putin’s critics prefer to overlook the fact that his economic policies are liberal. He is a popularly elected president. He has never violated the Constitution or torn up any international agreements. He has not become a Stalin; Russia has changed, and it needs a different kind of leader now.

The latest survey done by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), entitled Russia 2007, indicates that Vladimir Putin remains hugely popular.

He’s a particular favorite with women, young people, and housewives. Among business owners his rating is even higher – almost 70%. It’s interesting to note that Putin’s ideological baggage is not a determining factor. People simply like him.

Attitudes to Putin have undergone a qualitative change during his second term. Earlier, against the backdrop of Boris Yeltsin, perceptions of Putin were very emotional: people saw him as “the president of hope.” Now their opinions are less emotional, more calculated. They value the sense of security they have gained in the Putin years.

VTsIOM analysts also attribute Putin’s popularity to official television broadcasts.

There’s another reason as well – less an indication of prosperity than of the immaturity of Russian politics. VTsIOM analysts say: “The Russian elite has never managed to produce any other politician who might be viewed as a serious alternative to Putin.” There’s a large chorus, but no soloists with a fine political baritone.

During 2006 and early 2007, opinion polls have indicated that more and more citizens want Putin to stay on as president. Whatever one might think of the lickspittles who keep calling for a third term, or even offering Putin a monarch’s mantle, this flattery does reflect actual attitudes among the people. Almost 40% of respondents would even accept violating the Constitution in order to secure a third term for Putin.

The public is somewhat at a loss in the face of the impending changing of the guard in the Kremlin; this is also indicated by a slight rise in the proportion of poll respondents who don’t trust their own judgement, but intend to rely on Putin’s prompting to decide how they will vote. This also indicates that citizens haven’t yet gained much confidence in the leadership qualities of the presidential hopefuls. People seem to fear making the wrong choice, rather than losing Putin.

But the greatest paradox of the Putin phenomenon is that support for him is not confined to United Russia and Just Russia voters; many members of opposition parties also say they would be prepared to vote for Putin. If Putin did decided to seek a third term, 43% of Communist Party supporters would vote for him – whereas only 37% of them would vote for Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov. The situation among Yabloko voters is similar.

Putin’s critics continue trying to scare us and themselves by stressing Putin’s KGB background. Another point held against him is his well-known statement about the collapse of the USSR being the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century. The implication here is that we should expect a return to Stalinist methods, repressions, the GULAG, Russian tanks in the Baltic states. In short, a second edition of Comrade Stalin and the USSR. Putin’s critics prefer to overlook the fact that Putin’s economic policies are entirely liberal. He is a popularly elected president. He has never violated the Constitution or torn up any international agreements. In all his years as president, not one Russian military division (apart from peacekeepers) has crossed Russia’s borders. It wasn’t Russian planes that bombed Belgrade, Baghdad, and villages in Afghanistan.

Putin has not become a Stalin – and that’s not because he lacks character or a strong hand. The West is failing to notice – or doesn’t want to notice – that Russia itself has changed, and it needs a different kind of leader now.

Although the political awareness of Russian citizens seems to be growing slowly, the outlines of a new kind of society are already visible: a society that relies on the functioning of the political system and its institutions, rather than on the genius of a “father of the peoples.” We saw the last flashbacks to the cult of personality during the Brezhnev era. In the early days of the democracy wave, some traces of charisma were observed in Boris Yeltsin, but they soon faded.

For all the attempts of servile media to immortalize Putin in bronze, no real cult of personality has arisen. More and more Russian citizens are perceiving our president just as national leaders are perceived in democratic Europe: as the senior state official, who serves his term and departs. In a May 2007 poll done by the Levada Center, only 12% of respondents said that the next presidential election will have a significant impact on their lives. Most believe that the next president’s identity will have a slight impact on their lives, or none at all. What does this mean?

It means that Russia has fewer “subjects” and more citizens.