A Pollster's Perspective on the Putin Phenomenon
By Joseph Dresen
"Different social strata see Russian President Vladimir Putin differently," declared Aleksandr Oslon, Director, Public Opinion Foundation, Moscow, at a 9 March 2001 lecture at the Kennan Institute, "but all strata see him as addressing their concerns. Young people see him as healthy and vigorous, and as pro-viding an environment in which they can achieve. The elderly and ill see him as a guarantor of social benefits. Workers and professionals see him as a guarantor of stability. All these strata see in Putin, if not a guarantee, at least a hope that they will be provided with what they need." Faith in Putin as a leader has tracked consistently over 60 percent in polls, Oslon noted.
Oslon's Public Opinion Foundation, an independent, non-profit research organization in operation since 1992, has branches in almost all territories of the Russian Federation. The main source of funding is the presidential administration, which is supplemented by subscriptions from media outlets, major organizations, and business. The Public Opinion Foundation chooses the topics of its polls independently and publishes the results of these polls free of charge on its web site (www.fom.ru). In the years the Foundation has been in operation, the rapid rise of Vladimir Putin in the polls has been an unprecedented phenomenon, as has his continued high approval rating.
When Putin was appointed acting prime minister in the summer of 1999, his popularity stood at 1 to 2 percent and remained at that level for about six weeks. Putin was not alone in his unpopularity. Russian society was exhausted from the tumultuous 1990s and completely disillusioned with politicians. Oslon noted that when asked in a poll to identify the key oligarches in Russian society, people identified prominent politicians such as Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov right along with businessmen Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. Putin's appointment as prime minister coincided with an intense media campaign between leading politicians in the run-up to the December parliamentary elections. Russians felt that their leaders were engaging in "virtual politics" rather than governing the nation, according to Oslon.
One event changed this dynamic. In September 1999 a series of bombs destroyed apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities, killing hundreds. "This led to a very rare thing in Russian public life," noted Oslon, "at the same time, tens of millions of Russians experienced the feeling of fear in their own homes. No other event in the 1990s approached the effect of these explosions." Putin, the unknown politician with a 2 percent approval rating, reacted with swift, unexpected announcements promising action. "Our research," Oslon declared, "shows that the attitude of the Russian public towards Putin changed to one simple phrase: He is like us." Putin's popularity started climbing at a rate of about 5 percent per week, until by the end of the year it stood at about 49 percent where it remained until his election for president the following March.
Putin sustained his rising popularity with concrete policy actions. As prime minister, Putin addressed the issue perceived by the Russian people as the most important problem facing Russia--the non-payment of pensions by the government. According to polling data from 1996 onwards as many as 50 percent of pensioners had not received payments on time. The government cleared the backlog in 1997, but only as a one-time solution by borrowing money and by fall the problem returned. This was an example of the "virtual politics" that frustrated Russians. The pension arrears were eliminated in November 1999, which played a huge role in solidifying Putin's popularity. Not only have pensions continued to be paid on time, Oslon added, but they have also been increased. Putin's popularity immediately paid off in political terms. After announcing that he would vote for the newly-created Unity party in the December parliamentary elections, Unity captured the second largest bloc of deputies in the election.
Putin has taken other steps after his election to confirm the public's perception of him as a leader who does not engage in virtual politics, Oslon stated. He limited the power of regional governors. He took action to limit the influence of the oligarches over government. He has pledged judicial and land reforms, but has avoided launching sweeping initiatives on the scale of the economic reforms of the early 1990s. As president, he has maintained a constructive relationship with the Russian Duma.
At the same time, Oslon added, Putin worked to find issues that resonate with popular opinion. His decision to reintroduce the Soviet anthem and continue to pursue unification with Belarus may have elicited negative opinion from abroad and even from elites at home, but it reflected the desire of the majority of Russians as documented in national polls. Putin's statement that "only a stupid person believes that the Soviet Union can be reconstructed, and only a malicious person can object to nostalgia for the Soviet Union" captured the public mood, according to Oslon.
One frequent criticism of Putin is that he is not using his immense popularity to decisively address deep-rooted problems or introduce market institutions in Russia. Such criticism is unrealistic, argued Oslon: "It is naive to think that by signing a decree, the president can get results. There are issues out there that will be very difficult to resolve, but no one can guarantee that he will fail."