Addicted to Putin

MOSCOW – Watching Russia’s worrying trajectory under President Vladimir Putin, many foreign observers ask how a leader who is so apparently driving his country toward the abyss can remain so popular. The answer is simple: Putin’s supporters – that is, a hefty majority of Russians – do not see the danger ahead.

According to the independent Levada Center, Putin’s approval rating increased from 65% in January to 80% in March, immediately after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The rate reached its peak in early August, at 87%, when many believed that Russia and Ukraine were on the brink of all-out war. Though it fell after that, to 84% in early September, the drop is within the margin of error. In other words, there is no basis to claim that Putin’s approval rating is declining.

Putin’s startlingly high popularity certainly cannot be attributed to a positive view of state structures in general. Like most people, Russians are generally dismissive of bureaucracy. They give low grades to specific agencies, consider most officials to be corrupt, and rate the government’s performance on most issues as mediocre, at best.

Instead, Russians’ approval of Putin is rooted in the fact that there is no alternative. The Russian political field has been carefully cleared of all competition. Approval ratings in this context are not tools for comparing politicians’ performance and prospects, and thus for compelling them to do better or risk being voted out in the next election. Rather, they are a reservoir of the population’s hopes and fears.