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The Danger of an Unpopular Putin

As the average Russian’s wellbeing has declined, proclamations of Russia’s greatness have begun to ring hollow for much of the population. But if Vladimir Putin’s 18 years in power has taught us anything, it is that the sharp decline in his approval rating is not good news for anyone.

MOSCOW – Just seven months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin won re-election, for the fourth time, with 77% of the vote. But according to a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, if a presidential election were held now, Putin would probably receive only 47% of the vote, forcing him into a second-round run-off. This is a dangerous state of affairs for Russia and the world.

Of course, poll data in Russia do not necessarily reflect the real balance of power. Yet such a steep decline is a remarkable development, not least because Russians, who remember well the harsh punishments dissidents faced during Soviet times, often prefer to speak positively of their leaders when asked.

Putin first secured the presidency in 2000 on the promise to raise living standards and restore Russia’s status as a leading global power. Fortunately for him, oil prices began to skyrocket. Meanwhile, he set to work reviving the Soviet Union, under a different name but similarly based on opposition to American global leadership and Western-style democratization.

From the start, Putin used media censorship to secure his authority, ensuring that any success – including rising oil prices – was hailed as his personal achievement. As the speaker of Russia’s Duma (parliament), Vyacheslav Volodin, declared in 2014, “There is Putin – there is Russia; there is no Putin – there is no Russia.”

Failures, of course, were never Putin’s fault. So in 2007, when economic growth was slowing and social inequality rising, Putin delivered a speech at the Munich Security Conference condemning the United States for its domination of global affairs, and implying that the expansion of NATO into the Baltics was directed against Russia.

Suddenly, all of Russia’s struggles could be blamed on a new cold war, supposedly declared by the West. In 2008, Kosovo’s declaration of independence and Russia’s war with Georgia further reinforced Putin’s “besieged fortress” narrative.

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Nonetheless, by 2013, Putin’s approval ratings dropped to record lows – even lower than today’s levels. So Putin pulled out the big guns, first metaphorically and then literally. In 2014, after Russian athletes performed impressively at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (with the help of a vast state-sponsored doping system), Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Putin, state media proclaimed, was fulfilling his promise of restoring Russia’s former greatness.

Putin’s approval rating soared to 85%. Russian stores were filled with t-shirts emblazoned with his face alongside phrases like “Thanks for the Crimea” and “The Politest of People.” For the overwhelming majority of Russians, Putin’s authority was indisputable. If their president supported a policy or decision, Russians willingly accepted it, however unpopular it had been initially.

Putin had followed the advice attributed to Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve, who served as the director of police, and later Minister of the Interior, under Czar Nicholas II, “To avert a revolution, we need a small victorious war.” But while Putin’s small victorious war boosted his standing and silenced dissent, the long-term consequences have been severe, owing to the stringent Western sanctions imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea.

As a result of those sanctions, the ruble’s value has fallen by half against the dollar, inflation is up, and Russian households purchasing power and living standards have fallen. At the end of last summer, the cash-strapped Russian government was forced to raise the retirement age – a move opposed by 90% of the population. Not even an emergency television appeal by Putin himself could secure broader public support.

Moreover, despite Putin’s backing, the ruling United Russia party has suffered rare electoral setbacks in Russia’s Far East. Representatives of the nationalist, anti-Western Liberal Democratic Party trounced the United Russia candidates in second-round run-offs in the gubernatorial elections in the Khabarovsk and Vladimir regions.

In a gubernatorial election in Primorsky Krai, a Communist Party candidate appeared to win – thanks partly to protest votes against United Russia – before the election was ruled invalid, and the United Russia candidate was declared the winner. The uproar was so potent that, for the first time in Russia’s post-Soviet history, the election results were annulled.

Some experts claim that United Russia’s electoral defeats reflect a kind of “power fatigue.” But the fact remains that as average Russians’ wellbeing has declined – and Putin cronies’ wealth has continued to swell – proclamations of Russia’s greatness have begun to ring hollow.

Citizens now wonder how strong Russia’s position really is. Buckling under sanctions and isolated by the West, the country has begun to look less like a great power than a geopolitical has-been. Official propaganda still blames the West for the country’s plight, but Russians aren’t convinced. And they aren’t nearly as impressed by Russia’s engagement in faraway Syria, whatever boost it might provide to the country’s role in world affairs, as they were by the annexation of neighboring Crimea.

But if Putin’s 18 years in power has taught us anything, it is that his declining approval ratings are not good news for anyone. Russians may be tired, but Putin is not. And if he feels that his authority is waning, he may soon decide that it’s time for another victory at others’ expense.

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