Russian Polls Do Mean Something After All
I'm often asked if the Russian polls that give President Vladimir Putin a seemingly unshakable 80 percent-plus support level are worth anything, and I usually reply that it's hard to know. I suspect few people answer honestly when asked about Putin by a stranger on the phone. As of today, however, there is a much better answer.
Data from an April survey by the Levada Center, the last major polling center not under Kremlin control, show that 45 percent of Russians support the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, Putin's second in command who even spent one term as president between 2008 and 2012. That's new, and so is the majority distrust in Medvedev also noted by the poll. As recently as last fall, only 33 percent backed the resignation of the government -- a political event that would be constitutionally triggered by Medvedev's firing.
The data confirm a trend noted by the Levada Center in March. While Putin's approval was still at a sky-high 82 percent, Medvedev's had dropped to 42 percent from 52 percent in February.
There can only be one explanation for the clear shift: Corruption fighter Alexei Navalny's movie about Medvedev's use of stately manors and other luxury attributes held by shady non-profit organizations. The documentary was posted to YouTube on March 2. It has been viewed almost 20 million times since. Medvedev took a long time to respond personally to the accusations in the film. He waited until tens of thousands of people, many of them young, took to the streets throughout Russia to protest against top-level corruption, and until Navalny himself was jailed for organizing the rallies and released after serving out the 15-day sentence. On April 4, the prime minister branded the film "dishonest" and dismissed it as a motley collection of irrelevant material thrown together by those "trying to get people out on the street and achieve their political goals." The April Levada survey shows that this weak response hasn't helped.
This says something important about Levada polls. They are clearly far more useful than a dead man's cardiogram, which they have often resembled in recent years. They efficiently pick up public reactions to new, important information. They can also reflect the precarious standing of major political figures -- as long as these figures aren't Putin. It's not as scary to answer a stranger's question about Medvedev or anyone else in Putin's "power vertical" as it is to answer questions about the national leader himself. You're only disloyal if you want Putin to go.
Medvedev's low support level doesn't mean that his boss has suddenly become unpopular. But it does show Russians' increased dissatisfaction with the way they are governed. Russians know, both instinctively and from Kremlin propaganda, that Putin is the micromanager behind the system. The support for Putin is often insincere, a sign of the general mistrust that characterizes Russian society.
The question is how Putin will read the signal polls are sending on Medvedev. Putin's normal practice is never to fire anyone based on what the media are saying about them, or on poll ratings, such as they are in Russia. Rumors of Medvedev's impending firing have circulated ever since he became prime minister. And yet, as he prepares for the 2018 presidential election, Putin may need a scapegoat for Russia's spotty economic performance in 2016 and 2017. If Russia actually followed its constitution, the prime minister and his government would have been responsible for the policy failures that slowed Russia's recovery from the recession caused by low oil prices and, to a smaller degree, Western sanctions.
The government reacted to the 2014 crisis by floating the ruble and hoping that the devaluation would spur domestic production, as it did after the Russian debt implosion of 1998, and replace expensive imports. It didn't quite happen. In a recent paper, Ilya Prilepsky of Moscow-based Higher School of Economics showed that weak institutions and the difficulties of doing business in Russia almost nullified the effect of a weak ruble on domestic production. Investment growth, too, has been stunted, and Putin has been calling for measures to stimulate investment. The Central Bank will provide some of these by driving down interest rates, but the government has failed to provide any credible stimulus. It may not be Medvedev's fault -- Putin makes all the important decisions -- but he wasn't even seen trying. That gives Putin an opportunity to push him aside in favor of a more energetic figure when an opportune moment comes.
Even in an oppressive, authoritarian system like the one Putin built, a stubborn opposition voice such as Navalny's can resonate. Even in such a system, there are pollsters that register the waves from one man's determined protest. The unfair and corrupt system makes sure Navalny, the only person to announce his candidacy in the 2018 presidential election so far, is unelectable; but even such a regime is eventually forced to respond to popular discontent less it's swept out of power. Putin, who has been strangely quiet and contemplative lately, discoursing, for example, on the habits of mollusks which he has compared to his daily work of government, is not invulnerable. He's got to come up with effective moves to steady the system's wobbles.
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