Why is Vladimir Putin so Popular?

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses with members of the gold medal winning Russian figure skating team. (He's the guy in the middle of all those hot ladies.) Official Russian presidency photo

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses with members of the gold medal-winning Russian figure skating team. (He’s the guy in the middle of all those hot ladies.) Official Russian presidency photo

If you have been paying much attention to American commentators lately, you would be tempted to think that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has less to do with the athletes than it does with the Russian president. Vladimir Putin, never one to cede the limelight to anyone, has been at the center of these games every step of the way, from the time he helped to convince members of the International Olympic Committee to let Russia’s beach resort town host the Olympics (a questionable decision given that there seem to be more naturally occurring palm trees there than piles of naturally occurring snow), to the visually stunning Opening Ceremony (a perfect propaganda opportunity, some would grumble), to posing for photos with newly minted Russian gold medalists in the team figure skating competition. You might be tempted to think these are Putin’s games rather than Russia’s.

There are few international leaders who are demonized in the United States as much as Putin, rightly or wrongly. From his body language in bilateral meetings with U.S. President Obama, to his championing of an anti-homosexual “propaganda” bill, to his insistence on masculine self-promotion, practically everything that Putin does is viewed by many in the United States as arrogant, power-hungry, or downright evil. Likewise, Americans often assume that the Russian president is a dictator and national elections are marred by fraud. Even if they do believe that Russians like Vladimir Putin, most Americans would be hard-pressed to explain why this is the case.

Yet, the fact of the matter is that Putin is quite popular within his own country, undoubtedly more so than President Obama is within the United States. Putin’s domestic approval rating has been high for most of his time as president, and whereas authoritarian rulers often find themselves opposed by the youngest members of society, Putin’s United Russia political party has a strong youth movement supporting it. The same behaviors that seem to make Americans roll their eyes at Putin seem to almost endear him to the Russian population: playing mother to a flock of cranes, shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer gun (reportedly to protect a television crew, though there have been some doubts), kissing a random child on the stomach, or attempting to charm us all with his rendition of the song “Blueberry Hill”.

800px-File_Moscow_rally_10_December_2011,_Luzhkov_Bridge, Wikipedia Bogomolov.PL

An anti-Putin protest on Moscow’s Luzhkov Bridge in December 2011. Photo by Wikipedia user Bogomolov.PL

I am not saying that all Russians like their president.  Russia is far too big and diverse of a country to get everyone to agree on much of anything, particularly something so controversial as politics.  Protests which took place surrounding the 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential election are one indication that not everyone is thrilled with the way Putin and his United Russia party choose to operate. The internationally infamous Pussy Riot case helped to expose the degree of frustration that exists due to the real or perceived collaboration between United Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, though the negative reaction of many average Russians to the band’s selected form of protest proved that there are an equal number of people who were offended by anything sacrilegious in nature.

Everything indicates that while there is a sizable minority that opposes Vladimir Putin, the majority of Russians are at least happy enough with his performance to vote for him multiple times. If Putin is really all those negative things that the American media and government claim he is, then why is he able to remain this popular?

The question reminds me a bit of the time I spent living in England back in 2008-2009.  More than once, I had someone ask me how the American public could have voted for President George W. Bush a second time in 2004. After all, on the issues that mattered to them as Europeans (or at least something resembling Europeans), Bush seemed to be in total disagreement, and his presidency was viewed as rather disastrous. I told them that when the American voters went to the polls, they had a different set of priorities than citizens of another country thousands of miles away. They valued stability as much as anything, and the only other major party candidate, John Kerry, did not inspire confidence in most people. The answer may not have completely satisfied them, but it did seem to shed some new light on the issue.

I think the same principle can be applied when Western observers look at the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Sure, we are comparing apples and oranges more than apples and apples, but I am a firm believer that there are certain aspects of human nature that are relatively the same anywhere on planet earth. (My favorite quote illustrating this point comes, not surprisingly, from another Russian, former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: “Politicians are the same everywhere. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”)

Keeping all of this in mind, here are a few reasons why I think that Vladimir Putin continues to remain fairly popular within Russia, despite the many well-deserved criticisms aimed at him from outsiders (and some insiders).

This chart shows Russia's annual GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) every year since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Image by Wikipedia user LokiiT

This chart shows Russia’s annual GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) every year since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Image by Wikipedia user LokiiT

1)      Economic Growth

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the economy of the new Russian Federation foundered. A series of rapid changes aimed at creating a more market-based (as opposed to government-controlled) economy were anything but smooth. Despite all of the problems with the previous communist system, it did ensure a certain degree of stability, at least on the surface. That stability quickly became a thing of the past.

As so often happens when a country transitions to a more capitalist system without as many government subsidies, jobs were lost and wages were cut. All of this occurred during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, whose tenure was marked not only by liberalization, but also by the rise of oligarchs, a constitutional crisis, confrontation with parliament, and an inability to deliver on many of his promises. Yeltsin eventually resigned in a surprise move on the last day of the millennium, December 31, 1999, handing the presidency over to protégé Vladimir Putin.

Regardless of what your opinion is of Vladimir Putin as a person, there is no denying that the Russian economy has experienced a massive improvement during his tenure as president. At the beginning of Putin’s presidency, Russia’s annual GDP (gross domestic product) stood at less than $200 billion. By the time he left office in 2007 to return to the post of prime minister, it had risen to $1.3 trillion. (For comparison, the U.S. GDP in the same year was just under $14.5 trillion.)

It does not take a genius to figure out that a rise of 200%+ in seven years is really good. The growth continued under President Dmitry Medvedev, although the global economic crisis in 2008-2009 hit Russia just like everywhere else. Putin’s current term as president is really too new to properly determine the long-term economic trend.

As Nicolai Petro argued in a 2006 essay for Open Democracy,

“In a country where politicians get extremely low ratings, Vladimir Putin enjoys phenomenal popularity – two recent opinion polls find that more than 70% of Russian are happy with his performance. Why? Because under his rule since 2000, real wages have risen 75% after inflation, poverty has been halved, and federal-budget surpluses are running at 12%. In these conditions, it would be suspicious if Putin had anything less than a 70% approval rating.”

One could certainly debate the reasons behind this impressive growth. A rise in the global demand for energy has done nothing to hurt Russia (which has one of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas). It is also hard to know how much of this new wealth has made it to the pockets of average Russians and how much has been snapped up by oligarchs, government officials, and other members of the upper class. Nevertheless, there is no question that the improvement of the economy is one of the reasons that Putin is popular. As American political commentators are so fond of saying, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Putin (left) with outgoing President Boris Yeltsin (right, waving) on the day that he resigned - December 31, 1999. Official Russian presidency photo

Putin (left) with outgoing President Boris Yeltsin (right, waving) on the day that he resigned – December 31, 1999. Official Russian presidency photo

2)      National Reputation

The nation of Russia has the largest land area in the world, stretching from the Baltic and Black Seas in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east, covering the entire northern section of the world’s largest continent. This fact alone ensures that Russia and Russians will always be incredibly important.  With one foot in Europe and one in Asia, Russia naturally feels that it ought to be a part of pretty much everything.  Its music, literature, architecture, and scientific achievements are among the greatest in history.  Russia was also the beating heart of the former Soviet Union, which covered more territory than any empire in history, other than possibly the Mongols under Genghis Khan.

For centuries, Russia had grown used to being big, not only in terms of land area, but also in terms of global influence. Within the space of a few years, it lost a considerable amount of influence over the other former Soviet states, its economic power decreased considerably, and the old Soviet way of life seemed destined to disappear with the arrival of McDonald’s. The bipolar world, in which everyone wanted to hear what Russia had to say, had been replaced by a “new world order” led solely by the United States and its allies. While average Russians may not have cared that much about some of these political particulars, they have always been a proud people, and the 1990s were a particularly humiliating time for the national psyche.

Under Putin, Russia has adopted a more aggressive foreign policy, its companies are succeeding in the international market, and the country has experienced a general morale boost. The Olympics in Sochi this year, during which the history and culture of Russia have been on display for the world to see, are part of this revitalization.

Everyone loves to feel important, and Putin has certainly delivered for the Russian people in that area, though one could easily argue that he has kept the lion’s share of the spotlight for himself. Because the opinions of the Russian government are often at odds with those of the American government, this has led to increased tension and the feeling that there is a new Cold War taking place.

Such fears are probably overblown, but it is true that Russia acts on many occasions to “check” the expansion of American influence across the globe, as in the cases when it has opposed U.S. military intervention. At least at this point, the Russian government clearly believes that its own degree of influence depends at least in part on countering the degree of influence the United States has on the international stage. Putin’s ability to succeed in this area has won him favor with a majority of the Russian people.

President Putin (center, clutching lapel) meets with U.S. Olympic Committee officials during a brief visit to USA House at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Official Russian presidency photo

President Putin (center, clutching lapel) meets with U.S. Olympic Committee officials during a brief visit to USA House at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Official Russian presidency photo

3)      Favorable Media Coverage

The media in Russia is not as tightly controlled by the state as that of North Korea, Iran, or even China, but neither does it come close to the degree of freedom enjoyed by journalists in the United States. The U.S.-based organization Freedom House currently ranks Russia 176th out of 196 countries for press freedom (with 1 being the best) and concludes that it is “Not Free”. Here is an excerpt from their 2013 report:

Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, officials have used the country’s politicized and corrupt court system to harass the few remaining independent journalists who dare to criticize widespread abuses by the authorities. The constitution and a 2009 law provide for freedom of information, but accessing information related to government bodies, the judiciary, or via government websites is extremely difficult in practice. Russian law contains a broad definition of extremism that authorities frequently use to silence government critics, including journalists; the enforcement of this and other restrictive legal provisions has encouraged self-censorship.”

One of the main reasons that members of the Russian public are less vociferous in their criticisms of Putin than those in the international community is probably that they do not know about some of the government’s worst aspects. Responding to the article by Petro mentioned earlier, Mischa Gabowitsch published an essay seeking to debunk the notion that there is true freedom of the press in Russia.

“The monster is state-owned or state-controlled television, the only nationwide medium: while only about half of Russian households have a telephone line at home, well over 90% have access to the First Channel and Rossiya. And for a vast majority of Russians, they are virtually the only source of information about political events. Given that typically well over half of their news broadcasts consist of sympathetic coverage of Vladimir Putin and members of the United Russia party, and oppositional figures are always presented in a negative or ironic light (if at all), it is unsurprising that the president is enjoying considerable popularity.”

He goes on to echo Freedom House’s assessment that many independent news sources self-censor out of fear that “overstepping a certain line may spell financial ruin, or worse, at the hands of the powers-that-be”. Though Gabowitsch does acknowledge that a more open political debate is allowed on the internet, he notes that “even among under-35-year-olds, fewer than 5% use the internet as a source of information about politics”. While the situation may not be quite as dire as Gabowitsch claims, it is fairly clear that the major sources of political news for most Russians tend to cast Vladimir Putin and his fellow party members in a positive light. It is not hard to see how this could lead someone to form a more positive view of the president than would otherwise be expected.

This table shows Putin's approval rating during his first period as president, 2000-2008. Image by Wikipedia user LokiiT

This table shows Putin’s approval rating during his first period as president, 2000-2008. Image by Wikipedia user LokiiT

4)      Lack of Other Options

Perhaps you, like me, have found yourself at various points going to the polls and knowing that you are going to have to choose between the lesser of two evils, or at least the lesser of two idiots.  You end up choosing someone, because you have to if you are going to perform your civic duty, but you are by no means enthused. In fact, you are convinced that there will be some bad results if the person you vote for gets elected, but hopefully it will not be as disastrous as the potential tenure of the opposing candidate.

In my previous job, I spent much of my time studying Egypt as it went through the transition from President Hosni Mubarak to a more democratic system, or at least what was supposed to be a more democratic system. Within a year of the time that Mohamed Morsi – Egypt’s first truly democratically elected president – was sworn into office, many liberal groups were calling for the military to oust him.  Not only did the democratic transition not improve the lives of Egypt’s average citizens: it actually seemed to make them worse in many ways.

There was an obvious reason for this result. In the years that Mubarak and his National Democratic Party ruled the roost, they made it difficult for viable opposition political parties to develop. The Mubarak regime always liked to point out to the West that if they were to go, the only thing to fill their place would be the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that had managed to maintain significant support and organizational structures throughout the country despite government attempts to ban it, squash it, and otherwise discourage its proliferation.

When Mubarak got the boot, his self-fulfilling prophecy came true. Liberal groups were too badly divided and out of touch with average Egyptians to do well in national elections. The top vote getters were all Islamist groups who were better at doling out charity and religious proscriptions than making a government run effectively. Even the most basic functions of government became a struggle. The country became more and more unstable, the economy spiraled downward, and Egyptians became increasingly divided among themselves.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because this is very close to the situation we now see in Russia. Sure, there are political parties opposing Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and its majority in parliament. However, the government has made it difficult for such parties to organize (though there may be a bit of progress on this front), and it is unclear how much better any of them would be than the Putin government.

United Russia currently holds 238 out of 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly. The next largest group is the Communist Party, with 92 seats.  I think it is safe to say that most Americans (and a whole lot of Russians) would not prefer the communists to Mr. Putin. With 64 members, the next largest party is A Just Russia. It is closer to the political center but is still socialist in its ideology. This would be enough to turn many Americans off to it, though it would surely be seen as better than the communists. The last major group, with 56 seats, is the Liberal Democratic Party, which despite its name is actually on the far right, embracing both nationalist and neo-imperialist tenets. There does not appear to be any party on that list that could really make most Americans happy.

More to the point, none of these parties have ever enjoyed real political power (apart from those members who belonged to the old communist regime), so it is hard to know exactly how they would respond if they ever held high office.  They have not proven themselves capable of carrying out the tasks needed to run a government that runs such a large country. Certainly, there is always risk involved when you elect someone who does not have a long track record in government positions, but for many Russians, that risk is probably too big to take.

Despite the flaws of United Russia, which many Russians would be willing to admit, the people of Russia are doing what most human beings do: favoring stability over the unknown.  There is always a possibility that the unknown could be better, of course, but the unknown tends to make us nervous. If given another attractive choice, I think that more Russians would have the guts to pull the lever for the other guy (or gal) on voting day. Until that point, they are likely to stick with Putin, who has at least helped to revive their economy and enhanced their status on the world stage. Whether or not it makes sense, that is why Vladimir Putin is so popular.