The grotesque revision of the methodology behind the Russian president’s trust rating by the state-owned VTsIOM pollster following a comment by Putin’s spokesman does not only show how malleable statistical data are in Russia. It also tells a lot about a sclerosis of decision-making triggered by a worrying crisis of responsibility.
Last week, the state-owned pollster VTsIOM abruptly changed the methodology behind its presidential trust rating surveys after it emerged that Vladimir Putin’s rating fell to its historical low. The switch from an open-ended to a yes or no question resulted in Putin’s trust rating jumping from 30.5% to 72.3% overnight. It followed a critical remark by Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov who told a journalist that he expected experts to analyze how trust in the president can decline if – as some surveys showed – his electoral rating was rising.
This was not the first time in the recent past that official numbers were abruptly revised. In February this year the Statistical Service announced that the country’s economy had apparently registered a significantly bigger growth in 2018 than anyone had expected. Ostensibly, this was due to a construction boom related to the 2018 FIFA World Cup as well as gas projects in Northern Russia. In fact, as it almost immediately turned out, the difference between the earlier estimates and the new one was due to a revision of how Russia’s GDP is calculated. For instance, the data on construction were revised upwards and Russia even registered an unexplained investment boost in the third quarter of 2018. Soon, a series of economists expressed distrust in the new growth figures.
First, it is a truism that robust statistics are the basis of sound policymaking. When Greece collapsed in 2010, it was essentially due to fraudulent account-keeping. It was tantalizingly easy to change the methodology to fit the purposes of the government in office and thus make them less accountable to Greek citizens and Greece’s foreign partners alike. Eventually, however, reality set in and did so brutally.
A gap between reality and doctored data will not automatically and immediately translate to a loss of trust – to twist a Russian adage, television sometimes trumps the fridge -, but it will immediately complicate policymaking and erode trust in any data published by the government, which will in turn further worsen Russia’s investment conditions. It will also complicate the operationalization of the so-called KPIs (key performance indicators), which the corporate-minded deputy head of the Russian Presidential Administration, Sergei Kiriyenko wants regional governors and the domestic policy department of the PresAd to follow in order to make domestic governance more effective. What if, following the example set by their superiors, governors start to take a broad view on one of their KPIs that happens to be “trust in the authorities”? How legitimate will any decision be based on these indicators if it is understood that their definition can change upon the whims of a political leader? And of course: is Alexei Navalny right when he claims that the pay raises for public servants announced in Putin in 2012 were not implemented?
Second, the abrupt and grotesque nature of the change executed by VTsIOM tells a lot about the crisis of responsibility that has engulfed Russian politics in recent years. The absence of clear and visible political authorities, bar the president, first led to a sclerosis on lower levels of the government where local and regional leaders are looking for cues from Moscow before taking any decision beyond the day-to-day management of their political subject. This happened in the Primorsky Krai last year where an attempt of the local authorities to steal an election from an opposition candidate at the last moment resulted in rigging that was too grotesque for the Kremlin to ignore. It happened also in Yekaterinburg where local and regional authorities stood by idly while residents protested against the construction of a church until Putin himself suggested that they organize a “survey” to decide whether the construction should go ahead. The survey was then almost immediately held. Institutions like Rosstat and VTsIOM would perhaps have, a couple of years ago when informal command lines worked better, quietly and gradually changed their figures to present a more favourable picture if this had been expected of them. But now for VTsIOM to change Putin’s trust rating, which had been low for months, a critical remark was needed from the president’s spokesperson. And again, the result was grotesque and revealing.
More importantly, it is questionable whether any such request would have even emerged a couple of years ago when the federal government was (and had all reasons to be) much more confident. Now, however, these requests apparently do merge and in all probability they will as a government that is increasingly unsure of how to manage domestic policies gets increasingly insecure about its image. And the responses will get increasingly grotesque