Vladimir Putin’s ratings are falling. Unsurprising, say some, given the president’s muted response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the causes run much deeper. It’s citizens’ trust in Putin, not their approval of the president that is failing.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a so-called “rally-around-the-flag” effect in several countries around the world: this is the name by which a sudden popularity hike of incumbents in times of crisis is known. In Germany, the governing Christian Democratic Union is now around 40 percent in opinion polls – unseen since 2013 – while its closest rivals, the Social Democrats and the Greens languish at 15 percent. In the Netherlands prime minister Mark Rutte’s party enjoyed a surge from the low 20s to the mid-30s in the matter of weeks. The ratings of Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, originally a compromise figure and political outsider, hit the roof in March and April. Even French president Emmanuel Macron whose popularity was seriously bruised by the protests against his reforms, enjoyed a brief surge in public opinion surveys.
Notably absent from the club of leaders having a good crisis is Vladimir Putin. According to the independent Levada Center not only did Putin not enjoy a surge in popularity but his approval and trust ratings are worse than ever. In April 59 percent approved Putin’s activities as president; a number that would seem comfortable for a leader in a democracy, but which, for Putin, represents a historic low. Similarly, only 28 percent named Putin as one of “five or six politicians whom they trust the most” – another historic minimum, corroborated by the findings of the state-owned pollster VTsIOM. According to Levada women, people with secondary-level education and older voters tend to trust Putin disproportionately – nothing new here – but the line between the rebellious liberals in Moscow and conservative voters in smaller towns and the countryside who seemed to be Putin’s core constituency is fading.
It would be easy to explain all this with the president having taken a back seat during the coronavirus pandemic. While Putin did not commit major mistakes in handling the crisis like British prime minister Boris Johnson, and certainly did not exhibit the extraordinary indifference, incompetence and corruption of US president Donald Trump, he did indeed delegate responsibility for crisis management to the regions, while holding back on providing significant financial support to governors, businesses or citizens.
But this would be a lazy and insufficient explanation. Save for the initial weeks of the crisis, Putin has been very much present in Russian media and announced whatever positive measure there was to announce, focused his statements on topics with a positive connotation (mostly work) and occasionally scolded subordinates. These appearances, if one squinted, looked like slightly modified, skeletal versions of the “Direct Line”, Putin’s carefully orchestrated yearly television shows pretending to be interactive interviews, in which Putin berates public officials and solves problems from stalled road repairs to failing marriages, all in the blink of an eye. Putin is reasonably present, but these old recipes do not seem to work.
In fact, both of the above indicators had been on a downwards trajectory for years. Three years ago, in March 2017, one year before the end of his third presidential term and towards the end of a period of abnormally strong support often referred to as “Crimean consensus”, Putin’s approval rating was at 82 percent. In November 2017 59 percent named him as one of the 5-6 politicians whom they trusted the most, far ahead the second placed Sergey Shoigu (23%), the minister of defence surfing on the waves of Russia’s restored military glory. These numbers started falling in 2018 and have more or less been falling ever since. In March 2019, after the PR disaster of the 2018 pension reform, protests and electoral upsets in the regions, Putin’s approval rating was 64 percent and his trust rating was 41 percent.
However, the difference between the two trajectories is striking. While Putin’s approval rating seems to have settled around – or slightly below – 60 percent, his trust rating experienced a further precipitous drop, a whopping 13 points, in a little more than a year. Therein lies the real concern for the Kremlin.
It is an oft repeated mantra that Putin is more of an institution than a political figure. What this really means beyond the myth of the national leader placing himself above the arduous job of actually running the state is rarely explained. Putin as an institution is perhaps best explained through the crisis of political responsibility, which engulfed Russia in the past decade. A continuous centralisation of revenues and appointments has led to a situation, in which most regions are led by governors without political and fiscal authority or popular legitimacy. With the opaque Presidential Administration (and in certain areas the Security Council) emerging as the most powerful decision-making body, the government has had an increasingly weak influence over the policies that it supposedly implements. Supposedly representative institutions have been hollowed out with their powers outsourced to ‘adhocrats’, trusted technocrats and opaque configurations of security elites. Increasingly for citizens as well as lower-level officials, Putin has remained the only visible and tangible political authority. This in turn means that the president’s intervention is sought more and more often to solve local problems, from rigging an election in the Primorsky Krai, to stopping the construction of a church in Yekaterinburg. This does not mean that Putin has exercised “manual control” continuously or even increasingly; however, Russians have been asked to believe that in case a problem cannot be solved at the local level, Putin is able to solve it; that while the president may not participate in day-to-day matters, but his orders are eventually carried out.
This is what recent months have called into question. The implementation of Putin’s “May Decrees” in 2012 was patchy but there was no sense of urgency. The National Projects, another signature policy, which has most likely been shelved, could not fully materialize in public conscience. With the coronavirus pandemic, however, Russia faces a crisis of unknown proportions, in which no one really knows what to do. Many look to Putin for guidance, but instead of offering solutions or giving concrete orders he calls on lower-level officials to come up with solutions. And when he does give orders, these are not always carried out. When Russian doctors launch an online petition to call on the government to pay out bonuses that Putin promised a month ago, they are not questioning Putin’s decisions, but his ability to implement them. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between “approval” and “trust”.
In an enjoyable and well-argued piece on popular memes featuring Putin Svetlana Shomova pointed out something very important: despite his best efforts, Putin was unable to disassociate his ratings and image from the reality on the ground. In my view this, rather than a constitutional reform or diplomatic grandstanding would have been the ultimate step in his graduation from politician to institution. In December 2016 when Putin seemed to be at the apex of his glory, I asked whether he would succeed in pulling the ultimate trick of building a virtual reality to hide empty fridges and missing paychecks and concluded that he was well placed to try.
Three and a half years later it still does not look like Putin is going anywhere any time soon. Among other things, in Levada’s survey no one is trusted even remotely as much as he is, not to mention that there is rarely appetite for momentous political changes during crises. Even his constitutional reform enjoys a higher degree of support than a month ago (though the reasons are unclear). But it looks like the big experiment of placing Putin above the system that he created has failed. And this will have consequences once the crisis is over.