Peo­ple and elites blow the whis­tle on Putin’s pop­u­lar­ity

The Australian - - WORLD - NINA KHRUSHCHEVA Nina Khrushcheva is a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs at the New School in New York

From con­trol­ling the me­dia to stok­ing na­tion­al­ism, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has al­ways known how to keep his ap­proval rat­ings high. But Rus­sians’ lives are not get­ting any bet­ter, es­pe­cially af­ter the lat­est round of Western eco­nomic sanc­tions — and Putin’s de­clin­ing ap­proval rat­ing shows it.

In April, the rou­ble was tum­bling, ow­ing partly to the sanc­tions im­posed in re­sponse to the Krem­lin’s al­leged poi­son­ing of the for­mer dou­ble agent Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter Yu­lia on Bri­tish soil. Then, in June, just as the Rus­sia-hosted World Cup was get­ting un­der way, the gov­ern­ment pro­posed in­creas­ing the re­tire­ment age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women, prompt­ing an im­me­di­ate pub­lic back­lash. The re­sult was a sharp 15-per­cent­age-point de­cline in the ap­proval rat­ing of the gov­ern­ment over­all — the largest de­cline of Putin’s 18-year rule.

More­over, trust in Putin him­self dipped to 48 per cent, from about 60 per cent. To put that in per­spec­tive, even at the be­gin­ning of Putin’s third term in 2012 — when there were mass protests over his re­turn to the pres­i­dency af­ter his stint as prime min­is­ter — about 60 per cent of Rus­sians said that they trusted him.

At that time, Putin raised his ap­proval rat­ing by es­tab­lish­ing him­self as Rus­sia’s de­fender. When the US, un­der Barack Obama, showed it­self to be un­will­ing to en­force its “red line” in Syria — the use of chem­i­cal weapons by dic­ta­tor Bashar al-As­sad — the Krem­lin jumped in, es­tab­lish­ing Rus­sia as a sin­is­ter guar­an­tor of As­sad’s dis­ar­ma­ment.

To re­in­force his do­mes­tic stand­ing fur­ther by sig­nalling that Rus­sia does not bend to Amer­ica’s will, Putin granted asy­lum to Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency whistle­blower Ed­ward Snow­den. Within Rus­sia, Putin en­sured that new bridges and roads were built, in­fra­struc­ture was up­graded, and pub­lic spa­ces were re­newed, with parks, foun­tains and cafes.

Though none of this helped Rus­sians eco­nom­i­cally, much less ex­panded their free­doms, it es­tab­lished Putin as a cham­pion of “Great Rus­sia”. Af­ter Rus­sia in­vaded Ukraine and an­nexed Crimea in March 2014 — un­apolo­get­i­cally de­fy­ing the West — his ap­proval rat­ing reached a dizzy­ingly high of 87 per cent.

In March, Putin won the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion hand­ily, se­cur­ing his fourth term as Pres­i­dent with 76 per cent of the vote, ow­ing partly to the ab­sence of other vi­able can­di­dates. Im­me­di­ately af­ter the elec­tion, his ap­proval rat­ing stood at 82 per cent.

But the World Cup that be­gan soon af­ter took a toll. By bring­ing more than 700,000 in­ter­na­tional visi­tors, the tour­na­ment changed Rus­sians’ per­cep­tion of what mat­ters — and of their leader. An un­gra­cious host, Putin stood un­der an um­brella dur­ing the fi­nal post- match cer­e­mony, while the pres­i­dents of Croa­tia and France got soaked by the pour­ing rain.

Mean­while, the Rus­sian peo­ple im­pressed the world with their happy hos­pi­tal­ity. The bar own­ers, train con­duc­tors and English­s­peak­ing vol­un­teers wel­comed visi­tors warmly. Rus­sians re­alised that they didn’t need to win at all costs; they could be great with­out the Krem­lin’s mil­i­taris­tic say-so.

Then the pen­sion re­form was an­nounced, spurring a string of protests that drove Putin to pledge to soften the mea­sure, while ask­ing for Rus­sians’ un­der­stand­ing. Yet, as of Septem­ber 3, 53 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion said that it was ready to protest fur­ther. And on Septem­ber 9, while lo­cal gov­ern- ment elec­tions took place, tens of thou­sands of Rus­sians joined protests or­gan­ised by the anti-cor­rup­tion lawyer and op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny, de­fy­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion of “po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tion” on elec­tion days.

Navalny him­self couldn’t at­tend the event, af­ter be­ing ar­rested for a pre­vi­ous un­sanc­tioned demonstration. But that didn’t stop at least 2500 pro­test­ers from show­ing up on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, where they stood up to mer­ci­less po­lice, wav­ing signs em­bla­zoned with slo­gans like “No Way” (a play on Putin’s name: “put” means “way” in Rus­sian) and “Putin, it’s time to re­tire” (he is 65).

Pro­test­ers in­cluded many young peo­ple, who are an­gry not just about the pen­sion re­form, which will not af­fect them for a long time, but about the Putin regime’s wider fail­ings. Many be­lieve that even if Putin has re­stored Rus­sia’s sta­tus as a “great power”, that does not com­pen­sate for ram­pant cor­rup­tion and a lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties at home. Young peo­ple view the regime as out­dated, and Putin him­self as an ob­sta­cle to the changes — such as in­creased in­vest­ment in so­cial pro­grams — needed to raise liv­ing stan­dards.

But it is not just young peo­ple who are sour­ing on Putin. Rus­sian busi­ness­peo­ple are frus­trated by the ef­fects of sanc­tions and an­gry about planned tax in­creases. Like young Rus­sians, en­trepreneurs are ques­tion­ing whether Putin’s as­sertive for­eign pol­icy of mil­i­tant na­tion­al­ism, which won him so much do­mes­tic sup­port in the past, is worth the price, in­clud­ing the ac­tual cost of Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties and the im­pact of Rus­sia’s in­creas­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion from the West.

Putin surely knows that his po­si­tion is shaky. That is why po­lice meted out such rough treat­ment to pro­test­ers, ar­rest­ing them by the hun­dreds. The Krem­lin fears not only more ral­lies, but also in­ten­si­fy­ing op­po­si­tion from busi­ness­peo­ple, some of whom rank among Rus­sia’s pow­er­ful elites. Re­gional au­thor­i­ties could also be­gin to sab­o­tage the Krem­lin’s de­ci­sions. Putin’s im­age as a stew­ard of Rus­sia’s great­ness and a sym­bol of hope is slip­ping away, and his tried-and-true tac­tic for re­new­ing his pop­u­lar­ity — say, an­nex­ing ter­ri­tory from a neigh­bour­ing coun­try or in­ter­ven­ing in a civil war — is not a prac­ti­cal long-term strat­egy. Un­less Putin makes real changes within Rus­sia, his ap­proval rat­ing will con­tinue to slide, in­creas­ing the chances that one way or an­other, he will fi­nally leave the pres­i­dency when his cur­rent term ex­pires in 2024, if not be­fore.


A Rus­sian land­ing ves­sel pro­tected by he­li­copters un­loads an ar­moured ve­hi­cle dur­ing the Vos­tok-2018 war games south of Vladi­vos­tok at the week­end

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