The Daily Star (Lebanon)

The danger of an unpopular Russian president

- TIKHON DZYADKO

Just seven months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin won re-election, for the fourth time, with 77 percent of the vote. But according to a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, if a presidenti­al election were held now, Putin would probably receive only 47 percent of the vote, forcing him into a second-round runoff. This is a dangerous state of affairs for Russia and the world.

Of course, poll data in Russia do not necessaril­y reflect the real balance of power.

Yet such a steep decline is a remarkable developmen­t, not least because Russians, who remember well the harsh punishment­s dissidents faced during Soviet times, often prefer to speak positively of their leaders when asked.

Putin first secured the presidency in 2000 on the promise to raise living standards and restore Russia’s status as a leading global power.

Fortunatel­y for him, oil prices began to skyrocket. Meanwhile, he set to work reviving the Soviet Union, under a different name but similarly based on opposition to American global leadership and Western-style democratiz­ation.

From the start, Putin used media censorship to secure his authority, ensuring that any success – including rising oil prices – was hailed as his personal achievemen­t. As the speaker of Russia’s Duma (Parliament), Vyacheslav Volodin, declared in 2014, “There is Putin – there is Russia; there is no Putin – there is no Russia.”

Failures, of course, were never Putin’s fault. So in 2007, when economic growth was slowing and social inequality rising, Putin delivered a speech at the Munich Security Conference condemning the United States for its domination of global affairs, and implying that the expansion of NATO into the Baltics was directed against Russia.

Suddenly, all of Russia’s struggles could be blamed on a new cold war, supposedly declared by the West. In 2008, Kosovo’s declaratio­n of independen­ce and Russia’s war with Georgia further reinforced Putin’s “besieged fortress” narrative.

Nonetheles­s, by 2013, Putin’s approval ratings dropped to record lows – even lower than today’s levels. So Putin pulled out the big guns, first metaphoric­ally and then literally. In 2014, after Russian athletes performed impressive­ly at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (with the help of a vast state-sponsored doping system), Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

Putin, state media proclaimed, was fulfilling his promise of restoring Russia’s former greatness.

Putin’s approval rating soared to 85 percent. Russian stores were filled with T-shirts emblazoned with his face alongside phrases like “Thanks for the Crimea” and “The Politest of People.” For the overwhelmi­ng majority of Russians, Putin’s authority was indisputab­le.

If their president supported a policy or decision, Russians willingly accepted it, however unpopular it had been initially.

Putin had followed the advice attributed to Vyacheslav Konstantin­ovich von Plehve, who served as the director of police, and later the interior minister, under Czar Nicholas II: “To avert a revolution, we need a small victorious war.”

But while Putin’s small victorious war boosted his standing and silenced dissent, the long-term consequenc­es have been severe, owing to the stringent Western sanctions imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea. As a result of those sanctions, the ruble’s value has fallen by half against the dollar, inflation is up and Russian households’ purchasing power and living standards have fallen. At the end of last summer, the cash-strapped Russian government was forced to raise the retirement age – a move opposed by 90 percent of the population. Not even an emergency television appeal by Putin himself could secure broader public support.

Moreover, despite Putin’s backing, the ruling United Russia party has suffered rare electoral setbacks in Russia’s far east. Representa­tives of the nationalis­t, anti-Western Liberal Democratic Party trounced the United Russia candidates in second-round runoffs in the gubernator­ial elections in the Khabarovsk and Vladimir regions.

In a gubernator­ial election in Primorsky Krai, a Communist Party candidate appeared to win – thanks partly to protest votes against United Russia – before the election was ruled invalid, and the United Russia candidate was declared the winner. The uproar was so potent that, for the first time in Russia’s post-Soviet history, the election results were annulled.

Some experts claim that United Russia’s electoral defeats reflect a kind of “power fatigue.” But the fact remains that as average Russians’ well-being has declined – and Putin cronies’ wealth has continued to swell – proclamati­ons of Russia’s greatness have begun to ring hollow.

Citizens now wonder how strong Russia’s position really is.

Buckling under sanctions and isolated by the West, the country has begun to look less like a great power than a geopolitic­al has-been.

Official propaganda still blames the West for the country’s plight, but Russians aren’t convinced. And they aren’t nearly as impressed by Russia’s engagement in faraway Syria, whatever boost it might provide to the country’s role in world affairs, as they were by the annexation of neighborin­g Crimea.

But if Putin’s 18 years in power has taught us anything, it is that his declining approval ratings are not good news for anyone. Russians may be tired, but Putin is not. And if he feels that his authority is waning, he may soon decide that it’s time for another victory at others’ expense.

‘To avert a revolution, we need a small victorious war’

Tikhon Dzyadko is a Russian analyst and journalist at the independen­t television network RTVI. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaborat­ion with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).

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