Putin, Medvedev in pre-poll popularity contest

The polls show that the Russian public is demanding a more open and competitive political model

As strange as it may sound to outsiders, the people who run Russia are obsessed with approval ratings.

Political competition has been all but extinguished since Vladimir V Putin came to power, so elections serve as little more than a ritual display of loyalty. But Kremlin insiders see popularity as a key to the survival of a government that, 20 years after the Soviet collapse, has few stable state institutions other than its leaders’ personalities.

This accounts for a political life that sometimes looks like a never-ending campaign, in which leaders extinguish wildfires, upbraid billionaire industrialists or, as was seen last week, scuba dive with a camera crew. Polling data has become an essential part of governing.

It will play a significant role in deciding who will become president next spring – Putin or the incumbent, Dmitri A Medvedev – and how the campaign will be waged. Putin has remained the dominant figure, even as he has gone from the presidency to the prime minister’s office.

“This system which has developed over 10 years is based on the support of the population, and that is a medical fact,” said Aleksandr A Oslon, president of the Public Opinion Foundation, who has delivered weekly briefings at the Kremlin for 15 years. “In the last decade there were many disputes about this, but now there is no doubt. The great support of the population is the essence of the existing social order. This is the way the country is built.”

Oslon’s company is one of several that conducts expensive, data-intensive polls on behalf of the Kremlin and other government agencies, including an extensive ‘georating,’ a regular survey of 60,000 Russians, as well as a weekly poll of 3,000 that includes confidential questions shared only with Medvedev’s and Putin’s teams.Oslon’s company seeks to spot dips in public opinion, or collapsing support for appointed regional leaders, before they develop into a serious problem for the Kremlin.

“Polls are a channel for feedback,” Oslon said. “It’s the same as in the world of finance – if there is information that the dollar is falling, the central bank takes measures to stop that fall. They start to buy up the dollar so that it increases. It’s the same in politics.”

Other pollsters seek to identify policy statements and political gestures that resonate with segments of the Russian public, like retirees with nostalgic notions of Soviet power, or the educated urban middle class eager for indications that Russia is becoming a modern nation.

They helped put together Medvedev’s most recent yearly address, which dropped his trademark issue of modernisation in favour of child welfare. And they help shape appearances like Medvedev’s meticulous televised reminiscence of his role during Russia’s war with Georgia, which gave his approval ratings a significant boost.

Among the issues the Russian government faces: The ‘Putin majority’ that appeared a decade ago seems to be shrinking gradually. Both Putin and Medvedev are entering the campaign cycle with approval ratings that – although enviable by most international standards – were lower this summer than at any point since 2008, according to the state-owned All-Russian Public Opinion Centre. More striking is a slide in the popularity of United Russia, the political party that Putin leads.

To stop this drift, coming elections “need to attract the real support of the population,” said Sergei A Markov, a United Russia deputy and Kremlin-connected analyst. “Coloured revolutions happen if the leader is not popular,” Markov said. “He really must be popular.” One option is to reach back to the autocratic populism that became known as ‘the Putin phenomenon.’

The opposite argument is coming from a liberal set of social scientists, who say the figures show the public is demanding a more open and competitive political model.Economist Mikhail E Dmitriyev – whose research group was founded to shape Putin’s economic platform – began warning of a ‘pretty abnormal’ spike in dissatisfaction he observed in political focus groups, first among middle-class Muscovites and then in other large cities.

He characterised the fundamental message with the Russian phrase “my ne bydlo,” meaning, “We are not cattle.”  He said he rushed to release his data so that officials could avoid, say, disruptive outcomes and political confrontations that could run the whole system out of control.“It’s really hard to imagine that an unpopular government which does not have a truly competitive political mandate can run this country smoothly,” said Dmitriyev, president of the Centre for Strategic Research. “It’s not possible. It might have been possible seven decades ago, when the whole system was based on violence and intimidation, but not today.”

Growing dissatisfaction
The Kremlin’s pollsters are not persuaded, although they, too, have documented growing dissatisfaction among urban elites. The government has answers for this narrow but influential slice of the population, like Medvedev’s modernisation drive, Oslon said.

“What is this dissatisfaction connected with? It is connected with the fact that their ecology is not favourable,” he said. “For them, the world is painted in negative colours. But that world is not very big. There is another big world, it has its own problems.”

With summer entering its last lazy stretch before the true beginning of the campaign season, measures are clearly being taken. Last week a camera crew followed Putin to the bottom of a bay in southern Russia, where he was filmed in full scuba gear retrieving two amphoras, long jars with handles common in ancient Greece and Rome. Speaking to reporters afterwards, Putin said that they dated from the sixth century AD and that he had followed the instructions of archaeologists to locate the site, which was about 6 feet below the surface.

Aleksei A Chesnakov, who was a key domestic political strategist throughout Putin’s presidency, said Putin, Medvedev and United Russia have all lost support as the result of the prolonged uncertainty about which man will be president.

But he did not seem worried; the ratings are about where they were in 2007, he said. Approval ratings always wane towards the end of a presidential term, he said, and campaign techniques like television coverage can raise them by as much as 15 to 20 percentage points.

“Anything on screen affects the ratings,” said Chesnakov, a top official in United Russia. “A leader who dives to the bottom of a bay, even if it is not very deep, he shows his health, his vigour.”  Watching it, “you get an emotion, but it may take a week to develop, or a month,” he said.

None of it, he added, should be taken as a sign that something is going wrong. “There are no frightened people in the Kremlin, believe me,” he said. “He dove into the bay not because his ratings are falling but because there are elections coming.”

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