Public sentiment after the Crimea reset
How long will it be before 2011-2012 style mass protests reemerge?
Just over two years ago, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine drastically changed Russia’s socio-political climate. Up until February/March 2014, the Russian political system had been suffering a legitimacy crisis. The president, prime minister and the government’s approval ratings had been sliding for several years - in late 2011 to early 2012, mass street demonstrations took place in major cities across the country under the slogan “Russia without Putin,” with citizens demanding fair elections. By late 2013, as little as a quarter of the population believed that Putin should definitely be elected president at the next election (50% had no qualms about seeing a new person in office). However, the approval ratings of top-ranking officials, assessments of the majority of public institutions, public opinion as regards politics and the economy had risen sharply by March/April 2014. The shift in sociological indicators was so unexpected and dramatic that many commentators both in Russia and abroad simply refused to trust survey results. Phrases such as “I don’t trust sociology,” “people are lying” or “people are intimidated and are afraid of giving answers” became commonplace.
However, if we take into account the vast array of sociological information on the public sentiments of Russians gathered by the Levada Center throughout the period of President Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia - and not only the data for the last two or three years (for example) - the current level of support for the Russian regime does not seem unprecedented. Moreover, it turns out that the Putin regime reached the pinnacle of its popularity not in 2014/2015 but during the period between the start of the 2007-2008 election campaign and the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008. Most evaluations at the time revealed that perceptions of the situation in the country, Putin personally, his achievements etc., reached maximum levels which eclipsed the peaks of the post-Crimean period. Among the main underpinnings of the legitimacy of the political system at the end of the noughties were so-called “Putin stability” and the confidence the majority of the population shared the belief that tomorrow was going to be better than yesterday, and that a better future laid ahead.
2009-2013: crisis of the system’s legitimacy
The economic crisis which began to take effect in early 2009 put an end to this confidence. Improvements in living standards (at least according to public perception as recorded by sociologists) resumed a year to a year and a half later, but delays in the payment of wages along with fears of job losses, reminiscent of the catastrophic year of 1998, left a strong psychological imprint. Stability had come to an end and yet to have made a return. Thus, one of the underpinnings of the Putin regime suddenly disappeared. And, since early 2009, there has been a gradual waning of public support for major state institutions. The president lost nearly a third of his supporters in just two and a half years following the Russo-Georgian war.
Growing public discontent with the authorities created conditions for the 2011-2012 mass protests during which tens of thousands of ordinary disgruntled citizens joined forces with the few, staunch opposition members and political activists. A large number of citizens who had previously been apolitical took to the streets largely due to their feeling of uncertainty, the perceived deadlock, and the inability of the authorities to effectively resolve a multitude of problems. This feeling was shared not only by the so-called middle class, but by society as a whole. Having recovered from the initial shock the protests prompted, the Russian government managed to isolate opposition members and protesters relatively quickly in the eyes of the majority of society. Moreover, protesters became constricted by their own narrow political agenda (demands for fair elections and the President’s resignation) which prevented them from appealing to the majority of Russians who were (and still are) primarily concerned about socio-political problems.
Mass street rallies effectively became a kind of overflow valve which allowed the “emission” of steam helping reduce social tension in the country. The majority of ordinary citizens had expended their discontent by mid-2012 and, having been offered no coherent alternative to the Putin regime by protest leaders, they left protest structures as hurriedly as they had joined them six months earlier. However, although the authorities managed to neutralize the protest movement, they failed to win back the sympathy of the disgruntled element of society: the population’s attitude to the authorities saw no improvement throughout 2012-2013. Neither the election campaign, nor the Russian national team’s victory at the Sochi Olympics, had any significant impact on the government’s approval ratings.
2014-2015: “The Crimea reset”
It took the annexation of Crimea to effect a “reset” of the Russian political system and reestablish lost legitimacy in the eyes of society. Many of those who had shown their disappointment with the power elite not so long before, having protested at Bolotnaya Square and Academician Sakharov Avenue (mainly those who had been apolitical prior to 2011, having no clear political sympathies – and surveys showed that they were in the majority), reemerged as supporters of the Putin regime. As one of the participants of а focus-group interview told an interlocutor: (and this position can be considered a model one) he had been among those at Bolotnaya Square in 2012 but he now “realized” that he had been wrong. How did such a shift in attitudes occur and, moreover, at such speed?
Let us focus solely on social-and-psychological reasons here. Analysis of public opinion polls and focus-group interviews indicates that Crimea’s “joining” of Russia triggered a surge in nationalism prompting a feeling of nostalgia for the great-superpower status of the Soviet Union. The majority of the population sensed a “revival of the country’s greatness which had been lacking since the collapse of the USSR” was afoot. The ensuing confrontation with the West only exacerbated this mass feeling: we “snatched Crimea” without a second thought for the reaction of the US or Europe. The violation of international norms and obligations was seen as confirmation of this greatness: “we do whatever we want”. Powerful euphoria and strong anti-Western sentiments united the upper and lower strata of Russian society, ordinary citizens and the powers that be for the first time in many years. Aside from that, Ukraine’s second Maidan (in line with warped reports presented by Russian state-owned media) became the epitome of chaos; an overthrow of a “legitimate government”; a regime change orchestrated by Western forces in the eyes of the majority of Russians. And for the Russian authorities, Maidan became a convenient deterrent which could be used to curb protest movements: “Do you want to have your own Maidan?”.
However, the sense of euphoria in the aftermath of Crimea did not last for long. As early as December 2014, joy was supplanted by shock, prompted by the fall of the ruble and rising prices. Similar to early 2009, the economic crisis resulted in plummeting optimism with respect to assessments of developments in the country. However, the government’s approval ratings remained stable. The reduced legitimacy of the political system became evident months later, after the crisis began (as in 2009). Furthermore, the overall aftereffect of the annexation of Crimea turned out to be more of a prolonged and deep-rooted phenomenon than a fleeting euphoric state. Thus, having initially soared in the spring of 2014, Putin’s approval rating along with the approval rating of the United Russia party reached its zenith as late as in May-June 2015 against the backdrop of the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War. This happened at a time when crisis-related shock had already passed and widespread deterioration in living standards was yet to manifest itself due to the nature of the current crisis, and the fact that the majority of the population was managing to adapt to conditions (serious deterioration of the situation was felt only as late as in the second half of 2015). In other words, according to the majority of 2014-2015 public support indicators, Putin’s regime experienced an Indian summer, returning to 2007-2008 levels.
The present day
When we talk of the system being seven years “younger” after the annexation of Crimea, there is a temptation to ask what year we are “in” today and how much time remains before 2011-2012 style protests reemerge. It is impossible to give a definitive answer to this question since long-term trends behave differently. For example, approval ratings of the government, prime minister and the State Duma are back to “pre-Crimea” levels. The drop occurred much faster than during the previous cycle, having taken only two years. The approval rating of United Russia is at the same level as late 2010 – early 2011 (prior to a sharp decline). But today’s party’s stock is probably high enough to ensure victory in the election which is less than two weeks away (especially if canvassing activity of the opposition remain at similar levels to those of recent months). What is more, optimism indicators, assessment of the situation, evaluation of the economic situation in the country and expectations for the future are far worse today than they were pre-Crimea.
On the matter of protests, so far we have not seen mass actions comparable in scale to the events in Kaliningrad or Vladivostok in 2009-2010 which preceded the events at Bolotnaya Square and Academician Sakharov Avenue. However, the protest of truckers from different regions across the country in late 2015 stirred a nationwide public outcry. Numerous local protest actions take place in Moscow today. So far, it is unclear how widely information regarding the truck drivers’ march to the capital has spread across the country. However, some reports suggest that farmers from other parts of the country are prepared to support their comrades. It is not yet a general strike, but tension is growing within the system. It is noteworthy that the growth in dissent is unlikely to lead to a collapse of the Russian regime in the foreseeable future. It will rather result in a gradual loss of control over the political system, increased resistance among society against unpopular political decisions (which are inevitable given the present state of the Russian economy), as well as growing social and inter-elite conflicts. Thus, the economic crisis raises the question as to whether the Russian authoritarian regime possesses the tools to resolve these conflicts or whether the system will be tested to the limit in the light of a lack of resources.
Still, approximately 80% of Russians approve of the president’s activity today (on a par with 2010 levels). However, support reached 89% just a year ago when focus-group participants referred to the president as nothing less than “Vladimir Vladimirovich”. Today, we are more likely to hear them irreverently utter the appellation “uncle Vova”. Recall that in 2011, the president’s approval rating slipped to a “critical” level of 60% within barely a year. Such a level can quite rightly be described as “critical” since in both instances that the approval rating of Vladimir Putin has approached this indicator – in 2005 and 2011 – mass protests have broken out across the country. It must be underscored that it takes no time at all for a situation to morph into a political crisis. Even in the case of negative developments, levels of approval and trust in Putin will probably suffice to ensure his reelection in the coming presidential ballot. We must give the Russian authorities their dues - the efforts they have undertaken in order to halt rising public discontent and ensure a painless procession through the electoral cycle have so far proven successful. This leads to a disturbing conclusion: the more strain that is required from the power elite, and the more resources it has to accumulate during the process of preparing society for the 2018 election, the more rapid and less tractable the decline in the legitimacy of Putin’s regime will be thereafter.
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