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Explaining Putin's popularity: Rallying round the Russian flag

- September 9, 2014

(Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)
The following is a guest post from sociologist Sam Greene (King’s College London) and political scientist Graeme Robertson (UNC-Chapel Hill).
Whatever the international ramifications of the outbreak of conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the domestic consequences within Russia seem clear. Popular support in Russia for President Vladimir Putin and his foreign policy has reached stratospheric levels. According to the polling agency Levada Center, in October 2013, before the seriousness of the crisis in Ukraine was obvious, Putin’s approval rating stood at a solid 64 percent. The most recent reading, from August 2014, put Putin’s approval at a massive (even by his standards) 84 percent. In the same period, the proportion of the population who thought the country was moving in the right direction increased from 40 to 62 percent, and the skeptics are down to 22 percent from 43 percent in 2013. All this despite the imposition of increasingly broad sanctions by both the United States and the European Union and a marked slowing of the Russian economy.
Most significantly, Putin’s soaring popularity means that his support is no longer limited to the poorer, more rural, less-educated Russians that we (and others) have argued have been his traditional constituency. After his reelection in 2012, as many commentators noted, Putin seemed to have given up on Russia’s “creative classes,” launching campaigns that appealed to Orthodox believers and traditionalists but that led to high levels of anger and contempt among the “angry urbanites” who had protested election fraud in the winter of 2011-12. However, the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s decisive, rapid and successful annexation of Crimea has transformed the political dynamic, winning Putin rising support even among those who had previously opposed him. While Putin’s supporters are often portrayed in media and scholarly work as lumpen, our research shows that, for now at least, this is far from the truth.
We have been closely following political opinion, emotions and orientations among educated, prosperous urban Russians over the past couple of years (with the generous support of the Smith Richardson Foundation — see here for more details and data). In particular, we carried out a panel survey in October 2013 and July 2014 in which we asked individuals the same questions at different points in time, allowing us to track exactly what kinds of people had changed their views over the course of the Ukrainian crisis. Everyone in the survey was university-educated, middle class, and an Internet user living in a big city. The first round of the survey took place just after mayoral elections in Moscow and other cities in 2013, while the July round took place this year, just before the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine.
The results show a stunning rallying around the flag even among those who were once bitterly opposed to Putin and his administration. While only 48 percent of educated urbanites approved of Putin in October 2013, fully 75 percent – close to the national number – did in July. The proportion who think the country is headed in the right direction doubled from 27 percent to 55 percent. Similarly, while 37 percent of respondents said they were angry at Russia’s leaders in October, only 18 percent expressed anger in July. Indeed, the proportion of respondents saying that Russia’s leadership made them feel hopeful about the future doubled from 22 percent to 44 percent!
So who are the converts to the president’s side? There is no evidence in our survey data that economic evaluations (whether personal, national, retrospective or prospective), which are typically closely tied to approval dynamics, have anything to do with changes in Putin’s approval ratings. Nor do the converts differ from the rest of the population in levels of political interest – this is clearly not just about a change in the responses of those usually disengaged from politics. Instead, as is typical in rally-round-the-flag effects, Putin’s approval has been improving in those areas where it previously lagged – among younger people and among those who did not vote for him in 2012. The biggest increase is among previous nonvoters – 62 percent of people who did not vote in the presidential election improved their evaluation of Putin since October. However, his support has also increased significantly among liberals and Communists alike – 56 percent of voters for the liberal presidential candidate, Mikhail Prokhorov, and 59 percent of voters for the Communist, Gennady Ziuganov, expressed higher levels of approval of Putin in July 2014 than in October 2013.
Of course, not all educated urbanites in our sample were equally thrilled with their president and his policies. Some 22 percent still said they thought Russia would be freer if the opposition took over, 13 percent thought the country would be safer and 19 percent richer, though each of these numbers was down from October. A minority are even more alienated than they were before, but they are a very small minority. Some 18 percent reported being more angry at the Russian leadership than in October 2013 and 14 percent of respondents expressed less hope for the future than before, among them significant numbers of previous Putin voters and non-voters. In fact, 14 percent of people who reported voting for Putin in 2012 said they would not do so if an election were held now. This figure, however, is dwarfed by the number of converts to the president – fully 39 percent of those who reported not voting for Putin in 2012 now said they would.
The big question, of course, is what is behind this marked increase in the president’s popularity and how long these soaring approval ratings will last. Do these ratings represent a real change in Russian elite opinion away from integration with the world economy in general and with Western Europe in particular? Has there been a real shift in underlying values, or are the current approval ratings a kind of “sugar high” that will quickly dissipate? Will Putin feel the need to engineer further foreign crises and adventures, in order to keep his citizens rallying around the flag?
It is hard to know for sure, but the nature of the swelling support should give the Kremlin pause. In our survey we found no underlying shift in support for democracy, civil rights or other values among our sampled population. Even attitudes toward the United States did not change dramatically – while 53 percent of our July 2014 sample consider the U.S. to be an “enemy,” the number in October was already a stunning 42 percent – and attitudes to European countries like Germany, which have also joined the sanctions charge against Russia, barely changed at all. By July 2014, our educated urbanites felt more closely connected to Russian culture and identified more with the Russian state, but the differences were small and quite possibly reflect the impact of the temporary crisis atmosphere rather than a deep underlying change. Crises, of course, can be key turning points that become firmly etched in the minds of citizens, altering their worldview for decades to come. While this story is clearly far from over, there is as yet no reason to believe that there has been a fundamental shift of outlook among Russia’s urban elite.

See here for additional Monkey Cage coverage of events in Russia and Ukraine. Recent articles include:

Erik Herron and Nazar Boyko: Ukraine’s next electoral challenge

Ralph Clem: What exactly is Putin’s new ‘New Russia’?

Timothy Frye: For Ukrainian voters, key is policy preferences, not native language or ethnicity, of candidates