By rights, Vladimir Putin should be having the time of his life.
He recently won a resounding reelection to yet another six-year term, a victory that was apparently genuine enough. He’s hosted a massively successful FIFA World Cup. And he’s reduced the U.S. president to a heaving heap of humiliation. Life in politics doesn’t get much better than that.
And yet, according to poll numbers, Putin’s support is falling fast. In a July 8 poll by the Public Opinion Foundation — the polling agency the Kremlin itself uses — only 49 percent of respondents said they would vote for Putin if elections were held Sunday. That’s a drop from 62 percent just a month earlier.
And in a June poll by the independent Levada Center, trusted by most academic researchers, only 46 percent of respondents said they thought the country was headed in the right direction, while 42 percent said they thought things were headed in the wrong direction — a shift from 60 percent and 26 percent, respectively, in April. That’s a 30-point drop in net sentiment in one month. And these aren’t just a couple of rogue polls. The Kremlin-friendly WCIOM polls show the same pessimistic shift.
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To find approval numbers this low, you would have to go back to January 2014. That would be the same January 2014 that immediately preceded Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the war in Donbas and the conflict with the West that crashed Russia’s economy but sent Putin’s popularity soaring.
Why the sudden drop in Putin’s approval ratings?
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Estonia should put its border defenses on high alert. If the Kremlin is looking for a target, it might start with itself. The immediate cause of its misery appears to have been a spectacular own goal: a deeply unpopular change to pensions.
Just as Russia was gearing up for the World Cup, the government began pressing forward with a law to increase the age at which Russians become eligible to collect state pensions. The increase was from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. Thousands of Russians turned out to protest in at least a dozen cities across the country almost immediately.
Russians don’t expect security from their government
Quite a bit of research shows that Russians want the state to provide as much as possible in the way of welfare and cradle-to-grave services. But there is a difference between wanting and expecting. And it is the latter — Russians’ actual political expectations — that seems to shape how ordinary citizens vote and protest.
Whatever the legacies of communism may have been, Russians lived through social, political and economic breakdown in the 1990s (and, indeed, earlier). That experience taught many ordinary people not to rely on the state to deliver prosperity or even security. Russians learned instead to rely on themselves, and so they rarely punish their leaders for failing to make their lives better.
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But Russians do expect the government not to make their lives worse
Making life worse, however, is another matter entirely. One thing can be relied on to prompt protest in Russia: policies that make things palpably harder for any particular group of people, whether homeowners, truckers — or pensioners.
In fact, reneging on pension promises is difficult in just about any country. Social Security is considered the “third rail” of politics in the United States, untouchable no matter how strong the argument may be for changing its terms. Changing the terms of U.K. public-sector pensions caused wave after wave of strikes. The current crisis in Nicaragua, too, began with protests against proposed pension changes.
So what will the Kremlin do?
Putin has survived protests before. These may well remind him of the thousands of pensioners, students and others who came into the streets in 2005 to rally against replacing in-kind social welfare benefits with cash payments.
At that time, spooked by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine only months before, the Kremlin responded with a mixture of concessions and repression. Many of the changes were rolled back. At the same time, however, the Kremlin significantly ramped up efforts to control civil society, creating a system for regulating independent groups that largely remains in place today and laying the groundwork for increasing repression over the ensuing decade.
So far, the public response has been resounding and clear: Only 9 percent of Russians approve of increasing the pension age. Some mixture of concessions and repression will probably be Putin’s approach this time, too. The economy is strong enough — and oil is expensive enough — to delay changing pensions for a few more years.
But the Kremlin has not seemed to want to give in as of late. Take, for another example, the housing protests that erupted last summer over a plan to tear down 4,500 apartment buildings in Moscow, which would have forcibly relocated as many as 900,000 residents, to make room for new development — and prop up the flagging construction business. Rather than give in and find another way to satisfy the construction lobby’s appetite for development at a profit, the Kremlin and its proxies in Moscow city hall have proposed expanding the renovation scheme nationwide. Ominously, the recent training exercises for Interior Ministry troops had them practicing breaking up (fictional) mass pension protests.
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If the Kremlin decides to tough it out, it will signal a return to a more “normal” kind of authoritarian politics, a shift from the remarkable “rally around the flag” approving response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. That kept Putin’s approval rating high — about 80 percent or more — for four years, despite years of economic recession and contracting real incomes.
If current opinion poll trends hold — and it is always dangerous to extrapolate from a few data points — this pension change may turn out to be the first step toward breaking the extraordinary emotional bond between Putin and his people that began with the annexation of Crimea. And if the post-Crimea honeymoon is over, then even the afterglow of the World Cup won’t be enough to drown out the hard realities of Russian economic life.
Samuel Greene is a reader in Russian politics and director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.
Graeme Robertson is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.