Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity slumped to 53%, according to the state-owned pollster, the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), in the wake of a brutal crackdown by police on weekend demonstrations called by jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, Putin’s approval rating dropped to two-decade low of 53% in April 20202 during the worst of the coronacrisis last year, but has since recovered to end last year at 65%, according to independent pollster the Levada Center – a level it has been at for all of his first term in office.
In the trust poll he fared less well, with the level of trust falling from 59% in 2017 to 25% in May 2020, the latest data available, but he remains by far the most trusted politician in Russia.
However, six years of real income stagnation and now graphic images of police bludgeoning peaceful protesters from the last two weeks of demonstrations are hitting home, according to the pollster. Levada and VTsIOM have roughly equivalent results.
“He thought that the Russia population could live with stagnation, playing the long game with the West. It turns out the Russian population today is not like that in WW2. They want the same things as everyone, that is prospects for improving living standards and good government and public service delivery,” said Tim Ash, senior sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, in a note emailed to clients.
“It’s interesting that in the first decade of Putin’s rule real GDP growth pa was 5.5%. In the second decade it was 2% pa, and in the five years since the annexation of Crimea it has been just 0.15%. Over this same first decade per capita GDP rose six-fold, but has since dropped by around one third. Russians have been getting poorer in recent years under Putin and there is a limit to how many foreign adventures can hide the fact. Meanwhile, Navalny’s [Putin’s Palace] video has exposed the fact that under Putin the oligarchs and his clique have been getting fabulously wealthy,” Ash added.
The stagnation of recent years is not entirely Putin’s doing. The world suffered a massive shock from the Global Financial crisis caused by the US mismanagement of its mortgage market in 2008. And due to growing tensions with the West Putin diverted all of Russia’s resources into modernising the military, starting in 2012. The next year Russia’s GDP growth fell to zero and has been around that number ever since.
However, Putin’s decision to annex the Crimea in order to secure Moscow’s control of its only warm water port at Sevastopol was a Rubicon that escalated the confrontation with the West and brought down punishing sanctions on Russia.
Belatedly the Kremlin has been trying to undo the damage, and it launched the 12 National Projects in 2018 to bring back growth, but the crises of the 2014 oil shock and the 2020 coronacrisis mean the deadline for this project has already been pushed back from 2024 to 2030. In the meantime, social dissent has been slowly rising in Russia.
The slow progress has not been helped by Putin’s decision to prioritise his “fiscal fortress” policies over using Russia’s massive reserves and underleveraged status to boost economic growth. In effect, Putin has been running an austerity budget for more than half a decade, trying to preserve the government’s massive financial resources as a strategic weapon in the economic war he has been fighting with the US instead of using them to boost growth.
The VTsIOM poll was conducted on January 22-24 over the weekend of the first protests organised by Team Navalny and is the first to measure the temperature of the social mood after the country erupted into the biggest anti-government protests since 2011.