Trust in Putin continues to fall, numbers in on PM Mishustin for first time

Trust in Putin continues to fall, numbers in on PM Mishustin for first time
Trust expressed in Russian President Vladimir Putin fell to a little over a third in January. New PM Mikhail Mishustin was surveyed for trust for the first time and scored 3%.
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 14, 2020

The number of people expressing trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin fell to a little over one-third (35%) in January, down by 4pp compared to September according to a new poll by independent pollster the Levada Center.

Trust in Putin has slipped in the past few years as Russia’s economy and real incomes have lost ground. However, Putin’s personal popularity remains at a whopping 68% according to Levada.

Trust is down from a high in November 2017, when the confidence rating in the president was 59%; over the past two years, it has almost halved, falling by 24 pp.

Other people

The latest poll results saw some other changes. Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu moved up to 19%, just behind Putin himself, whereas the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was reappointed for his 16th year in the job during the recent government reshuffle, maintained his third place, but saw his popularity increase slightly to 17% from 14% in September, when the last poll was run.

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhironovsky has fallen from his second slot in September to fourth place with 14%. And trust in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) leader Gennady Zhuganov ticked up very slightly to 7% from 6% in September, but still down from the 10% he enjoyed three years ago.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the collapse of trust in former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It sank from 9% in September to 5% in January. Medvedev was the big loser in the recent government reshuffle, losing his job as PM to be appointed as the deputy head of the State Council. It is in the process of being upgraded to a state body, but it remains unclear what powers the revamped organ will have under the mooted constitutional changes this year.

Also noteworthy are the results on anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny. He continues to barely register in the trust polls: trust in Navalny was 3% in January. While the international press’ love affair with the handsome and dynamic Navalny continues, to the Russian population he remains largely a non-entity as a politician, although he has much more influence as an anti-corruption campaigner.

Pollsters run rule on Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin for first time

Pollsters ran the rule on the new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, for the first time. The former head of the tax service kept a low profile until Putin picked him to head the government. He debuts with a 3% trust rating. Mishustin remains a relative unknown for the Russian people who were ambivalent about his credentials in the poll; 4% said they don't trust him, according to Levada.

However, Levada has been following Mishustin’s popularity rating for several years and here there has been a radical change: respondents disapproved of Mishustin’s work for all of his last decade as head of the tax service, despite his low public profile. He scored between 24% and 41% approval versus 51% and 71% disapproval rates with a short period at the start of 2017 when his approval just exceeded his disapproval. But since Mishustin was appointed prime minister his approval numbers reversed and in the latest poll 48% of respondents approved of his work (despite the fact he hasn't done anything yet), while 37% disapproved, with another 15% abstaining – a very high level of abstention for these approval polls, where abstentions are typically only 1-2%. It seems so far that Russians are giving him the benefit of the doubt; and “anyone is better than Medvedev” sentiments probably play a role here too as Medvedev was always deeply unpopular.

The point behind Putin’s decision to reshuffle government was underlined by the poll, with the number of those who do not trust anyone or found it difficult to answer was 39%. That’s more than Putin’s trust rating.

Indeed, going forward it will be interesting to see if the approval rate for the government improves as the whole point of the government reshuffle was to do something about the effectiveness of the government which has notably failed to improve the lot of the average Russian.

Approval in the government remained in the red in January according to Levada, with 44% approving of its work versus 54% disapproval in the last poll in December before the reshuffle. Likewise the approval of the work of the Duma was only at 41% versus 56% disapproval.

Against that, as bne IntelliNews has reported, Russia’s governors have been enjoying an all-time high in popularity recently and improved their rating once again in January moving up to 67% approval from 65% in December, according to Levada, putting themselves within 1pp of Putin’s own popularity rating.

It is not for nothing that Putin seems to be intending to move from the presidency in 2024 to head the State Council, which is largely made up regional governors.

However, January’s poll numbers suggest that the changes are seen positively as the Russia is moving “in the right direction” poll result was up from 49% in December to 52% in January, although it is probably too early to say this is a consequence of Putin’s changes. It perhaps has more to do with the growth in real incomes in 2019 announced in December and the rapid fall in inflation in the second half of last year, which also has a material impact on incomes.

Dodgy numbers

There was some debate over these “trust” polls last year as the form of the question is important and makes a big difference to the results the poll produces.

The Levada Center asks an open question about trust, that is, respondents themselves choose the politicians they trust.

The state-owned pollster, the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), ran a similar poll in January last year. It found that trust in Putin had fallen to a 13-year low.

However, VTsIOM then changed its approach to the question and trust numbers recovered somewhat. The agency has now stopped running the embarrassing poll on a weekly basis, switching to once a month. The VTsIOM questionnaire has changed from an open format where respondents are asked to choose the politicians they trust to a closed form where they are asked if they trust specific politicians named by the pollster. According to the latest VTsIOM data, three quarters of Russians (73.1%) trust Putin.

The impact of Putin’s January 15 state of the nation speech where he introduced radical changes to the government and the constitution have yet to show  up in the polls, according to Levada Center director Lev Gudkov.

“A decrease of 24 percentage points since November 2017 is very noticeable decline. And this is an open question without prompting surnames, therefore more reliable,” Gudkov said as cited by Vedomosti.

Gudkov went on to speculate that the impact of the state of the nation speech would be temporary and said that Russians are more influenced by the success, or lack thereof, in the ability of the RUB25.7 trillion ($390bn) investments planned for the 12 national projects to improve the quality of their lives. The population is more focused on the nuts and bolts results like rising incomes and falling inflation, rather than Putin’s rhetoric and Russia’s international military adventures.

“[Putin’s] new rhetoric concerning social topics gives a short-term effect. The fall began a long time ago, and this is not even the effect of the pension reform of 2018: it is going slowly and gradually, and this is a more revealing trend than the sharp jumps in the rating. Dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the economy and the inability to earn money normally is growing,” Gudkov said.

Nevertheless, Putin remains by far the most genuinely popular politician in Russia. The approval rate for the president’s activities has remained at approximately the same level (67–70%) for six months.

This is explained by the fact that trust concerns primarily the assessment of the social sphere, but approval is connected with foreign policy and Putin’s “fatherly care” rhetoric, which has been a feature of Russian politics for centuries.

“That is, these are different roles of the president - in the external arena and inside the country. The assessment of activity in foreign policy is high, while in domestic it is constantly decreasing,” Gudkov said. This quirk of the polls is also responsible for the good standing of Shoigu and Lavrov.

The increase in Shoigu's rating in particular is apparently related to Russia’s successes in theatres of conflict such as Syria and now increasingly Libya. “Perhaps, Russia's participation in the events in Syria and in the Libyan settlement is affecting [trust in Shoigu],” said Gudkov.

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This article is from the bne IntelliNews Russia monthly country report. Sign up to receive the report straight to your inbox each month. It covers the slow-moving macro- and micro-economic trends, the major political news and a round-up of the main sectors and corporate news. The first month is free and you can unsubscribe at any time. See a sample here.

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