By Vladimir V. Kara-Murza
If one is to believe VTsIOM, Russia’s state-run polling agency, public support for Vladimir Putin has reached “a new record height” and currently stands at 89.9 percent—a figure obligingly trumpeted by official television channels. “I am waiting for the day when VTsIOM puts Putin’s poll standing at 101 percent, and this, I think, will happen if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow,” remarked opposition politician Lev Shlosberg, commenting on the news.
Putin’s supposed “popularity” is the chief argument his apologists both inside and outside Russia use when responding to Kremlin critics. Too often, this “fact” is also accepted at face value—if with regret—by informed and unbiased commentators.
It should not be.
Opinion polls are only meaningful if two simple conditions are in place: if respondents have access to objective information, and if they are not afraid to state their views. Both of these are absent in today’s Russia. National television—the primary source of information for 80 percent of the population—has long become a trumpet of regime propaganda (and an aggressive and intolerant one, at that), with opponents of the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy not only kept off air, but also regularly denounced as “national traitors” and the “fifth column.” This demonization does not stop at words. High-profile opponents of the regime have been imprisoned or forced into exile. Some—including the most prominent leader of Russia’s democratic opposition, Boris Nemtsov—have been murdered.
Given this atmosphere, not many people would dare to respond in the negative when they receive a phone call or a house visit from a stranger enquiring about their attitude toward Putin.
Putin’s “89.9 percent support” is no more meaningful than the “89.6 percent” of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, or the “88.6 percent” of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, recorded a few years before both strongmen were forced out of power amid mass street protests. “The higher this figure, the closer we are to the moment when the absurdity of yet another nationwide ‘approval’ becomes completely obvious,” observed Yevgeny Kiselev, once Russia’s best-known television anchor, who is now working in Ukraine. “In every [Soviet] election the ‘unbreakable bloc of communists and non-party candidates’ confidently received more than 99 percent of the vote… Yet one fine day, both the bloc and the unanimous support disappeared—as if they were flushed out.”
One fine day, the Putin regime will similarly disappear, along with its lies, its lawlessness, and its aggression. On that day, the process of Russia’s recovery can begin—the process made more difficult with every new day the Kremlin continues under its current occupants.
Kremlin's Dubious Opinion Polls