Eesti Elu
Loved at home, vilified abroad. Putin’s staying power explained. Estonian Life
Rahvusvahelised uudised 13 Mar 2015 EL (Estonian Life)Eesti Elu
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Laas Leivat

Kremlin propaganda is obviously believed by the majority of Russian people. Some say that those who are deprived of any say in their own destiny turn their resentment and hostility on an imagined enemy, be it Ukrainian “fascists” or American imperialists. The main reason that many accept the Kremlin message is because it resonates with their own feelings.

The not-for-profit opinion polling organization, Levada Centre, recently conducted a poll between February 20-23 of 1600 Russians aged 18 or more in 46 different regions of Russia. The research was commissioned by the ‘Echo Moskvy’ radio station. Polling showed that 54% of those asked agreed that Russia is moving in the right direction. Fully 86% of the respondents approve Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president.

(As of this writing it’s not known how the killing of Boris Nemtsov may have affected opinions. It’s said that the public anger surrounding Nemtsov’s murder is not related so much to the loss of someone revered, but has more to do with the West accusing Putin’s team with the crime. Their logic continues: Nemtsov was probably killed as a provocation to politically undermine Russia’s political stability, to worsen relations with the West. Kremlin propaganda does not see Nemtsov has having been a threat to Putin’s presidency and therefore why draw the wrath of the World on to Moscow – a fine bit of propaganda that.)

One could easily dismiss polling results in Moscow, deny their credibility, accuse the pollster of falsifying results. The Levada Centre is used by many Western concerns and institutions, and has a reputation of reliability abroad. Observers suggest that Putin’s popularity as consistently measured is not fake. They say that he is not only respected, but idolized.

Putin’s high rating in popularity polls remains steady, in spite of the devastating economic downturn, the casualties from the fighting in Ukraine and Russia’s international isolation. Why?

Probably the reason which is most often given – Putin has brought back Russia’s former might. During his time in power has Putin has often addressed Russia regaining its sphere of influence, its standing in the world, its capacity to withstand the ‘dictates’ of Washington. As far back as September of 2008 shortly after Russia’s swift victory over Georgia his approval rating hit 88%. He wasn’t president at the time, but he was seen as the ultimate decision-maker in Moscow. In 2000 his popularity hit 84% when he sent Russian troops back in to separatist Chechnya. Putin has gradually rebuilt Russia’s defence industry. It has been said that Russians have regained their self-respect with Putin being instrumental in restoring their national pride.





Another reason for Putin retaining high popularity is the subservience of state owned or controlled media. Amidst an outpouring of nationalist diatribe and outright falsehoods, TV programming centres on blatant Putin-worship. Thus one of Putin`s most powerful tools is his ability to mold public opinion. A Levada survey has established that 94% of those asked are fully dependant on Russian state-dominated television to retrieve news about Ukraine or Crimea. Last year Putin approved of legislation that limits foreign-ownership in Russian media assets to 20%. Thus it will be a pro-Kremlin stance that currently two of the largest independent media companies, Forbes Russia and Vedomosti, will assume.

Another mainstay of Putin`s high rating is his image as an invincible leader who personally symbolizes the state itself. Portrayed as a strong, powerful leader able to withstand malevolent foreigners, Putin seems to milk his `uber-macho` label with gusto – witness the shirtless, scuba-diving, horse-back riding photos that are released occasionally. Putin’s public image simply reinforces his power. But it`s not only the PR effort that is spent in maintaining this image, his style of rule – autocratic and repressive have invited comparisons with Josef Stalin, Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible. And it’s an accepted axiom that Russia has always done better under fearsome leaders. Putin also identifies the state with himself. Last November, his deputy chief of staff in a meeting with political analysts was quoted as saying, “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin” and “an attack on Putin is an attack on Russia”.

The annexation of Crimea is also a significant booster of Putin’s popularity. According to the Kremlin, the takeover of this Ukrainian territory is a response to years of humiliation buy Washnington, its foreign thrusts without giving any consideration to Moscow’s views (NATO expansion, etc), interference in Russia’s sphere (previous Soviet occupied republics are now NATO members). The Kremlin points out that Crimea was simply removed from the Russian SSR by Nikita Khrushchev and added to Ukraine in 1954 making it a territorial rearrangement inside the USSR. A Levada poll in October 2014 indicated 86% of the population of Russia was in favour of the takeover, pumping Putin’s status. (Reports of thousands of Crimean Tatars now leaving their ancestral homeland once again illustrate the arrogant unconcern with which Moscow treats the indigenous peoples of a country or territory in the drive to regain its imperial standing.)

Some other reasons for Putin’s high rating: The Kremlin has worked hard at convincing millions that there is no alternative to Putin. They have been able to prosecute, discredit, co-opt, sideline or emasculate any possible rival. In addition statistics in welfare and healthcare reform has shown improvements. Putin has taken personal credit for this. Also, it seems the middle class has benefited, in gross national product per capita, in travel abroad, in other indicators usually related to the middle class. With international sanctions, the dismal price of oil and other limitations the most up-to-date statistics are not yet available. These are a few other reasons for Putin remaining at the top of any public ratings.

If one takes a penetrating look at the current situation in Russia, one could easily compile several reasons for Putin loosing his popular standing amongst Russians in the near future. But in spite of everything his staying power remains undisturbed. And why should he care about popularity? An iron grip, a curt dismissal of international protest, a fervent restorer of Russian prowess – these are some of the things that keep him on the throne. Is it good for Russia? Nobody dares to offer a candid answer, not in Russia.
Laas Leivat
 
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