The Limits of Russian Strongman Putin's Power
July seems a good time to draw some conclusions about the current political season and attempt a forecast of the one to come. If I were to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that the culmination of ‘Operation Caretaker’, as planned four years ago, was not a success. Formally, Putin has returned to the Kremlin, but without the mandate he enjoyed in his previous term as president. He is, however, intent on ruling as if his support was as strong as before, and this is the main factor behind Russia’s unrolling political crisis.
The crisis has not yet reached its acute phase. The situation is reminiscent of the moment when an illness might still be taken for a slight indisposition, but the number of white blood cells is already indicating something more serious. The patient, meanwhile, misled by the mildness of his symptoms, is trying to carry on as usual. Let’s take a look at the symptoms of this crisis, basing our analysis on more or less objective data and facts.
Popularity vs. oil
The first of these is a steady decline in Putin’s popularity among Russians. During the 2008-2009 crisis, Putin’s ‘approval balance’ (the gap between the ‘approves’ and ‘disapproves’, according to Levada Centre figures) predictably fell from a maximum of 78 points to 55 (April 2009). It then rose again and steadied at around 60 points. But another steep slide began at the start of 2011: by March Putin had a 40 point balance, and a second slide occurred at the end of the summer, ending up at 27 points in December. In other words, in the course of a year the balance fell by 50%. And after a slight pre-election peak at the start of 2012, the figure dropped once more to 30% by June.
Putin’s ratio of approval/disapproval stands in fact at around 65:35. This would be an excellent result for the president of any democratic country, but it is unacceptable for a ‘Tsar’ – an unassailable and all-powerful leader with an unshakeable mandate. Putin has in effect lost his mandate.
Another important point: this happened without any of the economic factors that usually explain such a fall in the index. Oil prices in 2011 were at a historic peak (the annual rate higher than in 2008). The inflation rate was falling rapidly. The standard of living index rose steeply from March 2011 (Levada Centre figures) and by autumn had almost reached pre-crisis levels. At the same time, however, public approval of the political system, governmental institutions, the general state of the country and Putin personally went into a noticeable decline. This situation, as some analysts have already noted, is practically unique since such data collection began at the start of the 1990s. It suggests that we are witnessing some fundamental trend, and that Russians no longer associate economic stability with the specifics of Putin’s political regime.
The decline of the ruling party
The second symptom of impending crisis was the parliamentary election of December 2011. This was marked by two mini-crises, and not one, as is generally thought. The first of these was the fact that in areas inhabited by half of Russia’s population, ‘United Russia’ won less than 48% of the vote. According to the official (i.e. tweaked) figures, in 32 regions United Russia’s share was less than 40% (and in 16 regions less than 35%).
These regions were quite different from one another, and included both large industrialised areas and the non-Black Earth agricultural belt, traditionally a Communist stronghold. The list also includes Moscow, where United Russia’s real share of the vote was less than 30%.