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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Approval Ratings Stay Afloat

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Despite being subjected to a barrage of criticism from the public and press over his handling of the Kursk submarine catastrophe, President Vladimir Putins approval ratings have suffered only slightly, a poll released Wednesday showed.

And since the poll was conducted, Putin has taken a number of steps to mend the cracks in his "hero" image. He traveled to a Northern Fleet base Tuesday to face the fury of the grieving families and went on television Wednesday evening to tell the nation of his "great feeling of responsibility and guilt."

Putins decision to keep his distance from what was soon seen as a botched rescue operation, and continue his vacation at a Black Sea resort, was the first reality check of sorts for a president who cultivated the campaign image of a resolute man of action capable of saving the nation.

Click here to read our Special Report on the Kursk Tragedy.

At the same time, the loss of 118 sailors appears to have opened a new page in Putins presidency, when people judge him by his actions rather than project on him their often unrealistic expectations.

In the latest poll by the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research, or VTsIOM, 65 percent of those asked said they approved of Putins overall performance. This was down from 73 percent at the peak of his popularity near the end of July.

VTsIOM conducted the survey of 1,600 people across the country from Saturday through Monday, as it was becoming clear that the crew was dead. The drop was bigger, to 61 percent, among young and better-educated people, especially in Moscow, said VTsIOM director Yury Levada.

"This is a substantial drop, but not as strong as one would have judged by the media criticism," Levada said in a telephone interview. "It appears that things dont filter down to the thick of the people right away, and perceptions are different between Moscow and the rest of the country."

Levada predicted the ratings would continue to drop if people do not receive answers to the questions weighing on their hearts and minds: Was everything done that could have been done and, if not, what was most lacking: equipment, coordination, funding or openness?

Putins latest moves have addressed these questions. First, he went to the naval base of Vidyayevo the Kursks home where he allowed relatives to pour out their rage and pain.

On Wednesday, he acknowledged his guilt for the tragedy and said those who are found to be responsible would be punished. But he said to act hastily and fire the defense minister and navy commander, who have submitted their resignations, was not the answer.

Commenting on his meeting with the sailors families, Putin said: "What can I say here? Words are not enough, they are difficult to find. I want to wail."

Levada said the VTsIOM poll, the results of which were still being processed, did not ask whether people were most upset by the way the rescue operation was conducted or by Putins failure to demonstrate his compassion. Future polls will be more detailed, he said.

Another major pollster, Alexander Oslon of the Public Opinion Fund, said his research has measured an even smaller change in the social temperature.

"Ordinary people are not as impressionable as journalists, and the mechanism of their impression is different," Oslon said. "The moment journalists get an impression, they start to formulate an interpretation that would please them, their audience or their colleagues. Ordinary people are not inclined to draw immediate conclusions."

Yet another polling organization, ROMIR, reported that even in Moscow almost 60 percent of 500 respondents interviewed Sunday did not change their attitude to Putin because of the Kursk. About 28 percent of Muscovites said their opinion of Putin had gotten worse.

"The public attitude to Putin comes as a balance of pluses and minuses," Oslon said. "This is a serious minus, but it cannot upset the positive balance."

Andrei Ryabov, political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said Putins actions or inactions last week are in complete contradiction to the heroic image that brought him to power.

"For a year, the myth of a new, young, resolute and efficient leader was created very professionally and efficiently," Ryabov said. "The submarine story may undermine this myth."

Levada said Putins unrealistically high ratings had to fall as the president started to act. In coming weeks and months, he said, his ratings are likely to drop farther and, in a way, this will present a healthier picture. During the past year, he said, the ratings "were more connected not with real actions, but with the imagination."

However, the damage to Putins inflated reputation may limit his previously extraordinary ability to mobilize public support, Ryabov said.

Putin still has time to mend the damage, Ryabov stressed, if the right steps are taken to restore public trust. He said Putins trip to Vidyayevo and the cancellation of plans to hold a memorial ceremony in the Barents Sea, which was done at relatives request, were "very positive" moves.

"It is hard to imagine any other [previous] Russian leader who would be able to stand several hours of talks with a hostile audience," Ryabov said.

Oslon said the comments in some newspapers that Putins and Russias honor have "sunk" together with the Kursk, were "hysterical." "These people [who wrote these words] are built differently, their nature is different from the nature of ordinary people," he said.

In a pattern seen across the spectrum of Russian and foreign media, Vremya MN newspaper had this headline last week: "The reputation of the Russian leadership is lying on the bottom of the Barents Sea."

Such statements must have been particularly painful to Putin, who had turned raising Russians morale into the cornerstone of his policy. He responded to these accusations Wednesday.

"It grieves me, the theory lately that together with the Kursk the honor of the navy also has drowned, the honor of Russia, Putin said. "Our country has survived a lot.

"We will overcome it all and restore it all, the military and the navy and the government, he said.

He also said his opponents were pumping up the criticism to gain political capital and hinted that media magnates Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were the driving forces.

"In the first rows of the sailors defenders were those who over the past years contributed to the destruction of the army, navy and the state. Some of them even collected a million. They would do better to sell their villas on the French Mediterranean coast or in Spain. But then they would have to explain why they were bought in the name of other people or legal entities and where they got the money."

Berezovsky, who contributed to a fund to help the sailors families, has been reported to spend much time in France, while Gusinsky and his family live in Spain.





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