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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin’s Popularity Not Oil Dependent

RIA-Novosti / APPutin swimming on a trip through the mountains of Tuva on Monday. The government released a host of photos from the trip showing the macho side of Putin.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about the 10th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power.

Vladimir Putin has been accused of undemocratic behavior, of staging unfair elections and of holding on to power like a dictator. But he can point to a strong basis for his legitimacy: He is unbeatably popular among his electorate.

In fact, since Putin’s unexpected rise from little-known bureaucrat to prime minister in August 1999 and president a few months later, his popularity has rarely been rivaled by any other politician in the country. Only his protege and chosen presidential successor, Dmitry Medvedev, has come close to his sky-high figures.

Surveys from the Levada Center, an independent polling agency, show that Putin’s approval ratings shot from zero to more than 70 percent in 1999 and have never dropped below 40 percent for any prolonged period since then. Recent polls provide ample evidence that Putin’s popularity has not suffered from the economic downturn that has hit the country hard since last fall. In fact, the figures may serve as a crushing defeat to predictions that the crisis could bring down or weaken his reign.

Western media have been awash with reports since the crisis began that Putin had just been riding high on the country’s oil-driven economic boom and that now the time had come for the people to renege their informal contract with him — that the government could freely stifle democracy as long as the people could enjoy new cars, well-stocked supermarkets and cheap vacations in Egypt.

But despite the fact that millions of people have lost their jobs and the incomes of those still working have been significantly reduced through pay cuts and the ruble’s devaluation, approval of Putin, who as prime minister has taken the role of personally overseeing the economy, stood firm at 78 percent in July.

The idea of Putin as an oil-fueled leader contains a lot of wishful thinking, analysts said.

“It is true that the country’s economic well-being depends a lot on the oil price. But it is not always true that Putin’s popularity depends on the economy alone,” said Denis Volkov, a researcher with the Levada Center.

A Moscow Times comparison of approval ratings during Putin’s career and oil prices reveals that they do not always correlate.

Oil shot up during 1999, the year that Putin was appointed prime minister and moved into the Kremlin when President Boris Yeltsin resigned during his New Year’s address on Dec. 31.

But the second half of 1999 also saw the start of the second Chechen war, which coincided with the armed incursion of Chechen fighters into ­neighboring Dagestan in August and a series of deadly bombings in apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere in September.

“Putin introduced himself as a strong and uncompromising leader,” Volkov said.

Yet his approval ratings suffered a significant drop in August 2000, when the Kursk nuclear submarine sank and he initially refused to cut a vacation short. The oil price slumped only at the end of that year.

Another boost in popularity, unrelated to economic data, happened in October 2002, when special forces gassed Chechen terrorists who had taken hundreds of people hostage in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. The nation quite clearly rallied behind its leader in the time of crisis, despite the fact that more than 120 hostages died.

Putin suffered a backlash, however, after the Beslan hostage crisis in September 2004, when a botched rescue operation in the North Ossetian town left more than 330 dead, many of them women and children. Putin’s approval ratings dropped to 66 percent that month, according to Levada data.

The price of oil, meanwhile, began its march upward two years earlier, in 2002.

A correlation between Putin’s popularity and the oil boom only took a firm hold between mid-2005 and July 2008, when oil peaked at a historic $147 a  barrel.

“Certainly the economic boom had a consolidating effect on Putin’s ratings,” Volkov said.

Still, Putin’s popularity skyrocketed to 88 percent in September 2008, when oil had fallen to below $100 and stock markets were collapsing. At the time, the country was dizzy in its success in the short war with Georgia, whose first anniversary on Aug. 8 strangely coincides almost exactly with the 10th anniversary of Putin’s first appointment as prime minister, on Aug. 9 1999.

Putin’s ratings have not dropped below 76 percent in the past year, despite the country’s worst economic downturn in more than a decade.

For Russians, politics traditionally takes precedence over the economy, said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist with the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The political factor is far more important — and Putin is not just perceived as the one who is in power but as the one who controls the siloviki,” she said, referring to the powerful clan of military and security service officials in the government.

Russians also harbor a lasting desire for strongman leadership as opposed to multipolar democracy, said Yekaterina Yegorova, head of the political consulting firm Nikkolo M and a veteran insider of the country’s political scene. “The notion that you take to the streets when you can no longer ­afford to buy meat does not correspond to the Russian psychology,” she said.

Yegorova argued that a much broader “unspoken contract” exists between a majority of the population and the leadership. “They want a type of father figure — a strong leader who takes responsibility and who makes important decisions for their lives — and in exchange they accept living according to certain rules,” she said.

She also acknowledged that policies to divide the opposition and the cunning use of state-run media did a lot to prop up the current leadership, but she noted that under the Russian constitutional system any incumbent leader would be privileged. “The president will always stand at the center of attention,” she said.

But Yevgeny Gontmakher, the director of the center for social studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Economics, warned that Putin’s popularity today was of a different kind than a couple of years ago.

In the past, people had rated Putin for his achievements, but now they rate him highly because they expect him to solve the crisis, he argued.

“People are waiting for a miracle — this is sort of an advance payment,” Gontmakher told The Moscow Times.

The problem is, he argued, that Putin was pretending to solve every problem himself instead of letting market institutions work.

Gontmakher referred to recent examples of Putin’s style of making personal appearances to solve workers’ or consumers’ problems.

In June, he traveled to the town of Pikalyovo and ordered tycoon Oleg Deripaska to pay wages and restart production at a plant there. In July, he made a surprise visit to a Moscow supermarket and berated managers for their pork prices.

“But Putin obviously cannot solve everything himself,” Gontmakher said. That makes the situation all the more risky for him now, as Putin’s popularity ratings would crumble quickly if it becomes clear that he’s not living up to expectations.

“Let’s see were we stand in the fall or by the end of the year,” he said.