Something has changed, we are told again and again. After two decades of misrule, Russians are getting increasingly fed up with Vladimir Putin and his ‘regime’. The recent protests caused by the arrest of Alexei Navalny are just the tip of the iceberg, underneath which is a huge wave of dissatisfaction just waiting to burst loose.
But is it? On the one hand, journalists provide anecdotal evidence to support the claim. On the other hand, there are the cold hard facts of survey statistics. What do they tell us?
To answer that question, we turn to the Russian sociological organization known as the Levada Centre. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, Levada has been doing surveys for a long time, so one can compare data over a prolonged period. And second, Levada is well known for its liberal, anti-government orientation, and so cannot in any way be accused of biasing its surveys to favour the Russian state.
Today, Levada published its latest set of indicators. So, let’s take a look at these, starting with the one that everybody is always interested in – Vladimir Putin’s approval rating.
This records that when asked the question ‘do you approve of Vladimir Putin’s activities as President?’, 64% of respondents said yes. That’s down from 69% in September of last year, but up from the 60% recorded in July at the peak of the first wave of coronavirus. The survey was conducted in January, which means before the recent protests, but well after Navalny’s poisoning and revelations of possible state involvement. If Russians were going to hold Putin to account for what happened to Navalny, or for the large number of covid-related deaths in Russia, one would expect that to show already. It doesn’t.
If there is any reason for Putin to be concerned it is that his approval rating is lower among younger people than older ones. Whereas 73% of people aged 55 or over approve of him, only 51% of those aged 18 to 24 do so. But then again, 51% is still a majority. It would clearly be wrong to say that Russian youth have firmly turned their backs on their president. Overall, therefore, while one can say that Putin has lost ground since the big bump in support he got after the annexation of Crimea, he’s still in a reasonably strong position.
The next set of data relates to the approval of the Russian prime minister over time. This has gone up and down, the biggest positive rating being when Putin held the post between 2008 and 2012. But if you look at the recent end of the chart, you see that the current PM, Mikhail Mishustin, seems to be doing quite well, with a rating of 58% and rising. Interestingly, that brings him close to Putin in terms of approval. Unlike for the president, however, this data is not from January, but from November of last year. It will be interesting to see if Mishustin keeps moving upwards.
Approval of politicians is one thing. One’s general attitude to life is another. Perhaps Russia support their rulers while quietly growing more and more unhappy with the general state of things. This third chart, which is again based on surveys in January, suggests otherwise, at least in general terms.
The black line in the chart shows the percentage of people who think that the country is moving in the right direction, and the blue line the percentage who think the opposite. The most recent data indicates is that despite the troublesome economic situation, Russians generally have a positive outlook, with 49% currently thinking that things are improving, and 40% thinking that they are getting worse.
Obviously, things can change. A ‘black swan’ might come along and disrupt everything. But Russia has experienced a few such swans in recent years (repeated economic crises, Western sanctions, and covid) and yet Russians on the whole retain a positive outlook regarding their country’s prospects and their rulers.
In fact, looking at the charts, rather than concluding that everything has changed, one gets the impression that the present looks very much like the past. As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.