The Levada Center, Russia’s most respected independent polling agency, just released its latest set of polls. In July of 2013, 65% of Russians approved of Putin’s performance as president, a small uptick from June’s level of 63% and broadly in line with his rating over the past year and a half.
I’ve argued before that Putin’s recent performance in the polls is actually kind of boring: he’s been bouncing around in a narrow range ever since the protests against the rigged Duma elections at the end of 2011. The overall narrative surrounding Putin, however, is still one of endless decay and decline. As just one example among many, here is how Marcin Zaborowski, the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, described Putin’s trajectory:
""There is no doubt that Putin’s popularity is falling.”
And Ben Judah, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has written an entire book about how Russians have "fallen out of love with” Vladimir Putin and how this decline in popularity could very easily unravel Russia’s entire system of state power. Putin’s swiftly declining approval rate is just taken as a given among most journalists and scholars, as the starting point for any serious conversation. First you assume that Putin is getting ever-less popular and then you debate about what this means for Russia.
But what if Vladimir Putin’s popularity has plateaued? What if it continues to hover around the current level of 65%? What sort of implication does that have for the survivability of the regime, the future of the opposition, and the West’s foreign policy priorities?
Debates over Putin’s popularity often become byzantine discussions of grammar and verb tense, and I have actually had a discussion over the precise meaning of "is declining.” But I don’t think I’m being illogical or needlessly hard-headed to suggest that when a politician’s approval rating has essentially been stable for 18 months that it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to write about that politician as if they were increasingly unpopular.
Notice that I am not saying that Putin’s popularity will stay right at its current level, but merely suggesting that we at least consider the possibility. If I was forced to make a bet on the trajectory of Putin’s poll numbers, if someone put a gun to my head and said "make a choice, Adomanis, up or down?!?” I would guess that Putin’s approval rating will, in the future, be lower than it is today. In that sense I’m much like the vast majority of other Western Russia watchers.
But here’s the rub: I would have said exactly the same thing in December 2011, June 2012, and January 2013 and I would have been completely and entirely wrong. I’m just trying to learn from my own past wrongness, and doing so requires acknowledging the possibility that Putin’s poll numbers are going to continue to head sideways. It’s possible that Putin’s hold on power will rapidly wither in the coming years but, if you look at the past year and a half of poll data, it’s also possible that he’s going to remain an immensely powerful political actor.