FUZZY MATH

Is Putin As Popular as Trump Says?

According to a newly blacklisted independent pollster, what Russians think is a bit more complicated.

Pool Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko

Russian bloggers were abuzz this week over a viral video, reposted by hundreds of thousands of Internet users all over social networks and watched by over a million visitors to YouTube. On the video a chorus of elderly women in traditional costumes, whom bloggers referred to as “a harem of babushkas,” were singing: “For Putin, for Putin, we all want to get married with Putin!” While the singing women shined passionate smiles of admiration, the face of the accordionist accompanying the chorus, some of the bloggers pointed out, expressed apathy and sadness.

Mocked or praised, President Vladimir Putin was the most frequently mentioned politician in Russian media, according to this year’s Medialogia group’s survey. Recently his popularity was boosted further from overseas by the U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, who praised Putin at public meetings at events during his election campaign. Trump compared the Russian president’s popularity to that of Barack Obama, whose popularity was then 51 percent, in a gesture surely appreciated by the Kremlin. “Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here,” Trump said of Putin’s supposed favorability this week.

A sex symbol, a sports symbol, a strongman fighting wars and hammering together Russia’s new empire, Putin has been admired by millions of Russians since 1999, when Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, ceded the Kremlin’s power to him.

But what percentage of Russians really supports Putin? The answers vary, depending on the pollster and questions asked.

Last week, the Public Opinion Foundation, a sociological organization mostly working on orders from the Kremlin, published a poll asking Russians who they would vote for, if the presidential elections took place next Sunday.

The results were overwhelming: 93 percent of responders gave their votes to Putin. “I do not think these wild figures represent the true picture at the time when Putin’s party’s popularity is melting, but we can say that the majority of Russians, more than 50 percent, support him, for sure,” Olga Bychkova, editor and presenter at the independent radio network Echo of Moscow, told The Daily Beast on Friday. “The approval rating we see is not for Putin, it is for the tsar, and if tomorrow they replace him with a different leader, who will soon have the same approval rating, the majority will vote for the tsar appointed to sit on the throne,” Bychkova added.

The economic crises caused mostly by collapsing oil prices ruin the aura of glamorous and decadent Moscow. On Friday morning, the Gimenei Mall, a shopping center full of designer boutiques once popular among the Muscovite elite, looked deserted. “Crises!” a security guard explained to The Daily Beast.

Dozens of businessmen gathered at the “FuckUp Nights” event in a hip conference hall of the Digital October center in downtown Moscow to discuss their most dramatic business failures. “When we decided to launch our business of smoking cabins in Moscow City, we could not imagine that the crisis would begin and all businesses would move out of the Moscow City,” Armen Manukyan, one of the failures, told the audience. Not many dared to blame Putin for a collapsing market or unemployment.

A few who did came under attack.

On Sept. 1, police and domestic intelligence officers arrested female journalists, widows, and mothers of victims of the notorious Beslan school massacre at a peaceful political action demanding to investigate this most violent episode of Putin’s reign. This week, too, nationalists and militia attacked and violently beat volunteer firefighters, including a senior Greenpeace lawyer, Mikhail Kreindlin.

According to a report in Novaya Gazeta, a still largely independent newspaper, local authorities were aware of the attack on the civil activists and did nothing to stop the violence. The photograph of Kreindlin’s face covered in blood became a new symbol of violence against independent groups in Russia.

Unlike Trump, Putin has never faced a competitor and Russians have not had a chance to watch their leader debating an opponent since Putin’s ascension to the presidency in 1999. The results of Russia’s game of thrones were decided inside the court, behind the Kremlin’s wall. Society is now informed about the fate of predecessors, successors, appointees or trustees around election time and most people seem OK with the rules.

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At least 18 times a year Russia’s only independent pollster, Levada Center, conducted surveys to analyze what Russians thought of Putin. “Unlike other sociological groups, we ask Russians about Putin’s corruption and about 25-28 percent say they believe he is corrupt, 25-30 admit they do not care, for as long as their life is better under Putin, and only 11-18 percent do not believe that president Putin is corrupt,” director of Levada Center Lev Gudkov told The Daily Beast.

In a new wave of pressure on Russian independent NGOs, Russian authorities labeled Levada Center a “foreign agent” this week. If the Russian Ministry of Justice does not cancel this decision, it means that Levada Center will not be able to carry on with its important work. The attack was not about the center’s polls—the recent ones show that about 81-82 percent of Russians approved of Putin’s policy. Rather, “it is the continuation of repressive attacks on everybody who is independent from the Kremlin and we have never accepted a single order from the power,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast.

Last week, Levada Center published a survey showing that Putin’s party United Russia’s public support had shrunk from 57 percent to 50 percent in one month. And parliamentary elections are scheduled for Sept. 18.

“Trump is right about Putin’s popularity rating but it needs to be said, that this figure has nothing to do with Putin’s success, public love or sympathy for him,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “Eighty-two percent of Russians support the myth or the revival of the Great Russia status, as Putin makes people feel proud of Russia’s greatness since the fall of the USSR,” Gudkov said.