Just over half of the Russians polled by independent pollster the Levada Center said they want Vladimir Putin to continue as president after his current, and theoretically last, term in office expires in 2024.
The result was down slightly from a year ago: 51% of Russians polled said they would like Putin to stay on as president in 2024, down from 67% who felt the same way in August 2017. However, six months after he was re-elected in 2012 for his third term only 34% of those polled wanted him to stand again as president.
Putin was swept back into office in March for a fourth non-consecutive term as president, winning 76.66% of the vote with little competition from dinosaur systemic politicians such as communist Pavel Grudinin (11.8% of votes) and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky (5.66%). The result conveniently means that Putin won just over half of all eligible voters’ votes and was his best result ever. Statisticians say that about 10mn votes were fake out of a total of just under 80mn and there were widely reported voting violations, although Putin clearly still won enough legitimate votes to be elected president.
Commentators believe that the west’s constant demonising of Putin coupled with the start of an economic recovery has boosted the president’s popularity. In particular the hysteria that surrounded the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and the knee jerk sanctions that followed played into Putin’s hands and his “fortress Russia” message.
Polls show that this year for the first time the majority of Russians want change, but unlike Russia’s external critics they want gradual change. Russia is caught in a middle-income trap where the population is as worried about losing the substantial gains in the quality of life made over the last 17 years as they are keen to see fresh advances. Russians want change, but they want gradual change.
With the opposition riven by infighting and personal rivalries, no opposition figure has emerged that can challenge Putin. Even anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny, the darling of western observers, remains unpopular in Russia polling at under 2%. Of course Navalny’s popularity is reduced by the constant Kremlin harassment and short jail sentences, but even without this and with unfettered access to TV the majority of politically immature Russians would probably still prefer Putin for the meantime.
Another poll from Levada shows that the propensity to protest for political reasons is currently at an all time low with only 17% of Russians polled believing they are possible and only 8% saying they would participate. The support for protests with economic demands are even lower (12% and 6% respectively).
Putin’s personal popularity remained astronomical at 79% in May, down only slightly from 82% a month earlier, according to Levada. Russians broadly think that he is taking the country in the right direction: 56% said Russia is going in the right direction in April against 27% that said it is going the wrong way and 16% abstaining.
The buffer is Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the Duma, which respondents largely disapprove of (42% disapproved of Medvedev’s performance in April and 43% said the Duma is doing a bad job.)
Putin has been careful to foster the “God’s too high and the Tsar’s too far” distance between himself and the rest of government that is a long tradition in Russia. The government’s recent decision to increase the retirement ages for women from 55 years to 63 years and for men from 60 years to 65 years was taken by Medvedev, and Putin’s office made it clear in public that Putin played no official role in the decision – although clearly such an important decision cannot be made without his say-so.
The pension age hike will be an important test for Putin’s administration as it is the first time that the government is going to directly increase the burden on citizens for its incompetence and failure to spur faster economic growth. This undoes the unspoken deal Putin has had with the population since he first took office in 2000: you stay out of politics and I will deliver prosperity and stability. The 13% flat income tax rate has been sacrosanct ever since. However, in another blow this year the VAT rate was put up from 18% to 20% in the same week as retirement ages were increased.
Some 2mn people have already signed an online petition protesting the change and Navalny has called for demonstrations in 20 Russian cities on July 1. Just how far these protests get will be a key test of Putin’s popularity but the state is likely to deal with them wearing kid gloves in order not to inflame resentments and because the world’s media attention is fully focused on Russia as the World Cup will still be on.