Wages, the economy and social policy are the main challenges Russians believe their country faces today, state-owned pollster, the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), says, and the grinding recession has led to a dramatic jump in the propensity to protest, especially in pursuit of political demands.
Russians perceive that the most serious problems Russia currently faces are connected with low salaries and living standards (24%), the state of the economy (21%) and current social policy (18%), a VTsIOM survey concludes.
However, this has not affected President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating. It was still riding high at 81% in June, according to the latest poll from independent pollster, the Levada Center.
The category of low salaries and low living standards has been recorded as the leading concern for three months, with the economy mired in recession, and despite a visible recovery at the macroeconomic level, the pain of the slowdown has led to a dramatic jump in the propensity to protest.
"Low salaries and the low standard of living as a whole have been leading the list of problematic issues for three months in a row, with 24% of Russians naming them (against 18% this past January and 14% in July 2016). Each fifth respondent (21%) is concerned with the state of the economy (16% at the beginning of the year). Social policy is in the top three at 18% in July (it was half that at 9%, a year ago)," the VTsIOM report says, according to Tass.
For almost all of Putin’s reign the propensity to protest with the goal of achieving economic demands has fallen, given his record of ushering in a nearly two-decade long era of prosperity that transformed the average man’s life. However, following the beginning of the recession – which actually started in 2013 when the economy hit structural boundaries, a year before the showdown with the West over Ukraine started – there have been spikes of discontent, even if the overriding trend has remained downwards. Russia is currently experiencing one of those spikes now.
More worryingly for Putin, the propensity to protest with political demands, which has been fairly stable for most of the past decade, has suddenly jumped, according to the latest results from Levada.
While in June only 12% said they would participate in economic protests and 23% said they might participate, the number of respondents who said they would participate in a political protest have jumped from 9% at the end of last year to 15% now. What's more, the number who stated that they might participate in a political protest more than doubled from 12% to 28% between December 2016 and June 2017.
This spike in discontent is probably associated with the anti-corruption rallies organised by anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is revving up to run in the 2018 presidential election (despite the authorities attempts to ban him from doing so).
The other opposition leaders have withered away, particularly the PARNAS [People's Freedom Party "For a Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption"] movement that attempted to unite all the opposition leaders under one flag, but imploded into a welter of infighting. That left Navalny as the undisputed face of the opposition, and he has been increasingly successful at rallying Russians in opposition to the Kremlin. To an extent, it does seem the Russian voter is beginning to be radicalised.
Although popular support for Navalny as a politician remains very muted – he's currently polling at around 2% in the presidential election polls vs Putin’s rating of around 50% – his anti-corruption message has clearly struck a chord. And the economic pain that Russians are feeling – as evidenced by the latest Levada poll – is proving to be a catalyst for growing discontent.
The government is taking some of the blame for the people’s economic woes but the state Duma remains the main whipping boy. The approval rating of the government as a whole has been hovering at about 50/50 since the showdown with the West started, although the tension briefly pushed the popularity of the government up to around 60%. Nevertheless, the approval of the Duma has been mired in the 30s and 40s over the same period and after some optimism last year was at a 41%-approval rate in June against a 57%-disapproval rate, with the rest of respondents undecided.
Having said that, the population in general (55%) believe the country is going in the right direction against less than one-third (30%) who think it is off course – an attitude that has been largely consistent over the last two years.
In their focus on specific issues, Russians named the state of health care (17%), unemployment (14%), educational problems (12%), low pensions (12%), inflation (10%), corruption (10%), as well as housing utilities issues (8%), as among the current domestic problems.
Despite the spike in the tendency for political protests, it remains highly unlikely that Russians will take to the streets en masse any time soon. The middle class is the most politically active part of society but they have got too much invested in “Putin’s Russia” to want to overthrow the system. The economic cost of Ukraine’s third Maidan revolution is so very apparent to Russians who want to go down that road.
Nowhere is Russian discontent clearer than in Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s approval rating, which is down from circa 50-55% last year to a pattern in which it hovers around the low 40s; Navalny’s summer campaign was specifically focused on Medvedev’s obvious corruption. That has wounded the bumbling PM, but it has not finished him off.
Pundits generally agree that Navalny has no chance at all of even attracting a decent result in the upcoming presidential election, should he be allowed to run. They also note that this election is important as a scene-setter for the subsequent election in 2024. Part of Navalny’s problem is that he lacks legitimacy in most Russians’ eyes. He “doesn't come from anywhere”. That sentiment is unlike the feelings shown in the West, where anyone can stand and win (as the US has just shown). In Russia, voters expect candidates to have served in some sort of official position like a trade union or regional governorship and/or to be anointed by someone in the elite (as Putin was). The idea that anyone can just stand up and say “I want to be president” remains a deeply alien concept. But as a candidate in the 2018 election Navalny will gain some of that much needed legitimacy and so can make a much more credible run in 2024, when Putin must stand down in line with Russian constitutional law.
In the meantime, Putin has to fix the economic problems and time is on his side. The spike in the likelihood of protest is clearly linked to the economic pain voters are feeling, but that is about to change.
While the economy has been on the mend since the last quarter of last year, little of this has trickled down to the man in the street. That scenario was altered in June when both real disposable incomes (the cash Russians can actually spend from their pay packet) and retail turnover both went back into the black for the first time in years. From now on, the economic burden Russians are feeling should begin to lighten somewhat.
And if Putin follows through with the structural reforms the country clearly needs – former Finance Minister and co-head of the Presidential Council Alexei Kudrin has been tasked with drawing up a plan which has been much debated – then Putin has six years to effect the plan. Even if it is only moderately successful it could leave Putin in a position to handpick a successor in 2024.