Putin’s popularity untouched by March protests but Medvedev’s sinks

Putin’s popularity untouched by March protests but Medvedev’s sinks
Medvedev's popularity tanks following nation-wide anti-corruption protests in March.
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 6, 2017

The popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin was almost untouched by the countrywide anti-corruption protests organised by opposition leader Alexei Navalny on March 26, but the numbers of his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, have tanked.

Navalny has clearly struck a chord with the electorate, with another Levada Center poll finding that 38% of Russians approved of the protests. But the corruption claims against the leadership have not done enough to light a fire under the population that could pose a challenge to Putin in the 2018 presidential election: only 10% said that they would vote for Navalny in the presidential poll, despite his higher public profile since the protests. 

Putin has managed to stay above the political fray throughout his 16 years on the job, in keeping with the Russian proverb that “God is high above and the Tsar far away”. The president’s popularity fell from 84% in February to 82% in March, according to the latest poll from the independent pollster the Levada Center, but still remains near record levels.

However, Medvedev’s approval ratings took a bath. He was the focus of Navalny’s anti-corruption rallies that followed on from a report he released earlier in the month detailing the premier’s alleged wealth, including an expensive duck house at a restored mansion Navalny says Medvedev owns. (See the report below with English subtitles.)

Medvedev has been piggybacking off Putin’s ratings for years. After a poor start in the earlier part of this decade when his approval ratings were only in the high 30s, they have steadily risen to hover around the 50 mark for most of the last two years. The highest point they reached was 57% in November 2016. But his approval rating dropped following Navalny’s protests to 42%, a level he last saw in briefly in January 2016.

Medvedev addressed the corruption claims only this week, dismissing them as “complete nonsense” and claiming they were “politically motivated” as part of Navalny’s bid for the presidency in next year’s elections. “Those that benefit are those who order such [compromising] stories. As a rule, these are the people who pursue specific political ends,” Medvedev said during a visit to a factory in the town of Tambov in response to a question on the allegations.

Commentators have speculated that Medvedev is damaged goods and could soon lose his job. He has been held up as a possible successor to Putin, who is supposed to retire in 2024, assuming he wins next year’s election.

The government, which Medvedev heads, was also caught up in the flack, with its approval rating dropping from 49% in February to 43% in March. While the people of Russia love Putin, they have never been especially enamoured with the government, which has struggled to reach a 50% approval rating.

At the same time, approval for the regional governors is sinking slowly, with their approval rating falling to 48% in March, the lowest it has been for a year and way down from the 60% they scored at the end of 2015. This probably has much to do with the string of high-profile arrests of regional governors that has become a permanent fixture of the evening news in the last couple of years, as the Kremlin tries to crack down on corruption in the regions.

A string of regional governors have been caught and charged in some very public sting operations, however, the campaign has yet to have much impact in Transparency International corruption perspective’s ranking, where Russia sits at the bottom of the list at 131 out of 176 countries with a score of 29 out of 100. The latest example was Alexander Solovyev, head of Russia’s central republic of Udmurtia, who was arrested this week and faces 15 years in prison if found guilty of large-scale corruption. The governor is accused of pocketing $2.5mn for diverting public money to build an unnecessary bridge near the town of Kambarka. 

What effect all this brouhaha will have on the population’s feelings about the direction the country is taking remains to be seen. In a separate Levada poll that measures this sentiment, the government has been doing okay, with more than half the population believing Russia is going in the “right direction”, although the score fell to 52% in March from 53% a month earlier.

Indeed, the March 26 protests were a surprise, as Levada’s poll in December found that the propensity to protest was at record lows. Defenders of Russia have pointed out that the approximately 60,000 that took to the streets at the end of March are a tiny fraction of the country’s 146mn citizens and so not representative of the general mood of the country. Whereas detractors of the government pointed out that the mood has changed as these protests were predominantly held in the regions and young 20-somethings participated, which is new and must be unsettling for the authorities.

It remains to be seen if Navalny can build up some momentum on the back of the fracas he caused in March. The EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine three years ago started as a call to move towards Europe, but ended as a popular protest against the kleptocratic regime of Viktor Yanukovych, who was ultimately ousted from power in late February 2014.

A similar story could potentially play out in Russia, but, ironically, the economic and political chaos that has reigned in Ukraine since the change of government is one of the biggest disincentives for revolution in Russia for the local population.

Navalny hits a nerve

Still, Navalny has hit a nerve with his accusations of Medvedev’s graft. As well as the 38% of Russians who approved of recent anti-corruption protest rallies he organised, the same number of respondents said that people were pushed to take to the streets by their dissatisfaction with the situation in the country.

Meanwhile, 36% of the respondents explained the protest rallies by people’s desire to express their outrage at widespread corruption in the country.

Only 24% of Russians believed the participants were paid to take part in the rallies, as claimed by the authorities, a meme the state-controlled media has tried to inject into the narrative.

The poll also revealed that over 60% of Russians are “well aware” of the protest rallies or at least “heard something” about them and that was despite minimal coverage of the protests on the day by almost all the state-owned broadcasters. 

Despite all this, public interest in the protest rallies is now lower than that in 2011-2012 when the biggest wave of protest activities took place, Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of Levada Centre, commented about the results of the poll.

He added that the proportions of those approving and disapproving of the rallies are roughly the same, compared with 2011-2012 when the proportion of those approving the protests against fraud in parliamentary elections was 2.5 times greater.

“The government’s approval rate has been declining since 2015,” Grazhdankin said. “Now the documentary on Medvedev, released by [Navalny’s] anti-corruption fund, was the trigger.”

According to the pollster, Navalny's recognition has hit a maximum figure as 55% of Russians said they know him and 10% would vote for him in a presidential election.

“Currently, there is a balance between supporters and opponents of the protest rallies,” Grazhdankin concluded. “If the authorities don’t take countermeasures, the number of supporters could again go up.”