Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has slipped to its lowest level in more than two decades, of 59% in April from 63% in March, according to independent pollster the Levada Center, its lowest since September 1999, when Putin had just been made prime minister, but support for a constitutional change to extend his rule has risen.
The result means that Russia’s regional governors have almost certainly overtaken Putin to become the country's most approved off politicians. While the April results for the governors are not out yet, the latter have enjoyed high ratings only slightly less than Putin’s own for most of the last year and had an approval rating of 65% in March, according to Levada.
The public have been disappointed by Putin’s hands-off approach to managing the government’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic and Russia’s poor performance in fighting the virus.
The lead in the public health response was taken by Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin at the end of March, who told the president in televised remarks that the official figure badly underestimated the extent of infections.
Since then, Putin has charged the regional governors with taking responsibility for their anti-virus actions and has distanced himself from the effort to protect his ratings should the efforts to control the virus fail. Putin is still focused on putting through a referendum to the constitution that would extend his rule by another two terms, dodging the current constitutional limit.
The referendum has been postponed from April and is now slated to happen sometime in the summer, but the danger Putin now faces is the referendum will turn into a referendum on his success in dealing with the coronavirus. The fact that he has remained aloof during on the worst crisis Russia has faced in three decades has also cost him politically.
Against Putin’s falling personal popularity was an increase in the support for the constitutional changes that would extend his term in office until 2036, which rose to 47% in April, up from 40% in March, according to Levada.
While Russians are getting tired of Putin they also acknowledge he is a strong and effective leader. While Putin has a reputation as an autocrat in the west, to the Russians he is the man that brought the economic chaos and deprivation of the Yeltsin years to an end and oversaw an economic renaissance that doubled the size of the economy and increased the average wage to a par with the lower income levels of the EU. Even following the recent fall in Putin’s approval rating, they are still very high by Western standards and streets ahead of any potential political rival.
The poll was conducted by phone because of the coronavirus-related lockdown, rather than face to face, which Levada’s deputy director Denis Volkov said may have clipped 1-2% off Putin’s approval rating.
Even taking that into account, Volkov said an outcome of 61% would still mean Putin’s rating was on a par with 2013, a year before Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea prompted his ratings to surge.
Among those who said they intended to take part in the vote on constitutional change, 58% said they would back the changes and only 25% vote against them.
“What is important is that those that are ‘for’ are very well mobilised and are ready to come (and vote),” said Volkov.
When asked about the fall in the ratings, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attempted to downplay the result.
“I’m not inclined to entirely trust Levada’s polls,” Peskov told reporters. “There are other polls which give a different picture.”
A survey from state-run pollster VTsIOM gave Putin a trust rating of 69.8% in April.
The widely respected Levada polls have been in the spotlight recently after the new pro-Kremlin editor at leading Russian language daily Vedomosti banned their use and has reportedly been Bowdlerising articles that are too critical of Putin or the government.
Vedomosti was set up as a joint venture between the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and Independent Media, the owner of the English-language Moscow Times. It quickly became a bastion of independent reporting and the market leader. It remains a media powerhouse, despite its recent troubles, and widely read.
Levada said the survey was conducted on April 24-27 and that 1,608 people had been polled across Russia.
The full impact of the coronavirus epidemic has yet to hit the Levada polls, which were last updated in March. However, most of the indicators were slipping slightly as the impact of the oil price shock hit the country and unsettled respondents.
Notably, the approval of the government slipped by two percentage points and the public are now equally divided between support and disapproval at 48% for each, with 2% abstaining. The Duma itself remains deeply unpopular, with 54% disapproving against 42% approving of its work in March.
Another key group is the regional governors, which retained their high approval rating of 65% against 32% that disapprove, and 3% abstentions. It remains to be seen if this will fall in April, however, as by passing the buck to the regional governors in the coronavirus fight Putin has created an opportunity for governors to further extend their lead over his popularity if they are seen to make a good job of it.
Finally, the number of respondents that see Russia as “going in the right direction” fell slightly in March to 48% from 53% a month earlier, while those who believe it is going in the wrong direction were up from 38% to 42%.