by Gordon M. Hahn
Much has been made in Russian and Western media about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declining approval ratings. However, despite the major ratings decline, Putin’s approval rating remains far above any Western leader. More importantly, his rating remains higher than it has been in long periods of is rule. In other words, the fall in Putin’s rating marks a return from normal after excessively and inordinately high ratings from late 2014 until early 2018.
In a recent article, I asked: “Is the Vladimir the Great Balancer who has deftly mixed the carrot and the stick to maintain a tentative balance between the myriad regime, autonomous, and opposition elements that comprise Russia’s metastable politics losing his touch?” (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/09/10/is-putin-losing-his-balance/). I have noted many times that Putin is a soft authoritarian with a sharp sense of how much repression is needed in the mix of tools he uses to maintain political stability and his own popularity. I answered that in recent months he appears to have made several miscalculations suggesting he be ‘losing his balance’ or his feel for balancing means, but I also noted that “(n)one of this means that Putin’s sense of balance has declined to such a level that he is fundamentally destabilizing the regime, no less that Putin is about to fall from power” (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/09/10/is-putin-losing-his-balance/). This last point can be elaborated upon.
Putin’a approval rating has fallen precipitously this year in the wake of his 70 percent re-election victory in March. It fell some 16 percent points — from 82 percent to 66 percent — between April and October of this year (www.levada.ru/). Although this is a sharp decline, it has come in the course of several political moves and mistakes (https://gordonhahn.com/2018/09/10/is-putin-losing-his-balance/). Moreover, his rating remains higher than it has been at numerous times in his three previous terms as president, including for some rather long periods. For example, during his last months as prime minister in 2011-2012 through nearly all of the first two years of his third term (2012-2016), Putin’s approval rating was equal or lower than his October 2018 rating of 66 percent. During that nearly two year period, his approval rating was above 66 percent only from March to July 2012 and in that 4-5 month period it fell to 64 percent in June. In November 2013 Putin’s approval rating fell to 61 percent (www.levada.ru/). There was little to no talk of panic in the Kremlin at that time. This low approval rating was even looking up to Putin’s 63 percent rating after the Putin-Medvedev tandem’s announcement that Putin, not President Medvedev would be the Kremlin’s presidential candidate.
If there was any panic in 2011 or 2013, then matters returned to ease with the rise of the Ukrainian crisis that very same month. Through the February 2014 Sochi Olympics and Maidan revolt, the March 2014 counter-revolt in Crimea and then Donbass, the April 2014 beginning of Kiev’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against the primarily ethnic Russian and Russophone population of Donbass, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the course of the Donbass civil war and Russia’s episodic military interventions through 2015, and the slow-burning civil war and creeping fascization of the Maidan Kiev regime Putin’s approval ratings remained high. Thus, Putin’s rising and then persistently high ratings from November 2013 to April 2018, attaining astronomical heights of 80-89 percent from June 2015 to January 2018 were the aberration. ‘Crimea is Ours’ fatigue began to whittle away slowly at Putin’s unusually high ratings from October 2015. Thus, it was the West’s policies which pushed a divided Ukraine to entertain EU and by implication NATO membership, sparking the revolt, and the new oligarchic-ultranationalist Maidan regime’s extremist policies that drove Putin’s approval ratings upwards. Further in terms of Ukraine, it is instructive to compare Putin’s 66 percent approval rating with Maidan regime president Petro Poroshenko, straggling far behind in single digits with a presidential election scheduled this year (http://kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=790&page=1&t=1 and http://kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=753&page=2&t=1). That is a real cause for panic.
Thus, the return of Putin’s approval ratings in the 60-70 percent range is a return to normality for the Kremlin. The glitch in December 2011 was the result of poor election management and crushed hopes of some for a perestroika 2.0 under the more liberal Medvedev continuing in the presidency for another term.
It will be interesting to see if Putin’s rating decline continues and whether it falls to what might be regarded as a watershed low of less than 60 percent. Upon reaching that milestone, the Kremlin may indeed experience some panic, especially those in charge of managing Russia’s soft authoritarian pluralism and limited competition such as First Deputy Presidential Administration Head Sergei Kirienko. At that point, they will have the right to panic, as another wave of precipitous decline could bring Putin to minority approval, the anteroom to instability and a possible regime transformation of some sort. They may act in panic and crackdown or calmly and purposefully begin preparing a strategy for extrication from Putin’s personalist, single party-dominant soft authoritarianism to a democratic transition if nudged by a strong, but moderate democratic opposition.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org.
Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002); Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.