20 years under Putin: a timeline

Following a series of high-profile political events in Russia—Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia, his imprisonment, and unprecedented protests in his support—IMR prepared a brief overview of the Levada Center’s latest public opinion polls. Despite the brutality of the regime’s crackdown on the dissent, the polls show that little seems to have changed for Putin and the Kremlin. A new survey of Russians’ and Americans’ views of each other also reveals gaps in self-perception and narrow areas of possible cooperation.

 

According to Levada Center polls, the majority of Russian people generally approve Vladimir Putin and believe that things in Russia are going in the right direction. But as Levada's head Lev Gudkov points out, the authoritarian regime is based on public apathy and lack of resistance. Photo: Grigory Sysoev / Sputnik via AP.

 

Approval ratings 

In February 2020, 69 percent of Russians approved of Vladimir Putin. As of March 2021, his popularity rests at 63 percent. For the Russian government, throughout 2020, approval hovered around 50 percent, dipping slightly in the first two months of 2021 to 47 percent and then recovering to 49 percent in March, all of which is within the margin of error. The State Duma demonstrates similar stability, entering 2020 with an approval rating of 41 percent, which remains only increased by one percent in 2021. Still, with new parliamentary elections slated for September this year, the regime might run into some troubles mobilizing the base, as the approval rating for the pro-Putin United Russia party dropped to 27 percent—the lowest point over the last five years.

According to the February 2021 poll, the approval rating of Alexei Navalny was 19 percent, with 56 percent of respondents disapproving of him (13 percent said that they never heard of him, 12 percent were undecided). His approval is highest (36 percent) among young people aged 18-24, and lowest (12 percent) among 55+year-olds. 

Additionally, among politicians that Russians trust the most (open-end question), as of March 2021, Putin polls at 31 percent, while Navalny is at 4 percent. It is also telling that the second most popular answer is “I don’t trust anyone” (23 percent).

 

Russia’s state of affairs

Polls also show that Russian people generally believe things are going in the right direction. At the beginning of 2020, 52 percent of respondents agreed with that view. During the pandemic lockdown months (March through July 2020), this number dropped to 42 percent, but, as of March 2021, it had crawled back to 48 percent

 

Protests

In early 2020, widespread protests were relatively unexpected by Russians, but by the summer, the numbers of those expecting protests and planning to participate had risen, before falling again in early 2021. It is noteworthy that in March 2021, 58 percent of Russians named the rise in prices as the key issue in the country, with poverty (40 percent), corruption (39 percent), and growing unemployment (36 percent) trailing slightly behind.

In early 2020, only 26 percent of respondents said they anticipated that economic issues could trigger demonstrations in their region, but following a year of pandemic-related struggles, this number has now reached 43 percent. When asked if they would personally take part in these protests in 2020, respondents showed reluctance, with only 25 percent confirming they would take it to the street. This number peaked at 29 percent in July 2020, but, as of January 2021, had fallen to 17 percent.  

Similar dynamics can be seen regarding Russians’ views of political protests: in 2020, only 24 percent of respondents said they expected political protests to happen in their region. This number, again, had risen by 2021 to 45 percent, with widely publicized protests in Khabarovsk Krai and Belarus being potential factors. In terms of personal participation in such protests, the numbers are low: in 2020, 19 percent reported they would rally, while now, this number stands at just 15 percent.

 

Russia and Europe  

When it comes to attitudes toward Russia-West relations, the United States and the European Union have been consistently losing Russians’ approval over recent years. In February 2021, 64 percent of respondents also considered Russia a non-European country, while only 29 percent disagreed. (In August 2019, this ratio was 55 to 37 percent.) Interestingly enough, the share of those who do not consider Russia a European country is the largest among the Russian youth aged 18-24: 71 percent versus 23 percent; it is the lowest among the 55-plus demographics: 58 percent versus 33 percent

At the same time, 16 percent of young people believe that the West treats Russia with respect, and 15 percent said it was sympathy. Overall, 23 percent of respondents described the West’s attitude toward Russia as “anxiety”; “fear” and “no feelings” were named by 18 percent, respectively.

 

Russia-U.S.

A year ago, 49 percent of Russians reported favorable views of the U.S., but today this number has decreased to 45 percent. Certain events, such as the U.S. presidential election, punctuate the poll numbers. With the new U.S. administration taking a harder stance on Russia, a majority of Russians continues to view the US negatively—likely due to the Kremlin propaganda efforts, exemplified in the elections’ negative coverage. For instance, in January 2020, 42 percent of Russians had a favorable view of the U.S., but this number dropped to 35 percent around the U.S. elections in November last year. In 2021, attitudes have leveled off at 40 percent. (It is worth noting that the record low number was just 12 percent in 2012.) 

To understand U.S.-Russian relations, the Levada Center partnered with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to poll broad swaths of regionally diverse populations in the U.S. and Russia. The results offer interesting differences in mutual and self-perceptions.

First, 46 percent of Russians believe that the U.S. has become less respected in the world over the past 10 years, with even larger numbers of Americans—67 percent—sharing that view. Only 9 percent of Russians and 12 percent of Americans said that the U.S. is now more respected (33 and 19 percent, respectively, thought that respect levels have not changed). 

On the other hand, 42 percent Russians also believe that Russia is more respected now that it was 10 years ago, while only 9 percent of U.S. respondents concurred, and 51 percent said that Russia is now less respected—26 percent of Russians are of the same opinion (20 percent of Russians and 36 percent of Americans believe that respect levels have not changed).

Second, despite noticeable differences in mutual perceptions, roughly the same percentage of Russians and Americans (42 and 44 percent, respectively) said that bilateral relations will not change over the next 10 years. At the same time, on balance, Russians were slightly more optimistic: 19 percent thought that the two countries will get closer; among Americans, this figure is just 10 percent.

Third, views also diverge when it comes to the most important areas of U.S.-Russian cooperation. Joint efforts to tackle pandemics are at the top of Russians’ list (82 percent), while Americans prioritize nuclear arms control in North Korea and Iran (71 percent). Opinions were significantly divided on cooperation in curbing China’s influence on world politics: 37 percent of Russians versus 53 percent of Americans see joint efforts in this area as necessary. Additionally, 70 percent of Russians and 65 percent of Americans agree that both countries’ nuclear arsenals should be decreased.

Finally, respondents were quite divided in their views of the other country’s leader. Sixty-seven percent of Russians had favorable views of Vladimir Putin, compared to only 11 percent of Americans, and 56 percent of U.S. respondents had favorable views of Joe Biden, compared to 19 percent of Russians.

 

A sociologist’s-eye view 

Sociologist Lev Gudkov, who heads the Levada Center, shared his insights on the polling data in an interview with Znak.com. He recalls that over the years the majority of institutions in Russia have been losing public trust. The only three that still enjoy it are the army, the president, and the FSB (plus other special services), while civil society institutions are currently bottom of the list. On balance, these data point to the pillars of the repressive authoritarian state built in Russia. 

According to Gudkov, Putin’s high approval rating (even as it has decreased from the post-Crimea record high) is based on the public consensus, organized and maintained by the administrative power and propaganda efforts. Yet, it is also the result of other institutions’ weakness. Gudkov quotes Hannah Arendt, saying that public apathy (silent approval) is the backbone of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and this “political submissiveness” has even slightly increased since 2007 (from 73 to 75 percent), as Levada polls show. However, he also notes that when people answer an open question (e.g. “Which politician do you trust the most?”), Putin’s base polls at 29-30 percent (Alexei Navalny polls at 4 percent, according to Levada’s latest survey). His approval is especially low among young people. Still, while people might be critical of Putin, they are not ready to act on their grievances, nor change the situation. “The lack of resistance is what this regime is based on,” sums up Gudkov.

Another crucial element of Putin’s approval ratings is his foreign policy and “confrontational rhetoric” that both target an external or domestic enemy. Gudkov cites poll numbers from 1989-1990 when only 13 percent of Russians believed that their country had enemies, and among those they named the mafia, Communists, separatists, and the CIA; but 52 percent maintained that there was no point in seeking enemies since all problems are “within us.” In 1994, 60 percent said that Russia had to follow a Western path and integrate with Europe; 40 percent supported NATO membership.

Even today, Gudkov observes, regardless of the propaganda efforts, the image of the West in Russians’ view is not simply negative: it represents everything that people actually want (higher living standards, rule of law, technological development) but realize they won’t have in the foreseeable future. This breeds inferiority and resentment, which is skillfully manipulated by propaganda. 

Russia under Putin

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.