20 years under Putin: a timeline

The phenomenon of Vladimir Putin’s sky-high approval rating (over 80 percent) is widely discussed by social scientists. One argument holds that this number is inaccurate and that pollsters are at fault. Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov spoke to Timur Kuran, a prominent social thinker and a professor of economics and political science at Duke University, about the concept of “preference falsification,” which helps explain the high approval ratings attained by leaders of repressive regimes.


According to Timur Kuran, in authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s current electoral autocracy, what people say in public may not mirror what they really believe, know, and feel. Photo: Duke University


Denis Volkov: There has been a lot of criticism about the accuracy of public opinion polls showing high approval ratings for Vladimir Putin. Do you think the pollsters are wrong?

Timur Kuran: Pollsters are sometimes unaware of the sensitivities that make people reluctant to tell the truth even to innocent-looking (or innocent-sounding) pollsters. One thinks of Moscow in 2013, Scotland in 2014, and Greece in 2015. The Turkish elections of June 2015 offer another example: Erdoğan's party, the AKP, lost considerable support. Most of the polls significantly underestimated the AKP’s decline, but for six weeks before the election, one poll, that of KONDA, consistently got it right.

What accounted for KONDA’s success? Erdoğan has won many elections in a row, and he was demanding dictatorial powers. It seemed to many Turks that he was unstoppable, that Erdoğan would inevitably acquire powers akin to those of Putin. As a result, many individual Turks were afraid to express even to a pollster that they intended to vote for a party other than the AKP. KONDA’s pollsters deliberately made it clear to their respondents that were independent of the government. They sent signals that they did not belong to the AKP and had no ties to the state. That enabled them to register the growing opposition—AKP opponents were more sincere with KONDA pollsters than with others.

When a dominant party sows fear in the population, polls must overcome the fear causing preference falsification to measure voting inclinations correctly. They must give people assurances that the preferences they express will not be used against them.

DV: You introduced the concept of ‘preference falsification,’ which is often mentioned in discussions about the accuracy of different pollsters. How do you define the term?

TK: In authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s current electoral autocracy, it is risky to express views offensive to the incumbent government. Consequently, many people engage in preference falsification on sensitive political matters. In particular, some government critics keep their misgivings about the state private. They even bend over backwards to praise the government’s accomplishments in the hopes of advancing their careers and gaining the right to be left alone. But what people say in public may not mirror what they really believe, know, and feel.

DV: How does this work exactly?

TK: First, let’s focus on the choices of the media and intellectuals. An atmosphere of repression leads to preference falsification among opinion leaders, including media personalities, media bosses, and public intellectuals. Their public opinions are far more favorable toward the government than their private opinions (those that they share only with close friends). Self-censorship, censorship, and deliberate pandering ensure that the mass media contain mostly facts and arguments favorable to the government. Critical viewpoints and data unfavorable to the government tend to be confined to publications and TV programs that appeal only to intellectuals themselves. In the context of modern Russia, people with access to critical viewpoints include speakers of a foreign language, people who follow social media in multiple languages, and those with access to foreign news sources and intellectual ideas. Such groups have access to sources of information that are not subject to the social pressures of a specific country.

In the case of any given country (for example, Russia, Turkey, or the United States), local pressures unavoidably weigh on local residents. These local pressures, and the sensitivities that drive them, are not necessarily present in other societies. Hence, elites, as I am using the term, are people with privileged access to unfiltered information. However much they know, many of them have much to lose from challenging the leader or dominant political group in the country. Therefore, many of them falsify their preferences on sensitive matters. They know what the truth is. They know that the rhetoric of the regime includes lies, distortions, and omissions. Yet it is in their interest to feign unawareness of the inadequacies, inefficiencies, flaws, and corruption of the incumbent regime.

DV: What about the general public—does it falsify its preferences?

TK: People’s public preferences are based partly on their underlying private preferences. As for private preferences, for most people, on most issues, these are based on easily available information. Unlike an academic, the typical person does not explore issues in depth or devote time to searching for scientific information. If the media are packed with pro-government facts and opinions about economic policies (Crimea and Ukraine, global warming, world events, etc.), they accept these more or less uncritically. The availability of information dictates how their preferences are shaped. Thus, the forces that shape a typical person’s preferences are not the preferences, opinions, and facts that intellectuals carry in their heads. Rather, they are commonly expressed preferences, opinions, and facts. If the media generally support Putin, interpret events from his perspective, and filter facts according to whether they advance his agenda, the typical Russian will like Putin’s policies and performance.

Secondly, people’s public preferences are based on the rewards and costs associated with their expressed choices. If individuals who publicly oppose the government risk losing their job, or if they are likely to face harassment, they may opt to disguise their discontent and pretend to support the government. Thus, preference falsification may make the government’s public popularity exceed its private popularity.

DV: How does the general public act under a regime that controls the main sources of information?

TK: People who lack access to outside sources of information and obtain their information about the government from mouthpieces of the regime may see events through the regime’s perspective. Such people will not necessarily falsify their opinions—their support for the regime may be genuine. In every oppressive regime, many people accept official interpretations of events. But their opinions are shallow, in the sense that they are not based on experiences, investigations, or analysis of their own. Precisely because their opinions are shallow, they may easily change. If someone exposes the flaws of the regime, or provides a new understanding of the current situation, their views can change quickly and significantly.

It is important to understand that the mechanism at work here differs from the mechanism that shapes the preferences of elites. Non-elites accept common interpretations because everybody around them does so. They accept the regime’s widely available interpretations because they lack access to independent sources of information. They blame the problems they face in daily life on domestic and foreign conspiracies. They believe that enemies of the regime are responsible for the regime’s failures. But if someone defines the situation differently, and people around them start to adopt a new perspective, they themselves may shift their views quickly. This is because their pro-regime views rest on very little empirically sound or personally validated information, instead relying on only the shallowest thinking.

Genuine support does not necessarily amount to deep support. A substantial share of the 80% would have a hard time defending the regime’s economic record in a manner that would make sense to an educated observer. Were the media to become more critical, some of Putin’s genuine support could vanish quickly.

DV: In other words, there are two different mechanisms of change when it comes to public opinion: The change can happen via a split among elites, who may have one view of a situation but publicly express a different one, or it can come via the general public, which must be exposed to a different view first.

TK: Basically, that is correct. Public opinion starts to transform when, for elites, the cost of speaking the truth falls. So if there is a split among the elites, and some elites who had been regime supporters start speaking their minds and saying what they already know, that will catch the attention of the general public. The masses will be exposed to competing interpretations. If some of them switch their allegiance to the previously hidden opposition and start protesting, the wave of dissidence may begin to feed on itself. In other words, the number of dissidents may swell through a cascade effect.

DV: What can trigger such a process?

TK: One possible trigger is an economic shock that convinces people that their difficulties are not transitory—in other words, that their lives are unlikely to improve for the foreseeable future. Consider the effects on Russia of the fall in oil prices. Insofar as the price decline is perceived as temporary, it will not generate a major response from the elites. But if elites perceive that higher prices will not return anytime soon, some people will infer that the political status quo is unsustainable. A subsection of them may start speaking their minds, possibly in order to be in the vanguard of the opposition that is likely to take over when the present regime falls. Someone who believes that a regime change is inevitable will find it advantageous to be identified with the opposition early on.

The collapse of the East German regime in November 1989 offers an instructive example. By the summer of 1989, the entire East German Politburo understood that the regime was under threat. Before long, the Politburo itself split. Some members decided to jump ship and oppose a crackdown on demonstrators. Before long, they recast themselves as social democrats. This East German example, like so many others, suggests that in the future a Russian political transformation might involve a split within President Vladimir Putin’s political circle, including his allies in the business community.

DV: In your book, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, you write that political transformations involve a change in preferences. How does that happen?

TK: Again, two distinct mechanisms are involved. Remember that there are people who have been falsifying their preferences all along. These “hidden dissidents” are ready to speak their minds if the risk of doing so falls sufficiently. Suppose that an external shock makes a few hidden dissidents start to speak sincerely. Their decision to stop lying will lower the cost of being truthful for other hidden dissidents. That is because there is safety in numbers: the more people there are who oppose the government publicly, the less risk there is that any given person will face punishment for identifying as a dissident. The growth in opposition can thus feed on itself.

As the size of the public opposition grows, more members of society explain to their acquaintances, to TV audiences, and to co-workers that the country is facing dire problems. The masses, who have been ignorant about the regime’s missteps and inefficiencies, now have easier access to a variety of viewpoints. As opposition to the government mushrooms, the number of people exposed to diverse views grows rapidly. More and more people start holding the incumbent regime responsible for their troubles. These two dynamics support one another—political mobilization and political awareness develop in tandem.

DV: Does change start with the elites? In other words, does a split among the elites lead to a regime’s downward spiral?

TK: This is one possible scenario, and it is relatively more common. Political mobilization against the regime does start with a split among the elites. But there is also a less common pattern, which is the one observed in Tunisia in 2011. Under President Ben Ali, Tunisia’s elites understood that his regime was very oppressive, that corruption was rampant, and that economic policies could be improved. But they were afraid to criticize him, let alone oppose him openly. The catalyst for the movement against the Ben Ali regime came from the very lowest level. The nation stood up when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor harassed repeatedly by the police, said “enough is enough” one day and set himself on fire. His fatal self-immolation touched a nerve in vast numbers of Tunisians who suffered from daily inconveniences and humiliations caused by officials. Spontaneous demonstrations started because so many people could identify with the indignities that Bouazizi suffered. The match he lit sent the signal that people were reaching a breaking point. At that point, the elites split. Again, the split among elites, the mass mobilization against the regime, and the dissemination of information about the regime’s culpability all reinforced each other.

DV: Does political transformation always involve learning to think differently?

TK: The Tunisian Revolution, like the East German collapse, illustrates that a political transformation can be completely unanticipated. Bouazizi was neither the first Arab to set himself on fire, nor the last. But only his self-immolation had a massive impact. Many Tunisians were frustrated, but they did not realize how widespread the frustration was. Now, all of a sudden, you realized that the repression had reached a point where many people felt Tunisia was unlivable. This was the learning process that took place. It undermined the incumbent regime’s legitimacy and chances of survival.

DV: According to our polls, public support of Putin stands at more than 80 percent. Do you think this number can change within a short period of time?

TK: During a severe economic recession, a repressive leader may enjoy high public support for a combination of two reasons: (1) private support and (2) preference falsification on the part of people who privately consider the leader responsible for various problems. So we need to distinguish between genuine support and superficial, contrived support. High genuine support could reflect the leader’s control of the mass media. The typical citizen may be interpreting events through media outlets that are controlled by supporters of the regime. The contrived support is caused by fear of opposing a leader who seems so powerful. His image of invincibility stems, in part, from the widespread genuine support that he enjoys.

The precise makeup of the two types of support is an empirical matter. It can be estimated by comparing the results of polls conducted using two separate methods. Under the first method, opinions are sought through polls conducted by pollsters who appear to be connected to the regime. Under the second method, pollsters who are perceived as being unconnected to the regime give respondents credible anonymity. Genuine supporters would express support for the leader under both methods. However, only under method 1 would private dissenters register support for the leader. Under method 2, they would say that they oppose him. If the two methods yield similar results, one would have to infer that most of the observed support is genuine.

I should reiterate: genuine support does not necessarily amount to deep support. A substantial share of the 80% would have a hard time defending the regime’s economic record in a manner that would make sense to an educated observer. Were the media to become more critical, some of Putin’s genuine support could vanish quickly.