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Four out of five Russians believe their country is in an economic crisis. The majority of the population say they are feeling the effects of increasing food prices. One in five people report that prices have risen so drastically that they have had to stop eating certain foods.
Still, there has been no backlash against President Vladimir Putin or his government: in January 2016, Putin’s approval rating stood at 82 percent, while 50 percent of Russians approved of the government as a whole. There have been no mass protests against the wars in Syria and Ukraine, against electoral fraud in the September 2015 regional elections, or against declining standards of living.
Some observers argue that Russians are willing to sacrifice material comforts for a sense of national greatness; Russians, they say, are willing to endure crises for Crimea. But is this true? Public opinion surveys and focus group discussions organized by the Levada Center shed light on popular sentiment in the current crisis and suggest a slightly different story.
Concern about the deteriorating economic situation began to increase in the summer of 2014 as the euphoria surrounding the annexation of Crimea dissipated. By December, with the ruble collapsing, Russians’ assessment of the economic situation had soured.
On the whole, government policies have been successful in allaying people’s fears. The panic of December 2014, when people began to empty their bank accounts and exchange rubles for dollars and euros, was quickly suppressed. Sharp price increases slowed once the ruble stabilized, and some goods actually became less expensive. By the spring of 2015, people’s assessment of the future began to improve.
This renewed optimism peaked around the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, when Putin claimed that the recession would only last two years. Public opinion surveys show that about half of the population still believes this. When asked to explain why the Russian economy will rebound in two years, focus group participants often respond, simply, “Well, that’s what Putin said!”
Unlike during the 2009 recession, there is currently no widespread panic about unemployment. Focus group participants note that some of their acquaintances have lost jobs or are having trouble finding new ones, but do not express much concern about their own employment prospects.
The present crisis has touched all segments of the Russian population, but in different ways. In June 2015, 6 percent of Russians planned to go abroad for their summer vacation (a higher number than in previous years). Affluent focus group participants said that they would cut their vacation budgets, perhaps by “taking one trip instead of two” or “opting for a cheaper tour.” This is consonant with broader trends in consumption: Russians are adjusting to economic hardship by replacing expensive products with cheaper, lower-quality ones.
Higher-income segments of the population were the first to be affected by the decline. These are individuals who identify as being “able to afford expensive items” and those who say they “can buy anything they want.” The first group contracted from 30 percent of the population at the end of 2014 to 24 percent by the end of 2015. The second group shrunk from 4 percent to 2 percent over the same time period. Middle-income individuals—those who say they “have enough money for food and clothes”—grew proportionately as a percentage of the population, while lower-income groups did not increase in size.
The 1998 financial crisis still colors popular sentiment. Today, lower-income groups (individuals who say that they “only have enough money for food” or “don’t even have enough money for food”) comprise about 17 percent of the population, while at the end of 1998 they accounted for 84 percent. This explains why participants told us at a recent focus group: “this is no crisis!” and “we’ve seen much worse!”
Focus groups suggest that Russians do not have a solid understanding of the roots of the current crisis. Most often, they cite the poor economic climate and falling oil prices. Between one-quarter and one-third of survey participants believe that the present problems are rooted in the Russian economy itself. A slightly smaller percentage point to Western sanctions.
Focus group participants are often unable to substantiate their opinions about the causes of the decline. Some blame the Russian government and president. Others assert that the United States and Saudi Arabia have colluded to depress oil prices in order to punish Russia. Others still fault Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, saying that had the former leaders not given Crimea to Ukraine there would be no war, no sanctions, and no crisis.
The majority of focus group participants and survey respondents do not think the composition of the government should change. In this sense, sanctions have succeeded in shifting the blame for the crisis from the Russian government onto the West. Overall, Russians do not seem to appreciate the severity of the current economic decline, likely because the economy has deteriorated so gradually that people have had time to become accustomed to it.
Still, authorities should take note of a phrase uttered at a recent focus group: “salaries aren’t changing, but prices are going up.” Russians will wake up to the crisis when pensions and salaries are not indexed as usual. In other words, when the middle- and lower-income segments of the population feel the crisis in their wallets. Thus far, the Russian government has been able to quell popular discontent. But time is running short: in a year and a half to two years, the Kremlin will have a real crisis on its hands.
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