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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a triangle has formed in Russian politics around the figures of President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.
Putin isn’t just president, he’s also the nation’s psychotherapist. Having declared a week-long public holiday to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, he is now trying to soothe entrepreneurs who are going bust, and preparing for two events: a nationwide vote on changing the constitution to allow him to stay on as president through 2036, and a vast Victory Day military parade on May 9, marking the Soviet and Allied victory in World War II—an event that is key to maintaining his approval ratings.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who has been appointed head of the working group tasked with battling the coronavirus, is the archetype of the efficient, technocratic manager, responsible for Moscow’s enormous budget, and known for the never-ending renovation of the capital and harsh repression of protests in Moscow in 2019.
Then there is Mishustin, the new prime minister: another technocrat and a huge fan of digitalization.
Each of these men has found himself in a difficult situation. Putin has seen the pandemic ravage essential mobilization for the vote on changing the constitution to reset the clock on presidential terms, allowing him to run again in 2024. That vote has been postponed from April to a later date because of the coronavirus. Sobyanin has become the face of the crisis: he is the one showing initiative and responsibility, which is good for his image, but he is also the person announcing unpopular decisions about the introduction of quarantine measures. Mishustin is working on measures to support the economy and business, but those measures are chaotic, and not always sufficient.
Compared with Sobyanin and Mishustin, it’s Putin who has problems. The public neither knows nor cares much about Mishustin, who was little known before his surprise appointment in January: in the Russian power system, the head of government is a purely technical figure, and his ratings are stable.
Sobyanin, meanwhile, is a political figure in his own right, but remains first and foremost a regional head, and this year, the ratings of regional heads are going up, as people identify more with local government than with the federal authorities. The average approval rating of regional heads in March (according to the independent Levada Center pollster) was 65 percent: higher than that of Putin, who saw his approval rating fall from 69 percent in February to 63 percent in March.
This is important. Firstly, Putin’s approval rating had long hovered around the plateau of 68 to 70 percent, and a six-point drop is a lot. Secondly, Putin’s approval rating was last at 63 percent in March 2013, exactly seven years ago and before Russia’s annexation of Crimea. His lowest score ever was 61 percent in 2011. For comparison, in March 2014, following the events in Crimea, Putin’s rating soared to 80 percent.
It’s hard to say how much of the recent fall in his ratings was due to the coronavirus, and how much of it is due to the slump in oil prices and, subsequently, the ruble. In any case, public opinion doesn’t rate Putin’s crisis management skills very highly. There is one other hypothesis: despite the apparent indifference with which the autocratic ruler’s move to reset the clock on his presidential terms was greeted, perhaps this move—along with the other amendments to the constitution, including highly populist social guarantees such as pension indexation—did not play in Putin’s favor, but against him.
Not only does nobody believe in those social guarantees, they are seen as the state’s duty, not as a good deed. The recent government reshuffle wasn’t perceived as a major change in the political system. Even the idea of an “eternal Putin” hasn’t made much of an impression: people expected it of him, there is no alternative to him. What people are fed up with, however, is that lack of an alternative. This is attested to by another March poll by the Levada Center, which showed that 62 percent of respondents think there should be an age limit on the office of the president (Putin is sixty-seven, and if he stays on for two more terms from 2024, he will be eighty-three). Fifty percent of people said they would like to see alternation in power and the appearance of new politicians.
Public opinion in Russia has split right down the middle. The Levada Center’s question of whether the nationwide vote on changing the constitution would be conducted in a fair and honest fashion divided respondents, with precisely 46 percent on each side. Meanwhile, 48 percent said they approved of resetting the clock on Putin’s presidential terms, while 47 percent said they did not approve.
Of those who have decided to take part in the nationwide vote that has essentially become a referendum on whether people trust Putin or not (54 percent said they plan to probably vote, 33 percent said they would definitely vote), only 9 percent were prepared to vote against the changes. The majority of people who turn out to vote in Russia are always in favor of the authorities. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they definitely did not intend to vote. The main reason given was that there is no point, since everything has already been decided, everything is staged anyway, and it’s all a lie, a circus, for show.
Together with the president’s approval rating, there was also a drop from February to March in positive responses to the statement “things are going in the right direction”—from 53 percent to 48 percent. For comparison, before the annexation of Crimea, in 2013, that figure was 40 percent. A year later, after the annexation, it was 60 percent. From these figures, it’s clear just how much the mobilizing effect of Crimea has worn off.
Now there’s barely anything left to mobilize the masses with: Russia can hardly annex the North Pole. The only tool left at Putin’s disposal is that of the politics of memory: that’s why he can’t cancel the Victory Day parade on May 9. But that is only a short-term tactic.
Paradoxically, moving to extend his presidential authority beyond its expected end in 2024 has worked against Putin. Meanwhile, the coronavirus and falling ruble have proved more effective than any action by the opposition aimed at damaging Putin’s ratings.
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