In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Coronavirus and the Kremlin: Will Putin’s Ratings Keep Falling Through Fall?
The COVID-19 pandemic has already pushed Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings to historically low levels, and it may be that the ratings of the Russian leader, his government and his party are not done falling just yet.
Lower Approval, Trust in Putin
A poll conducted in April and released in May by Russia’s most respected independent pollster, the Levada Center, shows that 59 percent of Russians approve of Putin’s actions as president. While leaders of some other countries would take such a low point on any day, this figure actually represents Putin’s lowest approval rating in his 20 year tenure as Russia’s leader. Levada’s poll also shows that Putin’s approval ratings have decreased over the last few months: in February, his approval ratings were reported at 69 percent; in March, 63 percent.
Other Russian polling organizations’ reports support the Levada Center’s findings. While the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) reports slightly higher numbers, approval ratings nonetheless seem to have slipped according to this organization as well. VTsIOM poll numbers from the beginning of February show that 66.1 percent of Russians approved of Putin’s work as president, and by the organization’s May 10 poll, this number had dropped to 61 percent. Another organization, the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which is formally independent but has allegedly partially relied on doing work for the Kremlin, confirms this trend as well, showing that 62 percent of Russians believed that Putin was doing good work as of May 24, compared to 65 percent at the beginning of February.
Results from these three organizations are shown in Figure 11:
In addition to showing a general decrease in approval ratings over the last few months, more in-depth numbers from VTsIOM and FOM show that Putin’s approval ratings jumped up around the beginning of April before starting their decline. A number of analysts offered their opinions on the reasons behind this phenomenon: Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst, argued that this jump emblemized a classic “rally around the flag” effect in a time of crisis. Levada Center analyst Stepan Goncharov tied the bump in ratings to Putin’s March 25 address, which shifted the focus from economic collapse to the state’s plans for taking supportive measures. However, both analysts at the beginning of April warned that the situation was volatile and that this jump could prove to be fleeting. Their suspicions turned out to be correct, as ratings began to fall soon after.
Public trust in Putin has dropped as well, although not as sharply. Every few months, the Levada Center runs a poll asking users to “name five or six politicians whom you trust the most.” In their most recent press release, they report that 25 percent of respondents to the May poll named Putin—a drop from 35 percent in January’s poll. VTsIOM, asking a similar question, found similar results: only 27 percent of respondents to the April poll mentioned Putin, a decrease from 29 percent in February and 30.6 percent in January. Despite the more gradual drop in Putin’s trust ratings compared to his approval ratings, even VTsIOM’s March number for trust (28.3 percent) marked a 14-year low.
Figure 2 shows trends for these questions:
FOM also shows slight drops in Putin’s public trust levels. FOM asked respondents whether they trust Putin or not. While 59 to 61 percent of respondents claimed that they trust Putin in February, May polling shows that this number dropped slightly to 57 to 59 percent. While trust in Putin has fallen, the decrease is only slight.
Ratings of Mishustin, Government Is Ambiguous
While Putin’s ratings appear to be generally trending down, public opinion on the Russian government and its leader, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, is less clear, as different indicators and different organizations show different trends.
On the one hand, in VTsIOM and Levada Center polls that ask respondents to name five or six politicians who they trust the most, Mishustin appears to be gaining the public’s trust. According to Levada, 11 percent of Russians listed Mishustin as a trusted figure in May, compared to only 3 percent in a poll taken at the end of January. Mishustin’s May rating is very similar to former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s average (10.5 percent) from late 2017 to late 2019. VTsIOM’s polling shows a similar upward trend: in February, only 5 percent of Russians listed Mishustin as a trusted figure; by April, that number had risen to 9.2 percent.
On the other hand, other rankings for Mishustin and his government show different trends. In February, Levada reported that Mishustin enjoyed a 52 percent approval rating; by May, this was down to 47 percent. Thus, while some indicators show that trust in Mishustin has increased, it is unclear whether these rankings reflect actual increased approval of Mishustin’s actions, as shown by this poll: they could simply entail greater name recognition, given that Mishustin came out of relative obscurity to become Prime Minister just this January. Thus, while some of Mishustin’s ratings are positive, the overall picture is unclear.
Regarding the government itself, trends are ambiguous as well. FOM regularly asks respondents if they believe that the government is doing “good work.” This number has risen over the last couple of months: On Feb. 20, 28 percent of respondents stated that the government was doing good work; on May 10, that number had risen to 37 percent. However, this trend is complicated by the fact that it has in fact been decreasing since April 5, as shown in the graph below.
RBK also reports that confidence in the government is down since the outbreak of COVID-19. According to a survey run by Online Market Intelligence (OMI) and Platforma, a Russian organization that carries out sociological research, the level of trust in governmental institutions and belief that the government is ready to come to the aid of its citizens has dropped for 61 percent of Russians during the pandemic. Overall, the picture for Mishustin and his government is somewhat unclear.
Support for United Russia Remains Unchanged
Despite a slight drop in Putin’s ratings and unclear trends in approval ratings for Mishustin and the Russian government, support for the United Russia political party has thus far remained clearly unchanged throughout the COVID-19 crisis. VTsIOM and FOM ask respondents the following question on a weekly basis: “If there were to be elections to the Russian Duma this coming Sunday, which party would you most likely vote for?” From February to May, both organizations report that numbers have remained relatively steady. Figure 4 shows this pattern.
Is the Worst Yet to Come?
That Putin’s ranking would plummet in case of a pandemic comes as no surprise. After all, the idea that a pandemic could strike Russia, causing thousands of deaths, a contraction of the economy and a decrease in popularity for Putin and pro-Putin political forces, has been predicted by a number of experts, including my senior colleague Simon Saradzhyan and his co-author Nabi Abdullaev. What such forecasts don’t tell us is how protracted that decline could be.
Some experts argue that Putin’s ratings might not be done falling just yet. For instance, according to Levada Center expert Denis Volkov, the full effect of the pandemic on the ratings of the Russian authorities won’t be felt until fall. Moreover, Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia University believes that should the pandemic in Russia drag on and oil prices remain low, Putin could face economics-based protests from the population and competition from other elites in the near future. Chris Miller of FPRI points out how COVID-19 has so far stymied Putin’s desire to hold a referendum on constitutional amendments that would allow him to remain president for an additional two terms. This factor, in addition to economic issues, has made fighting the coronavirus “a challenge” for the Putin administration, according to Miller.
Others, however, are less convinced that the drop in ratings will have such profound effects on the Putin administration. Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center argues that while the ratings of Putin and his loyalists are certainly dropping, there is not yet a singular rallying cry around which those disillusioned with Putin can coalesce, thereby decreasing the likelihood of mass protests. I believe that he has a point; however, only time will tell.
- Questions (translated): Levada: “Do you generally approve of or disapprove of the actions of Vladimir Putin in the office of President of Russia?” VTsIOM: “Do you generally approve of or disapprove of the actions of the President of Russia?” FOM: "In your opinion, is President V. Putin working generally well or generally badly in his office?"
Daniel Shapiro is a graduate of Harvard University specializing in contemporary Russian politics, Russian public/private sector relations and the North and South Caucasus. He is also an associate with Russia Matters.
Photo by mohamed_hassan shared under a Pixabay license.