Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is set to be elected Russia’s new president with two-thirds of the vote, according to a leading independent pollster.
But the populist spending spree and nationalist rhetoric behind his surge in popularity are unlikely to prevent a fraying of the social contract and a resurgence of popular protest, say analysts.
Putin may secure up to 66 percent of votes in the first round of the March 4 presidential poll, says Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center polling group.
The poll findings suggest that a run-off is “practically impossible,” Gudkov’s deputy, Alexei Grazhdankin told The Associated Press. “Any dramatic change in the situation is unlikely to happen in the remaining week,” he added.
Putin’s surge in popularity is due to an unashamedly populist campaign, say observers, in which his campaign has made extravagant spending promises and employed increasingly belligerent, anti-American rhetoric to strike a nationalist pose, suggesting that Washington was trying to meddle in Russia’s domestic affairs by funding the democratic opposition.
Putin today accused the West of pursuing “regime change” in Iran and warned of a new arms race.
“Under the guise of trying to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction… they are attempting something else entirely and setting different goals — regime change,” he said.
In line with the nationalist thrust of his presidential election campaign, he spoke of a resurgent Russia, proudly defying Western expectations of its decline.
“Only a few years ago, they did not say it to us directly, but they said it to their NATO colleagues — they said let Russia putter about, we are not even that interested anymore. All they have is a bunch of rust left,” Putin said. “Well, that is not the case. That is really not the case anymore.”
He warned that “the realization that we might encounter some sort of new wave of the arms race, this must move us all to be more constructive.”
The Levada survey placed Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov second with 15 percent, followed by the Liberal Democratic Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 8 percent, with billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and former Putin ally Sergei Mironov trailing at 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
“A second round is very unlikely,” Gudkov said today at a Moscow news conference. “Populist promises contained the downward trend and led to elevated expectations.”
Putin has made commitments to across-the-board wage increases to the military, police and other public sector workers and last week “played what appears to be his trump card” by rolling out a record spending program of 5 trillion rubles ($166.8 billion), which included funds to improve living conditions for 60 percent of households by 2020 by lowering the cost of housing by 20-30 percent. His spending pledges amount to as much as 5 percent of Russia’s $2.1 trillion 2012 gross domestic product.
“But longer term, Mr Putin’s strategy for staying in power – spending, or promising to spend, Russia’s oil wealth – may backfire,” writes the FT’s Charles Clover:
If he cannot live up to his promises, he risks the fate of Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian ruler of neighboring Belarus, who enjoyed approval ratings of 50-60 per cent for most of the past decade. After winning elections in December 2010, however, his score has plummeted to 20 per cent.
“The same could easily happen to Putin,” says Mikhail Dmitriev, head of the Center for Strategic Research, a government-connected think-tank, adding that much depends on oil prices. “At prices below $80 per barrel, this system would receive a blow from which it could not survive.”
While the Levada poll showed significant support for Putin, it also confirmed a shift in public opinion against Putinism, with a significant minority expressing discontent with current political arrangements.
“We are seeing a growing crisis of confidence in the authorities which halted during the election campaign, it sort of froze,” Gudkov told reporters, adding that Putin’s popularity would decline after his inauguration in May.
“High expectations soon create disappointment with the fact that these promises are impossible to implement,” he said.
Likely price rises in utilities tariffs, petrol prices and inflation are likely to prompt “a rise of social instability” before the year end.
“The most likely scenario is an undulating growth and then slump of the protest mood and a growth in social tensions.”
Putin has tried to portray the revived democratic opposition as stooges of the West, funded by the United States, say observers. He recently said that the country needs a legal opposition that is not “nourished from abroad.”
“In order to prevent such things in our country, we need to develop our own democratic institutions so that people feel like participants in political processes and understand that the formation of power and the main directions in economic and social policies depend on them. This is the key point,” he said.”It is necessary to have a legal opposition. Unfortunately, we have people who are ready to do everything for the sake of fulfilling their own political ambitions, which, unfortunately, are often fed from abroad.”
“The current campaign is laden with anti-Americanism,” said Sergei Oznobishchev, head of the Institute of Strategic Assessments, a Moscow think tank. “It’s like clothing they dust off and put on for certain occasions, currently for electoral purposes.”
His campaign has been notably effective in exploiting Russia’s largely state-controlled media to promote a chauvinistic agenda.
“People have been poisoned by television, and many sincerely believe in U.S. aggressive intentions,” said political analyst Alexander Konovalov.
Despite the recent boost in Putin’s popularity, the Levada data suggests a long-term and irreversible decline in his approval rating from its zenith at 85 percent in mid-2008 to 65 percent today.
“The seeds of the new discontent are partly due to the economy,” says the FT’s Clover, noting that over Putin’s first two presidential terms, Russians’ real incomes rose 142 per cent between 1999 and 2009:
This led to the idea of a “social contract” between the people and the regime – political passivity in exchange for rising prosperity. This relationship has broken down, however; living standards have stagnated as economic growth not only stayed low but was eaten away by inflation. …Most agree that the anti-Kremlin mood, which has seen a bout of protests since December 4 parliamentary elections, is not solely a product of economic stagnation. “This mood is concentrated among the middle class … many of whom are better off than they were before the crisis. It is not a response to economic stress,” says Mr Dmitriev.
If it were not for the resource curse, socio-economic indicators suggest that Russia would be approaching democratic consolidation, analysts believe:
Roberto Foa, a researcher at Harvard university, says that irrespective of time or place a general rule holds: as income rises, so does civic activism. With its current levels of per capita income, “Russia is certainly entering the zone at which democratic consolidation is more frequent,” he says.
A study by Renaissance Capital, a Moscow investment bank, even makes a stab at the precise probability of a democratic shift. Its research on political change in 150 states from 1950 to 2009 shows that a country of Russia’s average per capita income ($15,000 in constant 2005 dollars at purchasing price parity) has as much as a 28 per cent chance of moving from a “weak democracy” to a “strong democracy” in a given year.
But the exceptions to this rule, he adds, have one thing in common – they are oil exporters like Russia, whose energy revenues are distributed by the government to keep the public compliant. “If Russia didn’t have oil and gas I’d already expect it to be a strong democracy.”
The Levada Center is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.