Nearly every second Russian (49%) would prefer Putin’s third term as president to be his last. Some 63 percent of respondents approve of Putin’s policies, but only 41 percent believe the country is heading in the right direction.
A third of respondents (35%) believe government officials are primarily concerned with “retaining their grip on power at any cost and defending their current positions”, while others say they sincerely want to “turn Russia into a modern, economically developed and socially comfortable country” (25%) and to “revive its great power status and the former geopolitical balance of forces” (25%).
The Levada poll reveals varying interpretations of current political trends.
Some 36% of Russians believe that “order is being restored” and 23% fear growing chaos and disorder, but 14% detect signs of “authoritarian rule”, 10% believe democracy is getting stronger, and 17% had no answer.
Despite popular discontent, Putin retains a fairly high level of personal popularity.
“There is a mechanism at work here that protects and relieves Putin of responsibility and puts the onus on lower levels of authority – the government, regional authorities and so on,” Levada Center head Lev Gudkov told RIA Novosti. “It’s a case of ‘good tsar, bad nobility.’”
But the Moscow-based Carnegie Center analyst Maria Lipman said Putin’s ratings don’t accurately reflect public discontent.
“If you look at how people respond to policies like concrete issues, such as the police, the courts or civil servants, around two-thirds consistently express discontentment,” she said.
Many Russians only “approve” of Putin because they envisage no credible alternative.
“Putin’s popularity shouldn’t be seen as a rating that compares him to others, because there are no others. Because he has no rivals, people look at him as the embodiment of statehood,” she added. “People are not blind and stupid, they know things are not great, but they surrender their responsibility to the guy at the top.”
“Russian traditional statehood is all about how the state is omniscient and the people are powerless,” she added. “People approve of the habitual order – even if this order is not particularly orderly.”
Putin’s critics received a boost today when a court unexpectedly acquitted opposition leader Garry Kasparov of participating in an unauthorized rally:
Kasparov, an anti-Vladimir Putin activist and former world chess champion, was detained Aug. 17, as he was attending a rally in support of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot outside the Moscow court where three of its members were being sentenced to two years in prison. He was violently rounded up by several riot policemen and thrown into a police van along with dozens of other protesters.
“This is a historic day — the courts have stopped trusting the police,” Kasparov said after leaving the court room, the same Khamovniki court where the Pussy Riot punk band had been sentenced.
The likely trial of dissident blogger Alexei Navalny will be a more significant test of the regime’s willingness to tolerate dissent than the Pussy Riot case, says Stephen Sestanovich, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“[The] broader story is about the ability of the regime to cope with the growing dissatisfaction among key elements of the population, including the elite,” he says. “For a time, it looked like opposition was coming together and was going to achieve steady success. Now Putin’s opponents have had to regroup and find issues that can mobilize supporters and broaden their base.”
Russia is “at a crossroads…with similar choices to the ones it faced twenty years ago,” two leading rights activists suggest
Monitoring rights in Russia has been “a rollercoaster experience,” say Anna Sevortian and Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, describing how early years of being “encouraged by the gains of fledgling Russian democracy” gave way to “the gradual setbacks and authoritarianism of the Putin era.”
The two activists highlight several leading figures from Russian civil society and their views of the most pressing challenges facing the democratic movement, including Yuri Dzhibladze, founder and president of the Moscow-based Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights.
The last ten years witnessed the erosion of Russia’s democratic institutions, he argues, but “an important line was crossed” this summer, when the Kremlin declared ‘Cold War’ on civil society.
Following the recent passage of new repressive laws, Russia “is no longer a democratic state – not only in essence, but formally,” Dzhibladze contends. The new NGO law, for instance, is designed to stifle civil society, imposing on NGOs “an intolerable burden of financial reporting and inspections, and demanding of organizations involved in the defense of human rights and in education that they describe themselves as ‘foreign agents’, which in Russian means ‘spies.’”
In another contribution, Alexander Verkhovsky of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis takes issue with the notion of “negative solidarity” through which Kasparov’s Other Russia aimed to forge an alliance of “everyone who is against Putin.”
“A ‘negative solidarity’ strategy can only be effective as a short term measure. Even in the medium term it has never worked and has in fact been a brake on reaching new supporters,” he contends.
Some observers fear that democratic groups have agreed a Faustian pact with far-right ultra-nationalists who will ultimately undermine or subvert prospects for democratization.
“The currently liberalizing tendencies are in danger of being reversed by anti-democratic forces,” said analyst Andreas Umland.
The opposition is necessarily a broad coalition, Verkhovsky writes in The Nationalists and the Protest Movement, but it is on danger of conferring credibility on ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi groups.
Navalny himself – an almost flawless example of a national democrat – is, despite his enormous popularity, totally unpopular among nationalists, as was clear from his isolation at actions such as the ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’rally last autumn. And it is completely unclear why the opposition movement should see the phantom of national democracy as a fully-fledged coalition partner.
“Nationalists of all shades are nevertheless sure to be part of opposition initiatives this autumn,” Verkhovsky concludes.
“And the leaders of all the ‘organizing committees’ will still be allocating them their quotas, avoiding any real discussion of those questions that actually arise out of the nationalists’ presence, ….[including] the question of the further legitimization of nationalist ideas and nationalist language in opposition and in power ….and consequently in Russian society as a whole.”
The Levada Center and SOVA receive support from the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.