Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 61

Yesterday (March 27) marked the one-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s victory at the polls and transformation from Russia’s acting head of state–a position he assumed after Boris Yeltsin’s resignation on December 21, 1999–to its newly elected president. To mark the anniversary, several of Russia’s main polling organizations have published the results of polls measuring attitudes toward Putin one year ago and today. The data from two agencies–the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) and ROMIR–indicate that while Putin’s popularity remains far higher than any other politician, the public’s perception of his performance has become far more sober, and its expectations for what he can achieve have lowered significantly. Data from a third polling agency, the Public Opinion Foundation, show Putin’s rating as high and basically unchanged.

VTsIOM found that while 45 percent of those polled a year ago named Putin as the politician they most trusted, only 37 percent did so when asked the same question in a poll taken this month. A year ago, 37 percent said they “definitely hoped” that Putin would be able “to impose order on the country.” This year that number fell to 28 percent. At the same time, it is interesting to note that in March 2000 some 22 percent said they did not fear that Putin would establish a “harsh dictatorship dependent on the armed forces.” This number grew to 29 percent in the more recent poll.

A VTsIOM poll taken in February of this year found that when asked to identify what they disliked about Putin, 26 percent cited his links to Yeltsin and Yeltsin’s inner circle. Only 16 percent gave that answer last October. Twelve percent said they disliked the fact that Putin does not have a “clear-cut political line” (up from 5 percent in October 2000), while 6 percent said they disliked that Putin is “linked to corrupt politicians” (up from 2 percent in October). In a VTsIOM poll taken this month, 27 percent of those surveyed said they were “very worried” that Putin had not put forward “a concrete economic and political program,” up 6 percent from last March. In February of this year, when respondents were asked whether they hoped Putin could raise living standards, 17 percent said they had strong hopes, down from 26 percent in a June 2000 poll. Twenty percent of those polled last month said they had strong hopes that Putin could pull Russia out of its crisis, down from 27 percent in June 2000.

As for specific policies, VTsIOM found that Putin’s biggest liability is his Chechnya policy. Only 7 percent of those polled last month said they supported his actions in Chechnya, down from 24 percent last October, while 48 percent said they were “very disturbed” by the fact that Putin had not yet been able to “solve the Chechen problem,” up from 22 percent in March 2000. Twenty percent said they had strong hopes that Putin could achieve a victory in Chechnya and resolve the Chechen problem, down from 30 percent in June 2000, while 17 percent said they had no such hopes, up from 11 percent in June 2000.

At the same time, VTsIOM’s polling shows that Putin’s image as an “energetic, decisive, strong-willed” leader remains unchanged: 41 percent of those questioned in February cited these qualities as what attracted them to the president, the same number as last October. What is more, the number of respondents who said that Putin impressed them as a “person who is providing the country with stability” was up from 10 percent last October to 15 percent last month. Meanwhile, 16 percent of those polled last month picked Putin’s appearance as his most attractive quality–up from 10 percent in October 2000. And while only 9 percent of those polled last month said they thought Putin was “consistently” fulfilling all of his election campaign promises–down from 10 percent in August 2000–61 percent said they believed he was doing his best to fulfill them (60 percent gave this answer in August 2000).

VTsIOM’s polls would seem to indicate that, in the eyes of the Russian public, Putin has neither turned out to be the strict authoritarian his enemies feared he would be nor decisively broken with the corrupt oligarchic system which characterized the Yeltsin years, as many of Putin’s supporters hoped he would. They also would seem to show that while the Russian public’s original hopes for Putin have diminished, it still gives Putin the benefit of the doubt.

The results of ROMIR polls suggest an even greater public disillusionment with Putin. Thus while 30.5 percent of those polled by ROMIR last year cited “concern with the interests of the people” as a quality they valued in Putin, only 21.4 percent gave that answer this year. Likewise, 40.5 percent in last year’s poll cited Putin’s “professionalism” as a valued quality, while only 25.7 percent did this year. Indeed, Putin’s grades in the ROMIR poll were down across the board: 20 percent of respondents cited “decency” as Putin’s best quality, down from 29.7 percent last year; 32 percent cited his being “active” in running the country (down from 54.5 percent); 8.1 percent cited his ability to pick his team (down from 20.4 percent); 15.8 percent cited Putin’s “political will” (down from 32.7 percent); 15.3 percent cited his “charm.” The only area in which ROMIR’s respondents gave Putin higher grades was for “absence of bad habits:” 15.5 percent named this as his most valued quality this year, up from 11.7 percent last year.

At the same time, ROMIR’s poll found that 56.4 percent of the respondents would vote for Putin if elections were held today, with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov coming in a very distant second, with 11.1 percent. In addition, 81.6 percent of those among ROMIR’s respondents who voted for Putin last year said this year that they still felt they made the right choice (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 28; see also the Monitor, March 23).

Meanwhile, a poll taken by the Public Opinion Foundation this month found that the public assessment of his performance had basically not changed since last April. Asked to assess the president’s performance, 5 percent of those polled picked “excellent” (up from 4 percent in April 2000), 31 percent said “good” (the same as last April), 46 percent said “satisfactory” (41 percent last April), 9 percent said “bad” (up from 3 percent last April), 3 percent said “very bad” (up from 1 percent last April). The number who answered “hard to say” dropped to 7 percent this month from 20 percent last April (Fom.ru, March 22). The Public Opinion Foundation’s director, Aleksandr Oslon, called Putin’s stable popularity rating a “mystical, mysterious phenomenon” (Kommersant, March 27).