Forty-eight percent of Russians polled by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) have expressed disagreement with the centerpiece of President Vladimir Putin’s recently announced plan to centralize political power. Asked whether they agreed with the president’s proposal to do away with direct elections for the country’s governors, 29.46% said they “more likely disagree,” 19.21% said they “completely disagree,” 23.93% said they more likely agree, and 16.03% said they completely agree. The remaining 13.37% said they found it difficult to answer. However, 44.78% of those polled answered in the affirmative when asked: “Will the system of measures for strengthening power proposed by Putin help Russia in the battle against terrorism?” Only 28.94% of the respondents gave a negative answer to that question, while 26.28% said they found it difficult to answer (Gazeta.ru, September 23).
Still, the negative assessment by ordinary Russians of Putin’s proposal to abolish the institution of popularly elected regional leaders came on the heels of another poll, conducted by the Levada Analytical Center, which found that the president’s support fell to 66% in mid-September. That was down two percentage points from August and the lowest level of support since the August 2000 sinking of the submarine Kursk, immediately after which Putin’s rating dropped as low as 60%. His popularity had reached 81% around the time of his re-election in March of this year (Financial Times, September 22).
Several liberal opponents of Putin’s centralization measures were heartened by the VTsIOM poll results. “It is an indicator that democratic institutions and the opportunity to participate directly in forming the organs of power are still important to many of our citizens,” said independent State Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin. Noting that he had expected “worse” results, meaning more support for Putin’s proposals, Pokhmelkin called the poll a signal that the Kremlin would do well to heed. “It will give opponents of the president the opportunity to appeal to public opinion,” he said.
Mark Urnov, head of the Ekspertiz foundation, saw a correlation between the drop in the president’s popularity rating and the negative assessment of his proposal to do away with elected governorships. “It is all the more meaningful given that for a long time many more people trusted the federal authorities much more than their local authorities,” he said. “They wanted the Kremlin in every way to increase control over the local authorities. Now that seems to be changing.”
Other observers, however, saw the results of the VTsIOM poll on Putin’s reforms much differently. Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, noted that 38% of those polled by VTsIOM indicated they were happy to have governors appointed rather than elected. According to Bunin, past polls found no more than 20% support for having governors appointed. “I explain the growth in the number of supporters by the fact that the proposal came from the president’s lips,” he said. “For these people the president’s personal authority is important.” Still, Bunin said the figures show that Russians still see the right to vote as something natural, which means that the number of people supporting elections for governors will not drop radically (Gazeta.ru, September 23).
Stanislav Belkovsky, who heads the Kremlin-connected National Strategy Institute and was a supporter (if not one of the architects) of President Putin’s bid to strengthen the “vertical of power” by cracking down on influential oligarchs, predicted the federal authorities will try unsuccessfully to convince the Russian people that the centralizing measures are correct. Even so, they “will carry out what they conceived and even intensify the situation,” he said. “I don’t rule out that as the next step, together with reducing the number of regions, the Kremlin intends to appoint the mayors of large cities.” Still, Belkovsky predicted that even such unpopular measures would not hurt Putin’s popularity. “The collapse of the phantom called the president’s rating will be possible only when an alternative leader, similar to [Boris] Yeltsin under [Mikhail] Gorbachev, appears” he said (Vremya novosti, September 24).
VTsIOM, it should be noted, found strong support for tougher measures against terrorism, some of which the Kremlin has proposed, others which it has not (at least thus far). Eighty-four percent of those polled said they supported increasing the penalties for terrorist activities, up to and including the death penalty. Eighty-two percent said they would support actions aimed at destroying terrorists beyond Russia’s borders, while 58% were for increasing limitations on migration into Russia. Two-thirds of the respondents said they supported merging all of Russia’s special services into a single organ resembling the Soviet-era KGB (RIA Novosti, September 23).