Popularity Matters: Russian “Macho” Prime Minister and “Tech” President Image Contest

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 192

With the presidential elections in Russia scheduled for 2012, the media presence of President, Dmitry Medvedev, and Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has increasingly appeared as an image contest, as if the election campaign had already started. Yet, with the elections’ outcome widely expected to be prearranged and the personality of the main candidate decided within the duumvirate, what is the purpose of such an exercise? It is their popularity rating. In the absence of public politics in Russia, the popularity of a national leader is all that matters. The question is not whether Putin or Medvedev is more popular, but who is most popular with what part of the population?

There are image parallels. Last August, TV viewers were entertained by the coverage of Putin driving through parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East in the latest Russian-made Lada-Kalina car (http://www.gazeta.ru/photo/30291/3411953.shtml).  On October 11, Medvedev made a media splash by giving a ride to his guest, the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a 1950’s Soviet vintage Chaika car (Kommersant, October 12). On September 6, Putin spoke to the members of the Valdai political discussion club (http://www.newsru.com/russia/08sep2010/putin.html), while on September 10, Medvedev opened the world political forum in Yaroslavl (http://www.kremlin.ru/news/8882). On October 11, Medvedev met “informally” with Russian rock musicians, which was an apparent antidote to Putin’s “friendly” meeting with a group of Russian actors and musicians on May 29 (Kommersant, October 13, Vlast, June 7).

There are image differences. Putin appears as a macho man who hunts, for ecological purposes, tigers and whales, while overseeing the development of ambitious infrastructure projects, in energy, space, and road building, and solving the social problems of the population along the way.  Medvedev appears as sophisticated and tech-savvy with a Twitter blog and a soft spot for innovative projects such as an “innovation city” of Skolkovo and a Russian-made smart phone.

There are image blunders. At his meeting with actors and musicians, Putin pretended not to know Yuriy Shevchuk, a famous rock musician from his native St. Petersburg, who had asked him about the lack of political freedom in Russia. Medvedev in front of the cameras revealed that a Russian 4G, 2-screen smart phone exists only as a plastic dummy, and will be, if ever, manufactured in Taiwan (Kommersant, September 14).

There are doubts as to what is behind the images. Skolkovo, Medvedev’s favorite idea lately, looks like a huge development project rather than innovative, as in the next three to five years, 180-200 billion rubles (around $6 billion) of state and private money (50-50) is to be spent on the development of 500 hectares near Moscow, while there are a number of long-established but chronically underfunded science centers in Russia (Kommersant, October 11). Putin, on the other hand, “solves” the problems of “ordinary people” he is arranged to meet, be it a lack of place in a kindergarten, or the absence of a village’s access to a nearby gas pipeline, as if by a magic, without the local social or communal infrastructure changing much.

Why bother with the image contest if there is no contest for the votes?  In Russia, it is not so much the ballot cast, as the popularity rating that legitimizes the ruler. As Aleksei Navalnyi, one of the leaders of the street protests in 2003-2007, recognizes, “Medvedev is a derivative of Putin’s power. And the power of Putin is based not on some mythical ‘power men’ (who are just entrepreneurs in the officer uniforms), but on the high popularity rating of Putin. He is now the most popular politician in Russia and will remain so in the near future, even if, hypothetically, honest elections were held with a free press. That is the basis of the legitimacy of the current authorities’ decisions.  But if a few years ago Putin was the most popular politician with the 70 percent rating and a minimum anti-popularity rating, now he is the most popular politician with a 45 percent rating and a growing anti-popularity rating… The declining political legitimacy induces compromises.” (Kommersant, October 19).  Indeed, during the fires crisis last summer the popularity rating of Putin and Medvedev fell to 50 percent (http://fwnews.ru/politika/3iz-za-pozharov-populyarnost-medvedeva-i-putina-padaet34), but then rose again. According to the poll conducted by the Levada sociological center on August 23-24 in 46 Russian regions, the popularity ratings of both leaders were stable at 73 percent for Medvedev and 78 percent for Putin (Kommersant, 27 August).

Traditionally, the bulk of the Russian population delegates their right to influence, as citizens, the decision-making process to a person they perceive a legitimate national leader. According to the recent survey of the Institute of Sociology of Russian Academy of Science, over 60 percent of the population has a paternalistic attitude to life and an inertia-dominated “rural” way of thinking (Kommersant, October 21). A Tsar’s legitimacy was justified by his God-given inborn right to the throne, a Communist party Secretary General’s by the constitutional clause on the leading party rule. Boris Yeltsin’s first presidency was legitimized by his immense personal popularity reflected by the all-Russian referenda of March 17, 1991 and April 25, 1993 on the introduction of the post of the President of the Russian Federation and on the confidence in Boris Yeltsin, respectively.  However, in the 1996 elections, when his popularity rating plummeted to between 3 percent to 6 percent, Yeltsin had to start from scratch winning over the communist candidate, Gennadiy Zyuganov, with great difficulty in the second round (53.8 percent against 40.3 percent). After the feat of the election campaign, during which Yeltsin suffered a heart attack, his rating sunk again. In the fall of 2000, 67 percent of voters valued his policies negatively, and only 19 percent positively (http://bd.fom.ru/report/cat/pres/eltzin_/d071822 ).

Yeltsin’s entourage had no choice but to find him a successor. The casting for this role included a number of more or less known, ordinary or sophisticated looking figures, including a string of prime ministers, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Sergei Stepashin, and Sergei Kireenko. However, Vladimir Putin, a non-existent political entity at the time of his “appointment,” proved the best choice based on his lackluster but gutsy appearance, a dry sense of humor and the ability to use vernacular without looking stupid or vulgar, making him a figure with which all strata of the population could easily identify. The new bourgeoisie saw him as a guarantee against a communist return, the pro-Soviet opposition greeted him as the proponent of a strong Russian state, the female half of the population liked him as an ideal man, while males respected his masculine authority. Even radical liberals could feel satisfied as with his KGB past Putin was a convenient target to oppose and hate. According to the Levada sociological centre, in 1999 Putin’s popularity rating shot up from zero to 70 percent and has never since fallen lower than 40 percent for any protracted period. Putin’s popularity, 78 percent in July 2009, was unaffected by the economic crisis (http://www.inosmi.ru/russia/20090805/251322.html). Time magazine named Putin the person of the year 2007.

Personal popularity legitimized Putin’s policies, whether it was the introduction of the 13 percent income tax, the fight against terrorism or abolishing the gubernatorial elections and the stifling of the press. To maintain his high ratings, Putin was shown flying a Su-27 fighter, onboard the Petr Velikii, horse riding, a masculine naked torso, in the wild surroundings of the distant Russian provinces, and talking tough to opponents, in international or internal politics. The image of a macho Putin has proven successful, and continues to be exploited. But during the decade of Putin’s stability, a new generation of Russians matured, whose reference points are not military jets and wild nature, but the Internet, mobile technologies and gadgets. Thus, Medvedev, a younger, softer and more technology oriented version of Putin was introduced to the public. With this image actively cultivated by media, Medvedev has also reached high popularity ratings, inside the country, as well as abroad (http://www.rg.ru/2010/06/20/medvedev-site-anons.html). Notably, on September 25, during a TV talk show where a guest answers children’ questions, a 28-year old rap singer, asked which of the duumvirate he then named Medvedev: because the president is young, writes in Twitter, listens to rock music and appears to know much about modern technologies (www.tvc.ru). The image of a tech-savvy Medvedev has proven successful, too.

Consequently, there are two national leaders whose images appeal to different, albeit overlapping, parts of the Russian population. Maybe it is not even an image contest but a cultivation of the two, so both leaders can remain in the future power structure in Russia, whatever their hierarchy in relation to each other might be. After all, the Soviets, with competition non-existent in the planned economy, created an artificial one, making similar organizations work on analogous projects, thus producing similar, albeit differently looking, results, like Sukhoi and MiG military jets; very masculine as well as innovative.