Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 60

A new poll conducted by the independent Levada Center found that while most Russians continue to view President Vladimir Putin positively and are happy that he will continue on in government service as Dmitry Medvedev’s prime minister, they do not want Russia changed from a presidential into a parliamentary republic. Kommersant reported that only 10% of those polled said they would like to see control of the state transferred to the prime minister if Putin is occupying that position, while 67% said they prefer the current system of government “envisaging strong presidential power.”

According to Kommersant, these results are explained not by “the traditional love of the people for the tsar,” but by “a lack of faith in the parliamentary system, or, more precisely, in the Russian parliament.” The newspaper added: “After all, Russians now choose the head of state directly, and with the change-over to a parliamentary system the head of state will to all intents and purposes be the premier, who will be named by the party that has received a majority of the seats in the State Duma through elections. A majority of Russians aren’t about to transfer their right [to choose the head of state] to the Duma deputies because they don’t believe in the independence of the parties that won the recent Duma elections.”

Indeed, the respondents in the Levada Center poll did not express a very high opinion of the United Russia party, which won an absolute majority of seats in the State Duma elections last December after Putin agreed to head its ticket. The poll found that Russians believe United Russia “does not have its own legitimacy, separate from Putin,” with 66% of the respondents saying they were certain the party won last December only because it received Putin’s backing and 16% saying it won because of the “administrative resource” it enjoyed. Only 10% said they thought United Russia won because its platform was attractive. (The platform, such as it was, was put out under the slogan “Putin’s Plan – Russia’s Victory!”) As Kommersant noted, these opinions show that Russians do not believe the parliamentary elections were democratic and, correspondingly, have little faith in the parliament as an institution.

These attitudes towards the parliament in general and United Russia in particular are interesting to note against the backdrop of rumors that Putin will be named the head of United Russia at a party congress in mid-April (see EDM, March 28).

At the same time, the results from the Levada Center poll suggest that complete trust in the institution of the presidency does not guarantee complete trust in the person who occupies the post. As Kommersant put it, if the Levada Center’s recent numbers remain more or less unchanged, President Medvedev will be less popular after his inauguration than Prime Minister Putin. President Putin’s trust rating surpassed President-elect Medvedev’s this month – 59% vs. 41% – while the number of those “who support the actions of President Putin” reached 77% this month (compared to 57% in 2001 and 70% in 2007). In addition, the number of poll respondents this month who said they had a “favorable impression” of Putin rose to 81% (compared with 58% in 2001 and 76% in 2007), while 55% said they would like Putin to run for president again and win in 2012 and only 19% said the opposite (Kommersant, March 31).

Putin, it should be noted, has repeatedly said he is against any redistribution of powers between the president and prime minister. Whatever the case, one leading observer, Stanislav Belkovsky of the National Strategy Institute, continues to insist that Putin would be unable hold onto power once he was no longer president even if he wanted to (and Belkovsky continues to say that Putin is looking for a safe route out of power). The reason for this, according to Belkovsky, has very much to do with the “love of the people for the tsar.”

In a “monarchical country” like Russia, “power is attached to throne,” Belkovsky said in an interview with the Ukrainian website 24.ua. “Therefore a premier can be as powerful as you like, and the president will still rule the country. All of the key figures of executive power are subordinated to the president on an instinctual level, even if they are personally closer to the premier. And the people consider the power only of the president, the monarch, who from the point of view of the popular consciousness stands above the political and legal systems – that is, higher than the laws – and is not a regular politician, unlike, for example the president of Ukraine. The Russian people are ready to forgive the president any unlawful actions by virtue of his ‘sacred,’ ‘other-worldly’ status.”

According to Belkovsky, Vladimir Putin was able to remain popular – even though many of his policies were not – because he succeeded in restoring the “monarchical ritual” first violated by Mikhail Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin. “This ritual is composed of three basic elements,” Belkovsky said. “Element one: the tsar is exclusive. The sitting monarch cannot have any direct rivals … laying claim to his throne. Element two: the tsar is infallible. You can criticize his government, officials he appoints, the consequences of his policies, but not he himself. Element three: the status of the tsar above the law. The tsar himself decides when he comes to power and when he leaves, and who to name as successor.”

If Dmitry Medvedev violates the “monarchical ritual” once he is president, then his throne will become shaky and “a victory of the opposition is possible,” said Belkovsky. “But not in any other case” (24.ua, March 28).