Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 13

By Peter Rutland

One month after the hostage crisis, and two years after his appointment as acting president, it is time to address the question of how Vladimir Putin is doing as president.

It’s still too early to assess the long-run significance of Putin’s presidency. The Chechen war, the pivotal event of his rise to power, is still an unresolved nightmare. The economic surge of the past two years was driven by the spike in world oil prices, and may not be sustained. And it will take several years before one can assess whether the important structural reforms that Putin has put in place over the past two years (strengthening the judicial system, restoring central control over the federal budget, simplifying the tax system) will be effectively implemented and really take root.

It is thus premature to try to judge whether Putin will go down as a “transformational” leader, one who will shape the character of Russian society for years to come. Perhaps, as his critics suggest, he will turn out to be a mere placeholder, presiding over a period of relative calm in between one crisis and the next.

In the meantime, we are left to discuss the effectiveness of Putin as a political leader in the here-and-now. Experts are indeed engaged in lively debate on this very topic. Such discussion usually kicks off with poll data about the remarkably high level of trust and support Putin enjoys among the Russian public. In a recent VCIOM poll, his approval rating hit 83 percent, half a dozen points above its “normal” level, with only 15 percent disapproving of his performance.

Yet the same polls show that Russians remain deeply dissatisfied–about the state of the economy, about the performance of their country’s political institutions, about the war in Chechnya.

Does this sound familiar? Precisely the same disjuncture between approval of the man as president, and approval of the policies he advocates, was noted over the past week in the American press, apropos of George W. Bush. He scores an unprecedented level of trust, though the public disagree with his stance on social security, abortion, Alaskan refuge drilling, and so forth.

What do the two publics, Russian and American, have in common? Anxiety. Anxiety about terrorist attacks–but also anxiety about a sluggish economy, about provision for old age, about whether one’s children will reach the same living standard as their parents. In anxious times, people rally about symbols of security and authority–and the head of state is a convenient rallying point.

There are limits to the Putin/Bush comparison, of course. Bush was chosen in a fiercely competitive election, and faces another challenge in two years time. Putin was not, and will not. He was nominated by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, and by election time in March 2000 Putin’s victory was assured. Likewise, Putin is a shoo-in for the March 2004 election. The only question is whether he will manage a clean first round victory by a sufficiently impressive margin. Of secondary importance is the question of whether his minions will be able to orchestrate a majority for pro-Putin forces in the December 2003 Duma elections.