Putin’s rising popularity rating in the polls is clearly correlated with his tough line on Chechnya. Even if the poll results are being deliberately skewed to some degree–as part of a Kremlin strategy to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, as apparently the case during the 1996 presidential campaign–it is clear that support for Primakov and Luzhkov (and thus, presumably, the Fatherland-All Russia coalition they head) is weakening, while support for Putin is increasing.
The Kremlin is clearly trying to capitalize on the public opinion trend. Last night, Zerkalo, RTR state television’s weekly analysis program, featured a long interview with Putin, during which he promised, among other things, to introduce a 15-percent indexation of pensions and claimed that the government had fully paid off the arrears in pension payments. Putin expressed his satisfaction with what he called a “steady growth in industry,” reporting that various sectors of Russian industry in seventy-three of its eighty-nine regions had recently registered growth rates ranging from 3.5 percent to 14 percent (RTR, October 17).
The Kremlin and the state apparatus have been boosting Putin in other ways. On October 16, First Deputy Presidential Administration Chief Igor Shabdurasulov called Putin–whom President Boris Yeltsin designated in August as his heir apparent–“one of the worthiest and likely candidates” in next year’s presidential contest. “We should do everything possible and even more to help Putin cope with the situation, primarily to stabilize the situation in the North Caucasus,” Shabdurasulov said (Russian agencies, October 16). Meanwhile, the press service of the Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS) announced the same day that the coalition probably will back Putin’s presidential candidacy. The SPS was recently formed by such “young reformers” as former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, United Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais and former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, along with several regional leaders, including Samara Governor Konstantin Titov (Russian agencies, October 16). During the interview which aired last night, Putin refused to say whether he plans to run for president, but did not rule it out (RTR, October 17).
A continued increase in Putin’s popularity is most likely contingent on continued success in Moscow’s military operations in Chechnya–success being defined as relatively low Russian casualties, which appears to be the case thus far–and improvements in the economy which a majority of Russians can feel. Indeed, while Putin is trying to take credit for the industrial growth triggered by the August 1998 ruble devaluation, some observers question whether the kind of positive indicators he listed in last night’s interview are really a sign that Russia’s floundering economy is turning around. As the Fitch IBCA international credit rating agency noted last month, “it is too soon to judge whether the current recovery heralds the beginning of a sustained recovery which would underpin a marked improvement in Russia’s economic and credit outlook. The daunting array of institutional and structural weaknesses is not resolved by the devaluation of the ruble” (Fitch IBCA press release, “Russia’s Eurobond Rating of ‘CCC’ Affirmed,” September 23).
RUSSIAN TROOPS CONTROL NORTHERN CHECHYNA.