Joshua Tucker: As the Sochi Olympics kick off, so to does our companion Monkey Cage series of Russian politics-related posts. Today we bring you UCLA political scientist Daniel Treisman on the enduring source of Putin’s popularity: the Russian economy.


As President Vladimir Putin opens the Sochi Winter Olympics next Monday while fending off a storm of international criticism, he will have the satisfaction of knowing that his current approval ratings are higher than those of the leaders of the U.S., Britain, and France—all of whom snubbed him by declining to attend.

In the latest sounding by the independent and widely respected Levada Center, 65 percent of respondents said they approved of Putin’s actions. That compares to 42 percent for President Obama, 32 percent for the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron, and 22 percent for French President François Hollande. (Only Angela Merkel of Germany, at 69 percent, gives him competition.)

Two years ago, Putin’s political situation looked much less promising. His ratings had plunged by 16 percentage points during 2011. That December, Moscow’s central squares filled with tens of thousands of protesters in the largest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Pundits announced the emergence of a new “creative class,” spawned by Russia’s rapid economic modernization, which was demanding a more democratic political order.

However, the slide in Putin’s approval halted in early 2012 and his ratings have remained in the 60s ever since. The protests gradually dwindled over the course of the year. In a recent paper, I explore the data from various Levada Center polls in an attempt to explain the sharp decline in Putin’s popularity in 2011 and the subsequent stabilization.

From 2000 to 2010, Putin’s ratings had closely tracked Russians’ perceptions of the state of the country’s economy. The graph below shows a measure of economic sentiment consisting of the percentage of respondents who said Russia’s economic performance was “good” or “very good” minus the percentage that said it was “bad” or “very bad” (solid line, left axis). Superimposed on this, I plot the percentage saying they approved of Putin’s actions (dotted line, right axis).

Putin’s ratings undershoot and overshoot at times—in particular, during presidential election campaigns and at certain moments of national trauma such as the 2002 terrorist theater siege and the South Ossetian war of 2008. But overall they fit well with economic perceptions. (To get technical, the correlation before 2011 is r = .61; both series pass tests for non-stationarity.) However, the pattern changes in 2011, when presidential approval appears to de-link from perceptions of the economy. The question is why.

One possibility is that some new issue surged onto the agenda at this time, eclipsing economics. Perhaps a wave of frustration with Putin’s undemocratic practices—spearheaded by the “creative class”—drove his numbers down. Or perhaps it had to do with the rise of nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment that was widely reported in the press. Surprising as it might seem, Putin’s popularity was actually higher among pro-Western than among anti-Western Russians and among those advocating the assimilation of illegal immigrants than among those favoring deportation. Putin’s loss of 16 points might reflect a growing sense among Russian nationalists that he was “too soft.”

The data provide little support for either of these arguments. The “creative class”—which I measure as Moscow and St Petersburg residents with higher education who owned a notebook computer—did sour on Putin faster than others in 2011. But its members made up such a tiny fraction of the population that this does not explain much. Pro-democratic attitudes were spreading: the proportion of respondents that thought Russia needed “more control of the authorities by society” rather than a “strengthening of the authorities” increased by eight percentage points between late 2010 and late 2011. But Putin was almost as popular among those believing in societal control (74 percent in 2010) as among those favoring a stronger state (85 percent). His rating fell about the same amount in both groups.

In fact, support for the country’s leaders sank not just among hyper-modern, democratically-inclined Muscovites but among almost all social, geographical, and economic subgroups. Even in small towns and the countryside, approval dropped 10 points. Along with the “creative class,” women and those with high incomes recorded particularly sharp declines. All three of these groups had started out in late 2010 unusually enthusiastic about the Kremlin team. Their disillusion in 2011 brought them down to around the national average. The Moscow protests notwithstanding, it was in provincial cities outside the two capitals that Putin’s ratings fell to particularly low levels in 2011.

Xenophobic nationalism also cannot explain much of the cooling towards the Kremlin. For instance, the decline in support for Putin among those who wanted to deport illegal immigrants was about the same as that among advocates of legalization and assimilation.

The argument that best fits the data sounds paradoxical given the pattern shown in the graph. Putin’s popularity fell because economics became not less but more important. In late 2010, even many who thought Russia’s economic performance was “bad” or “very bad” had nevertheless been ready to give Putin and Medvedev the benefit of the doubt: 51 percent of these respondents still said they approved of the Kremlin leadership. By late 2011, this had dropped to 28 percent. Approval fell almost three times as fast among those perceiving “bad” or “very bad” economic performance as among those who thought performance was “good” or “very good.” The result was a lower presidential rating for a given level of average economic sentiment—producing the divergence of the lines in the graph.

Many Russians had continued to hope in 2010 that the country’s economic troubles were temporary consequences of the global financial crisis and that the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” would find ways to re-ignite the pre-crisis boom. By late 2011, most had apparently given up on this. On average, perceptions of current economic performance had not changed much. But the disappointment was more intense. And, to a greater degree, it was targeted at the men in the Kremlin.

The data are far from definitive, so one should not bet the farm on this interpretation. But it fits better than most others. If it is correct, several implications follow.

First, the subsequent stabilization in 2012 may have reflected not a rallying of support for Putin so much as a depletion of the pool of people with illusions to be dispelled. By 2012, few among those disappointed in economic conditions still entertained hopes that the Kremlin could turn things around. What loyalty remains is likely based more on current performance and concrete benefits than on vague hopes.

This interpretation also suggests that Putin’s popularity remains highly vulnerable to a further deterioration in the economy. Russia’s growth rate has sunk steadily from 4.8 percent in the first quarter of 2012 to 1.2 percent in the third quarter of 2013. This has not yet affected incomes and employment in a way that would undermine public assessments of the economy. But if it does, the political effects may be pronounced.

With large reserves and an oil price that is still historically high, Putin has some room for maneuver. But a final implication is that Putin’s greatest future challenge is likely to come not from Moscow—or at least not from Moscow acting along—but from the provincial cities, where his lowest approval levels coincide with the highest expressed readiness to participate in protests.