On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was named Russia's "man of the year," according to independent polling group Public Opinion Foundation (FOM). It marks the 15th time he has won the award, Interfax notes, with the Russian president even further ahead of other politicians and public figures in the country this year.
While it's being proudly touted by Russia's state media, the award isn't a particularly big deal in Russia. It's worth noting, however, due to some rather unfortunate timing: The announcement comes just after Russia's economy, weakened by declining oil prices and sanctions, dramatically imploded. And despite a 17 percent interest rate hike announced at 1 a.m. Moscow time, Tuesday saw another day of dramatic drops for the ruble.
At the time of writing, the ruble stands at more than 70 to the dollar. For some Russians, it is bringing back painful memories of 1998, when the nation defaulted on debts and many families' savings were wiped out.
The FOM poll was conducted Dec. 7, before the scale of the cracks in Russia's economy became apparent. According to Interfax, 68 percent of respondents named Putin as the most important political personality, a figure that was double his percentage from last year. Assuming that these figures are accurate, it's likely that the respondents were thinking of the Sochi Olympics or Russia's defiance over the Ukraine crisis as examples of Putin's great leadership.
It's also true, however, that Putin has long been remarkably popular with the Russian public, and that popularity has long been tied to Russia's improving economy and the rewards reaped from it for the average citizen. After the basket-case economy of Russia in the 1990s, life under Putin was a welcome respite. Many observers felt that there was an implicit deal in Russian society – keep our quality of life improving and we can live without the full range of civil liberties enjoyed in other democracies.
Now the Russian president's economic policy, so reliant on oil prices, is beginning to look suspect, and his foreign policy, in particular regarding Ukraine, is a source of international economic isolation. The deal seems to be falling apart.
Does it spell disaster for Putin? Not necessarily. As The Post's Michael Birnbaum explains, it doesn't seem good for him, but Russians have weathered worse. Other analysts, such as Zachary Karabell in Politico Magazine, have wondered whether it could strengthen him, creating some kind of "rally 'round the flag" movement in the face of what is seen as outside threats.
Another option is far more unpredictable: The economic turmoil creating some kind of political turmoil. And that scenario is another reason to feel disheartened about Putin's "man of the year" prize – 15 years of Putin's leadership has left few plausible candidates to succeed him. Brash ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came behind the Russian president in the poll, earning a paltry 4 percent and 3 percent of the votes respectively.