"I don't believe that Putin's approval rating is 86 percent!" We hear this phrase endlessly from commentators in Russia and abroad. But interpreting these ratings isn't a question of faith, but a detailed analysis of all the available sociological data collected throughout Vladimir Putin's time in power. When non-sociologists discuss the president's ratings, they usually look at indicators from the past few months, selecting the most dramatic of these figures—Putin's 86-percent approval rating as president)—without taking into account many other related questions. In doing so, they arrive at the flawed conclusion that Russians ardently support any decision by the authorities.
These misinterpretations usually go like this: instead of digging into the details and trying to reconcile the entire mass of conflicting data, commentators simply express their doubts about the honesty of the sociologists who conducted the poll, the validity of the poll's sociological methodology in the Russian context, or the candor of the poll's respondents. At the same time, they automatically classify the 10 percent of the population that doesn't support Putin and opposes Russia's reunification with Crimea as "the democratic minority," which exists in opposition to a majority that's composed, of course, of philistines and bellicose patriots. This interpretation crumbles, however, under the scrutiny of a careful analysis of the data.
First, let's say a few words about whether respondents are afraid to answer our questions. Respondent dishonesty is difficult to assess, but the important thing to remember is that it is a constant. Most of the surveys conducted by the Levada Center (or by any other polling company) hold to the same methodology: they make use of personal interviews conducted at the homes of respondents. People's accessibility (that is, their willingness to take part in surveys) hasn't changed in the past 20 years. The same number of people open their doors today as did two or five years ago; as before, almost everyone shares their contact information at the end of the interview, so it's possible to verify that the survey was carried out. Routine, multi-level controls (statistical, analytical, and by telephone) are standard procedure in any large research agency, and they allow us to monitor the quality of the work done by the interviewers.
Much depends on how the interview is designed: if questions about support for the president are going to be taken out of context, it can make respondents uncomfortable. But placed among questions about the economy and about the state of affairs in the country, in a person's city, or in their household, they can work quite smoothly.
More sophisticated critics of public opinion polls cite the work of Turkish-American economist Timur Kuran, who developed the theory of preference falsification, which posits that people are inclined to conceal their views, if they are contrary to the official views of the authorities. However, according to Kuran himself, such behavior is characteristically observed only in a narrow layer of the elite—among those who are well informed about the country's goings-on and have access to relatively high quality information from independent sources. (In the Russian situation, this is not more than 10 percent of citizens.)
The average person won't thoroughly investigate a problem, and, if the mainstream media shows the authorities in a positive light, people accept most information uncritically. According to our studies, only a few percent of the country notices the persecution of the opposition and pressure on nonprofit organizations. Just five percent of the population can say about itself that it's well informed about current events. Most people don't care, they're uninformed about politics, and they've got no political preferences. It's among precisely these Russians that support for Putin is highest. Yes, a considerable number of Russians believe that open criticism of the establishment can create certain problems, so they don't actively express their opinions, but the main issue is that most Russians simply have no opinion at all on most issues. This is why it's so easy for the average Russian to latch on to whatever is suggested on television.
In Russia, the state's control of the mainstream media helps maintain a sense that there are no alternatives: half the population gets its information about current events almost exclusively from news programs on 3-4 television networks. For those who care little about events in the world, this is plenty. The same goes for politics: the candidates who cause problems for the authorities are shut out from elections (the races this fall were just the latest demonstration of this phenomenon). It's hard to imagine an election where Putin might compete not just against anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, but also against former President Dmitry Medvedev and former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin. The establishment always offers but a single candidate.
What all this means is that it's wrong to compare directly the ratings of Russian and foreign politicians. In democratic countries, politics is based on competition and the constant contestation between different candidates and platforms. The Russian political system, on the other hand, is based on the absence of a credible alternative. Accordingly, public approval doesn't indicate the country's assessment of concrete political decisions, but a general acceptance of the course chosen by those in power.
But this story isn't just about the state's basic control over the broadcast media: in major cities, more than half the population has access to alternative sources of information. Even among the best informed people, the majority still supports the authorities (albeit to a lesser extent than the general population). Two years ago, the situation looked different: Putin's rating and perceptions of the political system's legitimacy were at their lowest in 4-5 years.
Reunification with Crimea was a turning point that allowed the Kremlin to win over even its most consistent critics and reclaim the support of a majority of Russians. As a result, many people felt as though Russia's greatness, lost with the collapse of the USSR, was suddenly revived. People in focus groups said, "We showed the world our teeth," "We made them respect us," "We made them notice us," and "If they're not going to love us, let them fear us." Moreover, by reunifying with Crimea, the authorities sided with a widespread belief in society that Crimea belongs with Russia, which we've documented in surveys since the mid-1990s. Consciously exploiting these existing post-imperial complexes, the authorities clearly bet that reunification with Crimea would strengthen support for the regime. But the strength and staying power of this effect was most likely a surprise even for the Kremlin.
So now let's try to sort out some of the details. The Levada Center has measured Putin's approval rating once a month from the moment he was appointed as Russia's prime minister in August 1999. But this is just one of two dozen different questions that we ask about Putin every month. For instance, we know that less than 60 percent of the country trusts him as a politician. We know that about 55 percent are prepared to vote for him in the next presidential election. Support for specific state policies, however, can be far more ambiguous. For example, the decision to destroy banned foreign food imports split popular opinion in half. Even with Crimea, we see some fluctuations: today about 30 percent admit that reunification has brought more harm than good. Despite this, however, almost 90 percent of the country says there's no need to return Crimea to Ukraine: "what's done is done," people say in focus groups.
Curiously, the 10 percent of Russians who are Putin's critics, who oppose the reunification with Crimea, are hardly Russia's "democratic minority," but rather a motley collection of people who subscribe to the independent media, a small fraction of people in Moscow, and a larger share of some of Russia's poorest groups. These are all very different people with different views and intellectual baggage. Very few of them support Russia's liberal political parties, whose total base today doesn't exceed 2 percent of the country. In each of the three subgroups of this anti-Putin collection, support for Putin is just a third less than in the general population. Even here, approval prevails.
If you look at the feelings people express for Putin, it turns out that just 10 percent say they experience admiration. Most people (37 percent) say they sympathize with Putin, or they "haven't anything bad to say about him" (30 percent). At the same time, according to all indicators, attitudes about the president are the most positive they've been in the past seven years, and it's all the result of reunification with Crimea. We've only observed this once before, at the peak of the Putin regime in 2008, with the successful transfer of power under the banner of continuing "Putin's course" (meaning the preservation of economic stability), the brief Russian-Georgian war, and the calm before the world economic crisis.
In 15 years of sociological monitoring popular attitudes about Vladimir Putin and his actions, approval ratings have fluctuated greatly, four times reaching the highest possible values between 84-89 percent: in 1999, 2003, 2007-2008, and 2014-2015. Three of these periods included military operations—in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Ukraine—and each time there has been a significant confrontation with the United States: about Yugoslavia, about Iraq, Georgia, and Crimea. (And it's worth noting that, in years past, there were no major complaints against sociologists, which raises the question: maybe our detractors today were the president's supporters then?) Twice, in 2005 and 2011-2012, Putin's approval rating fell to 60 percent due to economic problems, and both times these slowdowns were accompanied by mass nationwide protests. The thing is that a 60-percent approval rating means more than a third of the country is consciously dissatisfied with the authorities, whom Russians are unable to replace through the electoral process. (Virtually nobody is under any illusions about this, and the opinion that "elections solve nothing" is dominant.)
In circumstances like these, any incident can trigger a chain reaction and unleash open expressions of discontent. But the situation is compounded by the fact that the opposition, in the eyes of the country, is so thoroughly unappealing. Today, the authorities are trying everything they can to convince the average Russian that they—especially Putin—are "one of them."
Russia's current economic crisis hasn't yet affected support for the authorities in any tangible way. Indicators of economic optimism are already falling, but the state was able to halt the initial panic. Putin's words about the crisis lasting no more than two years also had a calming effect. For now, people are willing to wait it out. This is what polls tell us, and it's what focus groups tell us. What's important is that most Russians associate Putin with the fat years of the early 2000s, when the average citizen's welfare improved slowly but surely, up until recently. However, the accumulation of economic problems, and the government's inability to compensate in time for depreciating pensions and salaries, will inevitably affect approval ratings for the president and the system as a whole. Getting bogged down in military conflicts and prolonged confrontations with the rest of the world means only trouble in the long term. For now, though, the time to blame Putin hasn't yet arrived.
Denis Volkov is an analyst at the Levada Center in Moscow.