Russia's In The Tank, But Putin Rides High

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani in Moscow, Russia, January 18. Reuters

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

Reality and its interpretation by mass consciousness follow divergent paths in today's Russia. The country's economic slump and growing tension on the foreign policy front speak of mismanagement and hubris. Public opinion polls, on the other hand, speak of the Russian citizens' support for their government's every move.

"I once suggested that my students count the instances in which Putin would make a decision running counter to a sociologically confirmed majority opinion," writes Alexei Chadaev, a pro-Kremlin political scientist and commentator. "We have found only one: Putin's decision to maintain a moratorium on the use of the death penalty."

Apart from that humane step, taken years ago, Putin has made no unpopular moves. Authoritarian on the surface, his rule is actually democratic in nature, Chadaev concludes.

And yet Putin's leadership is becoming more and more expensive. We have been cutting down on the essentials: by the end of 2015, drug prices went up by 25 to 50 percent year on year, depending on specific items. Russia's New Year celebrations, traditionally the country's favorite holiday, were less plentiful this time.

The all important seasonal treats like tangerines, oranges, canned fish and marinated cucumbers went up 40 to 30 percent year on year. The Russian Olivier salad, an inevitable part of a festive table, was 15 percent more expensive to fix than a year ago.

Investment will be falling for a fourth year in a row and real wages will be contracting for a second year. The economy is expected to shrink more slowly than in 2015, but it will shrink nonetheless. The Russian ruble lost 40 percent of its value in 2014 and went down a further 20 percent in 2015.

Egypt and Turkey, favorite tourist destinations that would between them accommodate 6 million Russians a year for coveted sunbathing, are now off limits because of a government ban (terrorism being the reason in the first instance; sanctions against Turkey for shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber in the second).

Foreign travel has become prohibitively expensive for many, especially for those outside Moscow. EasyJet and Air Berlin are among the airlines that have announced they would suspend flights to Russia for economic reasons. The ruble, Egypt, Turkey, tangerines and jobs were recently listed as "losses of the year" by a website in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest city, located at the heart of the Eurasian continent.

But something strange has happened: either these kinds of losses are too trivial, or economic matters are no longer prevalent in Russia's thinking.

This is new. For the better part of the past 20 years, the presidential approval rate closely followed Russians' perceptions of the economic performance of their country and their families' prosperity. The Soviet Union's equality in poverty was such a drag that everyone wanted to get as far from that as possible. Income growth and levels of consumption were the key factors in Russia's domestic politics for years.

But this is no longer the case. The economy no longer seems to drive people's opinions of their government. Mr. Putin's approval rating is flying as high as it was immediately after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Crimea was the moment when Russia lifted the anchor and set out on a lonely and dangerous voyage of a power that sets its own rules, unconstrained by international obligations.

Putin's decisions may prove to be good or bad, but he always makes a point of having the majority opinion on his side. The sheer fact of every decision being advertised as "popular" does not preclude it from being wrong, but it does make millions of people complicit in it.

The war with Georgia, the expulsion of Georgians from Moscow in 2008, the anti-migrant, anti-NGO, anti-gay campaigns, the annexation of Crimea, the war with Ukraine and the war in Syria were (and are) popular policies. In the case of Crimea, the Kremlin made a special point of placing its public support on record.

In mid-March 2014, the Kremlin conducted a massive opinion poll in Russia and, simultaneously, a snap referendum in Crimea. The results of both polls, overwhelmingly supportive of the Kremlin's decision to annex Crimea, were published on March 17. The peninsula was officially admitted to the Russian Federation on March 18. Millions of Russians thus subscribed to that decision.

The fact that the current economic crisis caught up with Russia soon after the annexation is extremely advantageous to the Kremlin. Most of the economic decline is due to falling oil prices, not to the West's sanctions, which means the crisis is systemic. It has more to do with years of mismanagement, corruption and a failure to reduce the budget's dependence on oil, than with a post-Crimea backlash.

But most Russians are unable or unwilling to see this clearly. Helped by state-run television, they believe that they are suffering because of the Western revenge for Russia's audacity, not because of their own leaders' many years of greed and folly.

Making sure that most Russians were in cahoots with the decision to annex Crimea is proving to be viciously prudent. It is a clever psychological setup. Even those who are educated and sober enough to see the real reasons behind the current situation would not admit it, because that would mean backtracking on previous expressions of support for Putin.

The president's moves are bound to remain popular, despite leading to disastrous outcomes. Today's Russia may serve as a teaching aide for anyone interested in studying the effects of populism.

The Russians do realize that their economy is in crisis. Almost half of all polled by the Foundation for Public Opinion (FOM), a private pollster with ties to the Kremlin, said that their material wellbeing went down in 2015 and 72 percent said that the economy was in crisis. Numerous studies show that Russian citizens do not have any illusions about the state of economic affairs.

The citizens of Russia all live a paradox: popular decisions lead to an unpopular situation, but they don't seem to understand why.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute. The opinions expressed are solely his own.

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