The Domestic Sources of Putin’s Popularity

by Joshua Tucker on February 3, 2012 · 1 comment

in Comparative Politics,Public opinion

As the New York Times notes, it is going to be very cold (as in, negative 10 F, temperatures in which it can be difficult to breathe) in Moscow this Saturday for the next scheduled anti-Putin protest. As a result – despite the opportunity to send a very powerful signal by having a huge turn out in sub-freezing weather – turnout will probably be lower than previous protests and we’ll see a lot of reports that – despite mentioning caveats about the weather -will nonetheless conclude that the protest movement is losing strength and perhaps even that Putin is regaining popularity.

With that in mind, I wanted to share the following post from an undergraduate(!) at Georgetown University, Anton Streznev. The post originally appeared on his blog, but he has allowed me to reprint here as a guest post:


The NYT reports that the Russian media’s reaction to the arrival of Michael McFaul, President Obama’s new ambassador, has been remarkably virulent.

In the annals of American diplomacy, few honeymoons have been shorter than the one granted to Michael A. McFaul , who arrived in Russia on Jan. 14 as the new American ambassador. It was toward the end of his second full day on the job when a commentator on state-controlled Channel 1 suggested during a prime-time newscast that Mr. McFaul was sent to Moscow to foment revolution. A columnist for the newspaper Izvestia chimed in the next day, saying his appointment marked a return to the 18th century, when “an ambassador’s participation in intrigues and court conspiracies was ordinary business.”

This is only the most recent of the vocal attacks on U.S. “interventionism” that have been coming from the Kremlin over the past year, and particularly in the months leading up to the Duma and Presidential elections. PM Putin’s suggestion that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was responsible for the December protests, President Medvedev’s threat to move Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in response to US missile defense plans, and the Kremlin’s persistent criticism of perceived NATO overreach in the Libya operation all illustrate a pattern of increased verbal hostility towards Washington.

The official and semi-official rhetoric appears to be outpacing both reality and actual Russian policy. Certainly calling Ambassador McFaul“not a Russia expert” is stretching the bounds of language itself. But despite suggestions that the Kremlin’s increasingly harsh tone signals the end of the “reset,” the incentives for cooperation remain strong in key areas. Indeed, the Libya case reveals that the Russian government is perfectly capable of both rhetorically opposing and substantively accepting U.S. action. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher is likewise sanguine about Russian missile defense rhetoric:

In a November speech, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested talks had broken down and he threatened several retaliatory measures, including Russia’s potential withdrawal from the New START nuclear reductions agreement. Tauscher responded that these statements were part of the Russian campaign season and that progress would speed up once the March Presidential elections in Russia had subsided. She also acknowledged that the Russians are demanding a legally binding document from the Obama administration promising U.S. missile defenses in Europe will not impact Russia’s strategic deterrent, which Tauscher said they will never get.

So the recent surge in confrontational rhetoric appears to be primarily a reaction to domestic political developments. It is reasonable to expect that the Kremlin, facing flagging popularity and an increasingly vocal public opposition, will try to leverage the traditional bogeymen of NATO and Western interventionism more broadly as a means of consolidating support. However, I am skeptical regarding whether this will actually be effective.

What accounts for the rise and fall of public support for the Russian leadership over the past 10 years? The traditional “story” behind Vladimir Putin’s surging popularity over the 2000s is that it was fueled by strong economic growth on the basis of high oil prices. This graph shows the correlation between Putin’s monthly approval ratings (as gathered by the Levada Center) and the spot price for Brent oil lagged by 2 months (obtained from the Energy Information Administration) for the years 2000 to 2010.

Indeed, higher oil prices, which serve as a good proxy for Russian economic performance overall given how crucial the oil sector is to the economy, tend to be associated with higher approval levels (r = .5531). However, when you add 2011, the relationship begins to break down. The graph below adds in the ratings for 2011 – highlighted in red.



Despite the recovery in oil prices after the 2008 crash, Putin’s approval rating has plunged below 70% (levels not seen since the months after the Ukrainian Orange Revolution). The link between oil and popularity has become much weaker (r = 0.2576).

Why is this so? Consider a third factor – Russian attitudes towards the United States – a somewhat general proxy for pro-western/anti-western sentiment. The next graph shows the monthly U.S. disapproval rating (as provided by Levada Center) against Putin’s monthly approval rating:

There does appear to be a relatively strong relationship between negative opinions of the U.S. and positive opinions of Putin (r = 0.5306). Moreover, the data from 2011 actually fits the trend – recent polls have indicated that Russians have a much more positive attitude toward the United States than in previous years. Does this mean that Putin’s popularity stems more from his government’s ability to frame the “West” as a threat and generate a “rally ‘round the flag” effect than Russia’s economic growth? Probably no. The correlation may simply indicate that low levels of popularity mean that the public is less willing to “buy” the government’s foreign policy rhetoric (i.e. the relationship goes the other way). It may also suggest a third variable that correlates with both – something like “trust in government.” If it is relatively low now (as the protests may suggest), then boisterous foreign policy rhetoric is less likely to be taken seriously. Indeed, the decline in the popularity of television and the rise of the internet may be cutting into the credibility of the Kremlin’s traditional anti-U.S. messaging strategy.

It may be that the two narratives behind Putin’s popularity, the economic growth story and the “enemies abroad” story, are intertwined. The ability of the Putin/Medvedev government to benefit politically from economic growth rests on whether or not the public accepts the linkage between the economy and the government’s actions – that is, that the government deserves credit for the improvement in living standards. This only happens when the public generally sees the government’s messaging as credible. Public opinion of the United States may therefore be a proxy measure of how much the public believes the Kremlin’s narrative generally, particularly since the growth and foreign policy messages are often mixed (Putin has tended to link Russia’s economic resurgence to its “sovereign democracy” and its “regained” influence and independence on the international stage). In this case, there may be an interaction between the two variables – high levels of growth (oil prices) translate into higher levels of support for Putin if U.S. disapproval is also high.

The table below gives the results of a series of linear regressions with approval rating as the dependent variable:


[JT: Scroll down to find table. Apologies about the formatting, but I couldn’t figure out how to make all the blank space disappear.]













































































































Independent Variable 1 – no 2011 2 – include 2011 3 – include 2011 4 – include 2011
Lagged DV 0.6064*** 0.7399*** 0.7346*** 0.7240***
(8.83) (12.55) (9.40) (9.35)
Brent Oil Price – Lag 2 Mo. 0.0519*** 0.0142 0.0024 -0.0678
(3.51) (1.25) (0.16) (-1.55)
U.S. Disapproval 0.1297** -0.0080
(2.35) (-0.08)
Interaction Effect 0.0020*
(1.71)
Constant 27.3272*** 18.8144*** 15.2262*** 20.7430***
(5.59) (4.32) (2.85) (3.35)
Adjusted R^2 0.5680 0.5639 0.6640 0.6727
Num. of observations 126 137 76 76

T-values in parentheses. * = 90% significance, ** = 95% significance, *** = 99%+ significance

I included a lagged dependent variable in each regression to account for autocorrelation. The first three regressions generally confirm the argument made in the previous graphs – approval rating correlates with both oil prices and U.S. disapproval through 2001-2010 but U.S. disapproval is the better predictor when including 2011. However, regression number four is interesting. The interaction effect is significant and positive at the 90% level, giving some limited support to the above hypothesis.

Of course the “story time” part of this analysis is getting far ahead of the data – 90% significance is a relatively low bar and the accuracy of many of the proxies and assumptions that I’m using is questionable. Oil prices may not be the best measure of economic performance (per capita income is likely better, though I was unable to find monthly data). Moreover, the size of the sample is tiny and plagued with missing data. Nevertheless, this is a blog post and the initial results do suggest some interesting speculation/avenues for further research.

While I expect that the Russian government will continue its rhetoric over “U.S. interventionism,” I highly doubt that it will have any significant effect on either Russian citizens’ approval of the United States or of the government/Putin/Medvedev. It is difficult to make any meaningful predictions about the future of the opposition protests or the survival of the Putin/Medvedev tandem after the presidential elections. However, the data do suggest that the government is in trouble – it can no longer rely on a steady stream of oil income to assure public support. In fact, that “support” was hollow to begin with and confrontational showmanship is unlikely to bring it back. Stephen Holmes’ recent piece in the London Review of Books summarizes this sentiment quite succinctly:

Some of the time, at least, rulers become fleetingly popular because they are believed to wield power. From the predictable tendency of opportunistic citizens to flock obsequiously to the power-wielders of the day it follows that an incumbent who seems to be losing power may see his poll-tested ‘popularity’ vanish overnight.

This is the nightmare now faced by Putin’s team. Keen to avoid any appearance of weakness, they are well aware that public support can be artificially inflated by the illusion of power. They have long depended on theatrical displays which, however easy to stage, gave spectators an outsize sense of what the government could achieve…Can an internally warring, socially detached and rapacious oligarchy hold onto power with only a minimum use of violence now that such electoral fakery seems to have outlived its usefulness?

{ 1 comment }

Realist Writer February 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I don’t think you can say support is hollow when said support constantly hovers over 60% (though this conclusion does rely on “Russia Votes” actually being accurate at polling…and that the Russian regime keep said approval throughout 2012, which may not be the case…and since the sample size is low anyway…).

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