According to a survey conducted by the state-funded Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), public trust in President Vladimir Putin has dropped significantly. The July 1 poll found that just 37.9 percent of respondents trusted the president on taking decisions on issues of national importance. Right after the March 18 election, that number stood at 53.6 percent.
The semi-official Public Opinion Fund (FOM) registered a similar drop. Their weekly survey looking into voter confidence found that just 49 percent would vote for Putin if elections were held today, down from 68 percent in late March.
For Putin’s 18 years in power, his rating fell that much only once – in December 2011, when hundreds of thousands were protesting against the falsification of the parliamentary elections of that year.
Back then, the government found it difficult to ignore the crisis. State TV suddenly started giving airtime to opposition leaders and then-President Dmitry Medvedev announced political reforms (which Putin later largely reversed).
Today, there are no crowds in the streets protesting against Putin. The whole country is either glued to TV screens watching the World Cup and celebrating the unexpected success of the Russian team or relaxing on the beach or in the countryside. So how can we understand this sudden collapse in the president’s approval rating in such a short period of time?
Many have questioned the credibility of political polling in Russia: first, because the state funds the two main pollsters; second, because in order to ensure randomisation, the polling firms have to know the respondents’ personal data, which makes some reluctant to express opposition views when surveyed.
These two arguments could be used to explain Putin’s persistently high approval rating, but they cannot account for the recent significant drop, which is why we should take these statistics seriously. The Kremlin itself already is.
The main reason for the fall in the president’s approval rating is the pension reform announced on June 14 which would increase the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. The reform will likely affect around 10 million people or seven percent of the Russian population.
The problem is that pensioners are the most important supporters of the populist Putin regime; they are his core electorate and main target audience of state TV.
Gone are the times when the Kremlin was trying to engage the youth – by creating pro-Kremlin youth movements or engaging football ultras – or with the intelligentsia, which today is almost the biggest enemy of those in power, as was the case during Soviet times. And it’s not working with teachers and doctors either; before the 2012 elections, Putin promised to increase their pay to double the average salary in the country – which he could not do because of the collapse of oil prices in the following years.
All this time, the retired folk remained loyal, even if the average pension remained miserably low – at around $230 a month.
Putin tried to experiment with their loyalty once before. In 2004, his administration introduced a law cancelling benefits for special social groups (the most numerous of them being pensioners), such as free travel on public transportation and free vacations in state-owned hostels, and introducing direct payments.
That triggered mass protests comparable in scale to those of the early 1990s which brought down the communist regime. The government had to backtrack: part of the benefits were restored and pensions increased. Since then, the government never again tried to infringe on the interests of the pensioners – that is, until today.
Given their previous experience, the Russian authorities are already preparing for another outpouring of public anger. The state TV channels are expected to play a major role in the government’s attempt to play down the reform.
A list of talking points, which was allegedly sent out to state media and which advise on how the pension reform should be presented to the Russian audience, was leaked. It is difficult to confirm the validity of the list, but the spin that it proposes has already been used by state TV channels. However, the mobilisation of the media doesn’t seem to be working.
The inability of mainstream media to sway public opinion has already been observed in the West on a number of occasions. Remember how the support for the Remain campaign in the most respectable British media did not save the UK from Brexit? And how the criticism of Donald Trump by most major TV networks (including, in the beginning, Fox News) did not stop him from first winning the Republican primaries and then the presidential elections?
In Russia, this trend is even more disastrous because it goes beyond the pension reform decision and public anger at this particular moment. State TV has been one of the main pillars of Putin’s power; it is more important than parliament, the courts and even the security agencies.
Just before the pension reform was announced, FOM released a survey that showed that trust in TV has fallen from 63 percent in 2015 to 43 percent in April this year. The other important trend that has emerged is that there is declining interest in topics like Ukraine and the war in Syria, which used to take attention away from domestic troubles.
Since 2014, these two topics were the main fodder for news broadcasts and political discussions on political talk shows – to the point that Ukraine’s domestic political scene was getting more airtime and attention than Russia’s.
Given the timing of the pension reform announcement, the authorities probably hoped that the World Cup would be a rallying point for national unity and help drive attention away from the bad news. And indeed, after every Russian victory, Twitter would explode with comments from exulted government loyalists and opposition politicians alike. But even that did not work. Putin’s rating was falling as the Russian national team kept winning up to the quarter-final with Croatia on July 7.
So what does this collapse in approval mean for the Kremlin and what will come out of it? The feeble attempts of opposition leader Alexey Navalny to take advantage of the situation and organise mass rallies against the reform were not that successful. The turnout in the streets was low, partially because his supporters are too young to care about pension reforms.
But discontent is growing and the main battle will take place in the fall when the law is handed to the State Duma to vote on.
It is difficult to predict how this would pan out. It could either be a “revolution of the elderly” which would bring down the system, or could turn into a boost for Putin’s popularity, if he decides to cancel the reform at the last moment. Some are already speculating that that was the whole purpose of the exercise – present Putin as a social saviour and keep his popularity high.
by Roman Dobrokhotov
Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.