There are very few independent sociological services left in Russia, much as independent media. Those still working in Russia are labeled “foreign agents,, including the famous Levada Centre, one of the few “barometres” of public sentiments in the country. Recently, the organisation published several sociological studies that recorded some changes in the mood of Russians.
First, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has collapsed. Among those citizens who have decided on their choice and are ready to vote today, 49% support the incumbent president of the Russian Federation. For comparison: after the annexation of Crimea, according to the Levada Centre data, Putin’s popularity grew: from 60% in April 2014 to 70% in January 2018. Then it began to decline, reaching a record low with the abovementioned 49%. Among all respondents, only 32% are ready to support the incumbent president, being an all-time low since 2014.
In a democracy, such a trend would clearly be perceived as a loss of public confidence and prospects for the opposition. As Lev Gudkov, Levada Centre’s scientific director, told the Glavcom Ukrainian newspaper in an interview, the core of Putin’s supporters has halved since 2017. However, some chances for democrats or other “dissenters” are still out of the question: the ratings of potential candidates in Russia, even such “tamed” oppositionists as communist Gennady Zyuganov or infamous Vladimir Zhirinovsky, stand at 3% and 5%, respectively. Imprisoned Alexey Navalny has about 1% of support. This can be explained by Navalny’s isolation in a high-security prison. However, the general trend is that the political field in Russia remains virtually uncompetitive even amid Putin’s declining popularity.
At the same time, protest sentiments are on the rise in Russia. According to the Levada Centre, 30% of Russians consider protests with economic demands to be the most likely. However, only 21% are ready to take part in such protests. The figure is not insignificant for Russia, where no more than 30% of citizens were ready to cry out even in the poor 1990s. As the Levada Centre notes, low-income citizens living in the province are most inclined to protest. However, this category of the population has little ability to self-organise, so despite the general alarming expectations, a social explosion in Russia is unlikely shortly. The repressive authorities of the Putin regime have done much to mop up the opposition: all potentially dangerous organisations are declared “foreign agents” or “extremists,” which limits or prevents their activities. But despite censorship and the fight against dissent, a grudge is growing in Russia. In April 2018, Russians were optimistic: 60% believed that things in the country were moving in the right direction and only 26% had the opposite opinion. The current picture is not so rosy: now “it’s all good” for 48% of citizens, while 44% believe that the country is going the wrong way.
Sociology also allows assessing the effectiveness of Russian propaganda. According to the latest Levada Centre surveys, 50% of Russians believe that the US and NATO member states are to blame for the escalation in Donbas, 16% blame Kyiv, and only 4% blame Moscow. At the same time, only 3% of respondents believe that a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine is inevitable, while 36% believe that such an option is quite possible. At the same time, only 4% of respondents mention the escalation in Donbas among the key events of November this year. Russians are much more concerned about the coronavirus pandemic and the accident at the Listvyazhnaya mine in Kuzbass. This shows that despite the efforts of propagandists to make Ukraine the main information background, their fellow citizens are still more focused on domestic events.
As of today, authorities’ ratings, protests, and the overall assessment of the situation by the citizens themselves returned to the level of late 2013, the “pre-Crimea year,” raising the concerns of Russia’s neighbours. To strengthen his authority, Putin may well be looking for a success story on the exterior – in “land gathering.” To gain self-confidence and germinate popularity, the Kremlin leader may embark on various adventures: the Anschluss of Belarus, the attack on Ukraine. He will dare to do the latter only if these actions really bring triumph. What will destroy Putin’s rating, not increase his popularity, is paralysing Western sanctions or heavy losses during the aggression in Ukraine.