Analysis of “Russian Public Assessments of the Putin Policy Program: Achievements and Challenges”

"Crimea. Russia. Forever." Billboard of Putin in Simferopol, Crimea; photo by Natylie Baldwin
“Crimea. Russia. Forever.” Billboard of Putin in Simferopol, Crimea; photo by Natylie Baldwin

“Russian Public Assessments of the Putin Policy Program: Achievements and Challenges” by John P. Willerton, Professor of Political Science at the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona

Russian Politics, Volume 1, Issue 2, 2016

Professor Willerton provides a valuable assessment of public opinion in Russia with respect to what he refers to as the “Putin Policy Program” – defined as policies pursued by the Putin government during Putin’s first two presidential terms (2000-2008), Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential term (2008-2012, when Putin served as Prime Minister), and Putin’s third presidential term (2012 to present).   Willerton describes the set of policies as:

[Those] directed to the simultaneously overriding goals of strengthening the Russian state, modernizing the Russian society, and bolstering of Russia’s global position. Observers can debate to what extent these policies emerged as part of a coherent program, constitute a more haphazard set of policy responses to changing conditions, or evolved overtime to ultimately form a distinguishable programmatic whole. By 2014, however, a decade and a half after Vladimir Putin’s rise to the Russian presidency and well into his second presidency, a distinguishable policy agenda and program were evident. The Putin agenda and implemented policies were subject to public assessments, and these public judgments merit our attention.

Putin, described as the “paramount leader” receives a consistently high performance assessment by Russians, while the rest of the government receives moderate ratings.  This is contrasted with poor ratings received by Russia’s most visible opposition figure, Aleksai Navalny.

Moreover, Willerton’s evaluation found that Putin’s priorities for Russia are congruent with that of most Russians and that positive assessment was dependent upon the particular policy in question.

It is found that Russians’ positive assessment of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, is juxtaposed with more middling assessments of all other actors, excepting opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, who is poorly viewed. A strong congruence is found between the Putin team’s policy priorities and those of the Russian public, but public assessments of the Putin team’s performance across specific policies are mixed and reveal areas where that team has been both successful and come up short. Results of the October 2014 ROMIR public opinion survey indicate that Putin and his team are well-positioned and that their overall policy performance is acceptable, but policy soft spots and points of concern are revealed: this suggests continuing challenges for the Putin team in delivering a program accommodating the preferences of an aware domestic public.

….An examination of the Russian public’s assessment of the importance of the policy concerns drawn from the Putin position papers and said to be at the heart of the second Putin presidency reveals strong public support, and across all eleven concerns (see Table 1). On a 10-point scale, all eleven concerns register above an 8, with (a) higher standard of living and (b) better quality of social services registering just below 9. Even those policy concerns that rate relatively lower (returned trust to social institutions, return to traditional multi-children families, and efficient state institutions) still garner results well above 8.

It is also pointed out that Putin and his team follow public opinion and make sincere attempts to incorporate it into policy.

There is considerable evidence that Putin and his team are highly concerned about public opinion, expending much effort and many resources to shore up domestic support.7 Indeed, the very return of Putin to the Russian presidency in March 2012 appeared to many as strong evidence of the governing elite’s need to return to the country’s paramount leader when his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and his platform party, United Russia, were found to be so wanting by both critics and supporters.

Willerton decided that 15 years into Putin’s tenure was enough of a run to obtain a meaningful assessment of his governance by the Russian public.  The data Willerton used to study public opinion of Russians toward the Putin government included studies by the independent Levada Center, government-sponsored VTsIOM, fom and the October 2014 NEPORUS-romir-survey “crafted by a team of Norwegian-Swedish-Russian-American scholars and conducted in the field by the Russian survey firm romir…”

Willerton found that the NEPORUS study provided a rich source of data, with Russian public opinion provided on an array of issues, broken down into two dozen policy concerns.

A sampling of the Willerton’s findings follows:

A few benchmark economic and social developments merit mentioning, they have been important to Russians, and Russians have been fully able to contrast these Putin period advances with earlier troubled realities. First, assessments of Russian economic performance and related societal advances since 2000, including those set out by the World Bank, pointed to a significantly expanded national economy and growing middle class that placed Russia in per capita wealth at the top of the brics countries, with Russia matching Germany as the world’s fifth largest economy (in purchasing power parity) by summer 2013.17 Meanwhile, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (unece) data showed that the country’s manufacturing productivity had grown by more than 50% over the Putin period, Rosstat data revealed the country’s food production had more than doubled during that same period, while the country recorded a bumper grain crop in fall 2014.18 It was especially notable that Russian state statistics revealed that the decades’ long decline in the Russian population ended by 2012, with population growth recorded for that and subsequent years.19 Russia’s dramatic population decrease over the course of several decades had arguably been the most important suggestive indicator of a Russian ‘failing state’. The population rise in 2012 and succeeding years was modest, indeed miniscule, but it was symbolically important, and both Russian officials and citizens openly celebrated the demographic turnaround. Relatedly, Putin period surveys consistently revealed mounting upbeat attitudes on the part of Russian respondents regarding both their current and their anticipated short-term future socioeconomic circumstances, with governing Putin team members assuming ever more confident and buoyant public posturing (and as directed both domestically and internationally).20 Other developments, including Russia’s increased foreign policy assertiveness and returned international prominence, could also be noted, but the overriding point is that the policy context of the Putin later 2000s and early 2010s contrasted markedly with that of Russia’s 1990s so-called ‘time of troubles’. Domestic Russian critics’ and Western evaluations of the Putin period domestic policy environment – and interpretations of the above-noted developments – were, in contrast, negative,21 but these judgments had little influence on mainstream Russian expectations and reactions.22

Willerton discusses the goals and policy emphasis articulated by Putin in his seven policy papers of 2012, as well as Russians’ views on the prioritization of the goals and the effectiveness of the results.  Russians’ belief in the need for a strong state is reflected here also.

….The seven presidential campaign policy papers appearing in January-February 2012 reveal two fundamental goals articulated by Putin and said to reflect the overriding hopes of the mainstream Russian public: (1) the strengthening of the Russian state, and (2) the modernization of Russia’s society.24 These goals had been emphasized by Putin from his first days as acting president, they had always been treated as inextricably interconnected, and they found strong resonance with the Russian public. From the discussion surrounding these overriding goals that is set out in the Putin position papers, eleven more focused policy concerns can be identified, they may be grouped into five domains, and these policy concerns are at the heart of my efforts to illuminate public assessments of policy priorities and of the Putin team’s performance in realizing a strengthened state and a modernized society. I organize the domains and more specific policy concerns as follows:

Political domain: (1) efficient state institutions; (2) quality social services; and (3) protection of people’s rights and freedoms.

Economic domain: (1) higher standard of living; and (2) provision of goods and services to the public.

Societal domain: (1) revitalization of cultural life; and (2) promotion of traditional families.

Policies tapping the interconnected political, economic, and societal domains: (1) fight against crime and corruption; (2) ensuring social justice; and (3) returned trust to institutions.

Foreign domain: (1) protection of Russia internationally.

In the political domain, Putin gives detailed attention to strengthening the state and making state institutions more effective and efficient. He explicitly discusses protecting people’s rights and freedoms, his emphasis on qualitative rights (e.g., education, healthcare, housing; what some refer to as ‘material’ or ‘quality of life right’), and in this regard he points to the importance of the state providing ‘quality social services’. In the economic domain, ensuring a heightened standard of living is an emphasis, as is the related provision of goods and services to the public. Concerns of the societal domain include revitalization of the country’s cultural life and promotion of the family. Regarding the latter, creating the conditions for couples to once again choose to have multi-children families is salient, albeit this is directly tied to economic advances.

Willerton reminds the reader that the ambient conditions in Russia when Putin took over the leadership of the country in 2000 (virtually a failed state with massive poverty, a mortality crisis, and rampant crime) must be taken into account in terms of understanding Russian public opinion on the “Putin Policy Program.”

Large government investments in the areas of the National Priority Projects (agriculture, education, healthcare, and housing) had yielded evident over-time payoffs, citizens saw the country’s educational system turning around, they saw state-guaranteed healthcare services strengthened, and they found their pensions arriving without delay. In both symbolic and in real terms, the lot of the country’s most vulnerable – children and the elderly – had markedly improved over the period 2000-14, and romir survey results reflect this and reveal the relative credit mainstream Russians accorded the governing team.

….Regarding the effort against crime and corruption, the regime itself has been explicit in acknowledging a lack of success, with Putin himself declaring at the end of his first presidency that the lack of further inroads against corruption had been the greatest failing of his presidency.28 Yet while citizens acknowledge the continuing problem of crime and corruption, the everyday lives of citizens have evolved from the ‘Wild West’ days of the 1990s, when crime and corruption touched most everyone’s lives in profound ways, prevalent at both the macro and micro levels. By the mid-2010s, the everyday lives of mainstream Russians had become more normalized and regularized, not only were citizens securing the desired goods and services (as commented on above), but they were receiving their salaries and pensions, they were depositing them without fear into banks, and their infrastructural needs were increasingly being met. The notion of ‘corruption’, needless to say, is vague, and for most Russians corruption means ‘bribes’.29 As Russia’s political and socioeconomic life has evolved in the Putin period, crime and corruption have become less central to mainstream citizens’ everyday lives. Thus, the results here – that respondents assess the Putin team’s performance in fighting and eradicating crime and corruption as middling, but not failing – make intuitive sense.30

Overall, I found no great surprises in the results of Willerton’s meta-analysis of Russian public opinion towards Putin, his policies and his government.  I’ve been following many of the opinion surveys put out by Levada and VTsIOM for a couple of years now.  These surveys, along with my discussions with Russians last October, gave the impression that many in Russia view Putin as an overall good leader who has provided stability, improved standards of living, and a sense that they can once again hold their heads high as Russians.

Putin is viewed as a generally decent person doing his best to work within a bad system characterized by a sprawling country with a cumbersome and largely corrupt bureaucracy.  It is a deeply entrenched system that will take time and savvy to turn around and Russians trust Putin to continue moving in the generally positive direction he has embarked upon.

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