Kremlin Declares War on Levada

In the very same week that the Kremlin declared all-out war on Levada,  the last remaining pollster operating in Russia with an independent voice, the Kremlin’s own publication, Russia Beyond the Headlines, featured Levada data prominently in its color insert distributed with the New York Times.  It was yet another bizarre act in the tragicomedy known as Russia.

The May 22nd issue of RBTH had its entire second page plastered with information obtained from Levada regarding Vladimir Putin’s latest purported initiative against corruption.  First a news story by Olga Doronina entitled “Russians see Official’s Money as the Root of All Evil”  featured a  huge color graphic reporting Levada’s poll results concerning the question of whether Putin’s measure to ban foreign ownership of assets by government officials was serious or a sham (the data favored the Kremlin, indicating 58% of Russians thought it was serious, although nearly half that group saw it as merely a way to gain control over wayward officials as opposed to actually purifying them).  Then an op-ed from Georgy Bovt made repeated reference to Levada polling concerning Russian support for the measure.

How is it possible that at one and the same time the Kremlin can be attacking Levada as an unreliable “foreign agent” with the clear possibility that its operations would be shut down and also quoting from Levada as if it were the most reliable source of public opinion information in the country?

Because we’re talking about Russia, that’s why.  Obviously, RBTH was slightly behind the curve and didn’t get wind of the Kremlin’s plans for Levada until its issue had already gone to print.

Oops.  Good luck finding the news story from the NYT insert on the RBTH website. Now that Levada is under attack it seems to have been purged.  Good luck, for that matter, finding reports by RBTH about Putin’s crackdown on Levada.  None of it is anywhere to be found, the whole thing seems to have been swept under the carpet by this neo-Soviet publication.  Weirdly, the Bovt piece was more than a month old, having been sitting on the RBTH website all that time and been published long before RBTH learned Levada was persona no grata, and that’s why it can still be found on the website, apparently.

But surely, RBTH must have known that Levada was a foreign agent all along, didn’t it?  Apparently not, because RBTH found lots and lots of data published by Levada to be helpful to the Kremlin’s cause.  Seven RBTH items in May alone quote Levada.

It’s so typical of Russia for the right hand not to know what the left hand is doing.  RBTH thinks it’s free to use helpful data it finds in Levada reports, hardly suspecting that the data was being produced by a “foreign agent” committed to Russia’s overthrow. Then it finds itself with egg on its face as the news is suddenly announced.

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Is Vladimir Putin in Trouble?

743820-121102-vladimir-putinIn polling data it published on April 11, 2013, the Levada Center asked Russians whether they’d like to see Vladimir Putin continue in power in 2018 when his third term expires, or be replaced.

Only 22% of Russian respondents said they’d like to see Putin retain power.  47% said they’d like to see somebody other than Putin or Dmitri Medvedev take power, while 8% said they’d like to see power returned to Medvedev’s hands. In other words, a clear majority — 55% — of Russians do not want Putin to seize a fourth term as president.

This is the third time in the past year that Levada polling has shown a majority of Russians rejecting a fourth term for Putin.  In August 2012 57% opposed this outcome, and in December 2012 51% did so.  One year ago, in March 2012, 49% were opposed to a fourth term for Putin.

Another result was still more interesting. For the first time since Levada began asking the question (in March 2004), less than a majority of Russians said it was a good thing for the country that Putin had virtually unlimited power. The first time the question was asked 68% of Russians said it was a good thing; in March 2013, only 49% said so.

Dissatisfaction with Putin is hardly surprising given that economic growth is plummeting while inflation is soaring, the horrific one-two punch that economists refer to as “stagflation.”  It is also known as the disease that killed the USSR.

But this hardly means that Putin will actually be replaced.  A Levada poll from February 2013 shows that a whopping 65% of Russians think Putin has brought the country more good than bad.  Another February 2013 Levada survey shows that Putin would get three times more votes than any named rival if an election were held today, and shows his job approval rating at a heady 65%.  It has never been less than 60% at any time in the past two years.  As we reported recently, Russians blame their bureaucracy and their legislature for their troubles, not Putin.

Russians could have turned Putin out of office in 2012, of course, but instead they reelected him in a landslide, not even calling for a second round to select between the two best candidates. They instinctively seem to know it’s not a good idea for Putin to remain in power forever, especially not with unlimited power, but they appear unwilling to actually place power in the hands of any other specific person.

Teflon Putin, by the Numbers

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Levada Center polling data (Russian-language link) shows that for quite some time now Russians have been deeply ambivalent about their country’s future.

According to Levada, Russia’s most respected polling agency, more Russians have felt the country was on the “wrong track” than the right one in seven of the past 26 months, or roughly 25% of the time — this includes the most recent polled month, February 2013, where 42% of Russians felt the county was on the wrong track compared to 41% who believed it was on the right one.  A fact that ought to disturb the Putin regime is that three of those seven months occurred in the past half year. Only once in the past 26 months did more than half of the respondents believe Russia was on the right track.  In other words, even when Russians think the country is on the right track, they’re not too sure of it (it’s worth mentioning that a consistent fifth of the Russian population has no idea what track the country is on, they’re clueless).

It’s not surprising that Russians think so, given that for instance GDP growth has fallen precipitously in each of the last two years and in each of the last two quarters of the current year, with recession on Russia’s horizon.

But Putin is a Teflon president, and doesn’t receive much blame for Russia’s wrong direction. That one month when a majority of Russians felt the country was on the right track was March 2012, when Putin was reelected to a third term as president  in a landslide.

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As the Internet Goes, so Goes Russia?

An interesting new poll from Levada (Russian-language link) reports that 63% of Russian citizens trust the news they hear on Kremlin-controlled broadcast television, while just 28% distrust it.

That figure, 63%, is exactly the share of the vote gathered by Vladimir Putin in the 2012 presidential elections.

Just 55% of Russians ever use the Internet, and only 43% of Russians trust the news they get from the Internet, according to Levada.  An even smaller number than that, a puny 24%, actually use the Internet to get the news.

So one could reasonably suggest that the more Russians use the Internet, the less they trust their government and the less likely they are to vote for Putin.  Little wonder, then, that Putin expresses so much animosity and suspicion for the Internet, saying he never uses it himself and thinks it mostly pornography.

One can also suggest plausibly that of the 55% of Russians who ever use the Internet, many use it very rarely due to its expense and the challenges of Russian technology.  One can also suppose that a disproportionate number of Russians using the Internet to get the news, and for other political purposes, are located in the more wealthy areas of the country, particularly Moscow.  That would explain why opposition politicians were able to generate much bigger crowds in Moscow than anyplace else.

These statistics show the increasing divide between wealthy Moscow and the impoverished remainder of Russia. They imply that nothing will really change in Russia until rich Muscovites decide to share their wealth with the nation.  Will they be willing to do so, or will class warfare again rise in Russia just as it did in pre-Soviet times, leading to radical upheaval and national collapse?