Does President Putin really enjoy public support?

A new survey from the Sociological and Polling Centre Yuriy Levada claims that 68% of Russian voters still support President Vladimir Putin, notwithstanding the rising popularity of Presidential challenger Alexei Navalny, writes James Wilson.

According to the Levada Centre the support for Putin, or Putins Team as they call it, includes citizens from all layers of Russian society, and of all ages.

Recently, Navalny, the 41 year-old anti-corruption lawyer, and Russias most popular opposition leader, was charged by the Russian government of organising unsanctioned public rallies” and sentenced to 20 days imprisonment.

Despite his conviction, Navalny encouraged his supporters to call upon the Kremlin to allow fair and free electoral competition ahead of next years presidential elections in Russia.

Russian citizens will vote for their new President in March 2018 but the National Election Committee has declared that Navalny has been convicted of fraud and should therefore be debarred from running for election.

The Committees ruling resulted in mass protests on Russian streets on 7 October, timed by the organisers to coincide with the birthday of President Putin.

More than 1,000 activists rallied in Saint Petersburg, the home city of the President, waving red and white banners and shouting Putin is a thief and Free Navalny. Following these anti-Kremlin protests, the police detained more than 260 activists.

But despite the popular protests, the Levada Centre continues to assert that President Putin still enjoys widespread popular support. 

According to the latest poll by the Levada Centre, which is the largest and most respected polling centre in the Russian Federation, some 68% of Russian citizens are likely to support President Putin in the next presidential vote. 

The poll was based on a survey of 1,600 respondents, chosen from different cities of the Russian Federation. This is a relatively small sample on which to base such assertions, but the findings are still broadly in line with the historical approval ratings of President Putin with Russias conservative electorate.

The published results of the poll show Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the second most popular leader with 8% support, the leaders of the LDPR and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov with 2%, but only 1% for Navalny which is scarcely credible given the high numbers that have come out to protest at his rallies. Either the poll samples do not reflect the demographic changes taking place in Russian society, or respondents to political polls in Russia are behaving like Western voters, and keeping their thoughts privately to themselves when questioned by pollsters.

Another finding of the survey was that 55% of the respondents would remain undecided in case Vladimir Putin was not a candidate. This kind of response whilst typical of conservative Russian society, which rarely favours change, could also be indicative of an electorate that is reluctant to say anything that could be interpreted as undermining the President in power for fear of political retribution.

According to the findings of the poll, President Putin enjoys deep and widespread support across all regions of the country, and spanning all age groups.

The heartlands of Putins Team” are outside major urban centres in the country areas, with the most conservative of Russian citizens. Historically these are the people attracted by his strong leadership style and tough guy” image.

But across all layers of Russian society he commands support from students, businessmen and pensioners, who tend to trust that the élite of the country is acting in the national interest. Putins PR team tried to illustrate the diversity of his support base in the media coverage of his birthday celebrations, and to give the impression that the birthday well wishers outnumbered the activists protesting on the streets.

But despite all of the PR razzmatazz from the Kremlin it is actually a fact that Russian citizens from all layers of society and class – teachers, firemen, lawyers, doctors and policemen – are vocal in expressing genuine support for Mr Putin. 

Even if Navalny can overcome the clumsy State efforts to prevent him from running for President, the Russian opposition will still face a huge challenge and a tough campaign to win hearts and minds in order to rally public support away from an incumbent leadership so deeply entrenched in power, and with all of the weight of the apparatus of the Russian Federation to call upon to remain in office.