The Coronavirus Could Hit Putin Most of All
New surveys show a surprising decline in the Russian president’s popularity. The pandemic will accelerate a trend of mistrust in the Kremlin.
The coronavirus pandemic has created problems for countries around the world, but it seems it may hurt Russia in particular, creating new and complicated challenges for President Vladimir Putin. Findings from a new study conducted with the independent survey company Levada Center show that the conditions created by the pandemic have seriously undermined the Kremlin’s ability to deliver economic growth and public goods—two key historical bulwarks of Putin’s stability. Put together with other long-term trends, such as the growing importance of civil rights and urbanization, a surprisingly bleak picture emerges for the man who has led Russia for the past 20 years.
Since the early 2000s, Putin has drawn support from two main sources. First, the Kremlin won over middle-class professionals with promises of booming economic growth. Second, it attracted the support of lower-income social groups—including public sector employees and retirees—dependent on state support and nostalgic for the Soviet era through a mix of populist promises and great-power rhetoric. Russians historically prioritized the state’s ability to provide social rights over civil rights—a reflection of a paternalistic orientation common for societies with communist legacies—and this played into Putin’s broader strategy.
Over the last 20 years, the biggest blow to this system of support came after the 2008 financial crisis. The economic stagnation that followed led to a significant decline in support for the government, which culminated in a series of countrywide protests starting in 2011 and the dramatic electoral losses of the pro-Putin United Russia party in the Duma elections that year. While the decline in Putin’s approval continued throughout 2013, in 2014 the Kremlin temporarily reversed this downward trend after it annexed the region of Crimea from Ukraine, leading to a surge in patriotic and nationalist mobilization. This effect lasted for about two and a half years, but the slow erosion of support for Putin returned around 2017.
The ongoing pandemic will probably hit Russia even harder than the 2008 financial crisis. First, a precipitous fall in oil prices combined with a virtual halt to economic activity will cause long-term structural damage to the economy. Twice as many Russians have reported wage delays, cuts, or layoffs in May 2020 as compared with October 2019. This has led to the sharpest drop in Russians’ assessments of the economy since the 2008 crisis: By March, before most Russian regions introduced social distancing policies, the Levada Center recorded a 20-point decline in its consumer sentiment index.
But the situation this year now looks worse than in 2008. For example, Putin’s trust ratings, as measured by asking Russians to name leaders they trusted, have declined from 35 percent in January to 25 percent in May 2020. This indicator has never fallen that far in 20 years of observations. (The previous low was 30 percent in 2013.) Another indicator—Putin’s approval rating—has also now reached a historic low of 59 percent.
For now, the current economic situation in Russia may be comparable to 2008. But past crises occurred when support for Putin was at its peak. Back in 2008, before the financial crisis, Putin’s ratings were at a high after several years of continuous economic growth. Another economic crisis in late 2014 was balanced by the news of Putin annexing Crimea, after which his public support reached record highs. What makes 2020 unique is that by the start of the pandemic domestic support for Putin had already been in decline for several years in a row following an unpopular increase in the retirement age and five years of decline in real disposable incomes. As a result of these developments, the army overcame the presidency as the most trusted institution in Russia in 2018.
The pandemic also undermines the Kremlin’s ability to provide public services. In a study by the Center for European Policy Analysis and the Levada Center we found that even prior to the start of the pandemic, respondents were particularly concerned about a lack of access to medical care, followed by the right to social protection, decent living standards, and the right to work, good conditions, and fair wages. We discovered that respondents who came to experience such concerns—about 40 percent of our sample—tended to fundamentally revise their view of the Russian political system and reported significantly lower levels of confidence in the country’s direction and lower approval of Putin’s leadership. The ongoing pandemic is likely to expose the deficiencies within Russia’s health care system even further. Local social media are already inundated with viral videos showcasing the poor quality of Russian hospitals and accidents and deaths caused by unsafe medical equipment. As the coronavirus spreads across Russia, more and more people will gain firsthand experience of the deficiencies of the country’s medical system. Access to medical care is a particularly sensitive topic for older age groups, which tend to rely on medical services more than the average population. Currently, Putin retains higher levels of trust among respondents older than 55 years—37 percent in this age group said they trusted Putin in May, as opposed to 10 percent people between the ages of 18 and 24. But, as our study demonstrates, respondents who gain experience of the deficiencies of Russia’s medical system fundamentally revise their view of the political system—and attitudes toward Putin. Put another way, the coronavirus crisis will likely undermine Putin’s support among his core constituencies.
As short-term trends work against Putin’s regime, the longer-term trends are also not in its favor. Russian society continues to modernize. As a result of urbanization, a quarter of Russia’s population now resides in big cities. More than 40 percent of Russians now rely on internet and social networks for information, bypassing Putin’s traditional hold over broadcast media. Since 2010, grassroots mobilization has grown in Russia, which contributed to strengthening social ties, especially at the community level. As a result of this dynamic, the importance of civil rights has sharply increased for Russians in recent years. For example, in answering the question “Which rights and freedoms, in your opinion, are the most important?” the share of respondents who chose “freedom of speech” grew between 2017 and 2019 from 34 percent to 58 percent, the share of those who chose “peaceful assembly” grew from 13 percent to 28 percent, and the share of those who picked “access to information” grew from 25 percent to 39 percent. The three most important rights in the eyes of the respondents were “life, freedom, personal integrity” (an increase from 72 percent to 78 percent since December 2017), “medical care” (stayed constant at 70 percent), and “fair trial” (grew from 50 percent to 64 percent). The trend toward valuing more freedom was more pronounced among younger people and more educated respondents, implying that these feelings will only grow in the future.
What do these findings mean for the sustainability of Putin’s regime? While previous crises such as the 2008 recession were seen as problems that the state could assist in surmounting, the ongoing pandemic exposes the Kremlin’s failure to deliver both longer-term economic growth and daily social services. An impending health care crisis will accelerate the trend of public disapproval in the Kremlin. And as Putin gets older, Russian society is becoming more modernized, more urbanized, and less dependent on state-controlled media. Russia is no longer a society that can be ruled in a purely autocratic fashion. While Moscow still has strong economic reserves, Putin himself could become a liability to the very system he has created. And by 2024—the year of the next national election—these changes may become deep enough to represent fundamentally new challenges to Putin’s ability to sustain his hold on power.
Maria Snegovaya is a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Denis Volkov is a deputy director at the Levada Center in Moscow.