Vladimir Putin is responsible for Russia’s problems. Fifty-one percent of his fellow citizens hold this opinion, according to a recent public opinion survey by Levada Center, Russia’s most respected independent polling agency. This number refers not to Putin’s popularity but to people’s perception of who is responsible. Give the same figure to Barack Obama, David Cameron, or, for that matter, even Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and they’ll hardly be surprised. Negative perceptions are part of the job deal, coming in one package for a political leader, delivered in one package with the telephone and security detail.
Not so in Russia. This is the first time in all the 12 years that Putin remained at the pinnacle of Russia’s state power pyramid that the majority of the population finds him responsible for things that go wrong. Until today, the balance of responsibility looked different. It was the government and the lower level civil servants that the Russians blamed for their misfortunes while Putin remained squarely associated with victories and triumphs, real or imagined.
Russia’s president seems to have fallen victim of his own conviction that he has achieved a kind of Teflon quality that only Ronald Reagan could boast of in the last 30 years. Despite Putin’s claims early in his presidential career that he is merely a “contracted manager” that does the Kremlin job at the request of the people, everything he said and did in the last decade was designed to show: the contract with the Russian people had no fixed term and, moreover, the people should be happy about this. It doesn’t seem so any more.
With hindsight it was to be expected. As far back as in 2010 pollsters saw that Putin’s popularity stopped growing and that his name ceased working miracles for his pocket party United Russia. In early 2011, policy papers by the Institute of Contemporary Development and Center for Strategic Research (both close to the Kremlin, but maintaining a significant independence of judgment) showed: the public is not only growing tired of policies, but also of the invincible image of Russia’s number one politician. Putin did not heed these early warnings and continued with his plan of reassuming the presidency in 2012. We all know what happened next, starting with the fateful “He’ll be back!” announcement by then-president Dmitry Medvedev on September 24, 2011, through the Duma elections in December and presidential ones in March, Vladimir Putin went on with his plan, evidently assuming that once he is back in that wood-paneled study in the Kremlin, everything will automatically go back to the happy days of 2007, when the popularity rating of 85 percent seemed to be a fairly modest result for him.
Now this trend is reversed and it’ll be very hard to resurrect it. Had Putin been your regular Western politician in search of voter sympathy, he might have attempted to adopt a kinder, gentler, more reflexive and caring image. However, Russia’s president seems to be incapable of doing this. He sees any concession to the changing times and people’s mood as sign of weakness that in his brutal worldview one should never reveal. In a sense he is right: he worked so tirelessly to build an image of Russia’s savior all sorts of ills, that conceding that he is also responsible for the country’s problems becomes unthinkable.
This is Putin’s main problem. His descent from the peak of glory to the valley of day-to-day political struggle to maintain credibility has begun. It may well be the first but not last lesson in humility that he’ll have to learn.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.