Is Putin the World’s Most Popular Politician?

Reviled in the West as a dictator, Russian president Vladimir Putin is enjoying a surge of support at home. According to the latest results published by polling organization Levada (which is generally considered hostile to the Russian government), Putin has the approval of 87% of the Russian population. He is possibly the most popular politician in the world.

The 15-year love affair between Russians and their leader shows no sign of abating.

Putin’s current poll ratings are not just a temporary blip caused by the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. Certainly the annexation of Crimea was enormously popular in Russia, and there is overwhelming approval there for Putin’s avoidance of military action in the rest of Ukraine. According to Levada, only 3% of Russians believe that the Ukrainian rebels or Russia itself are to blame for the current crisis; the remaining 97% blame the Ukrainian government or the United States. In these circumstances, Western sanctions against Russia merely confirm existing belief that Russia is an innocent victim of foreign aggression and thus reinforce Putin’s popularity.

That said, Putin’s ratings were high even before the Ukrainian crisis. The reason is simple: Russians are increasingly happy with their lives. A survey by the polling agency VTsIOM in April found that happiness in Russia was at a 25-year high, in large part because of increased wealth. The happier state of mind has brought with it benefits including a sharp decline in social problems such as drunkenness. This in turn has led to a dramatic increase in life expectancy, which, while still well below that of the West, is now at an all-time high for Russia.

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A notable finding in the VTsIOM survey was that the very happiest Russians were those in the 18-25 age bracket. This is reflected in political attitudes. While Levada’s latest poll does not break down support for Putin by age or education, a previous one it conducted in June did. This showed that Putin’s approval rating was highest among those aged 18-24, a staggering 92% of whom supported him. Furthermore, there is a small correlation between education and approval of Vladimir Putin, with 85% of those with less than high school but 89% of those with post-secondary education supporting their president. In short, the younger and better educated you are, the more likely you are to be a fan of Putin.

This flies in the face of the hopes of many in the West that as Russia develops economically a new generation will create a more Western-oriented political order. The evidence suggests that the opposite is more likely. Having a university degree, an iPad, and regular holidays in the south of France does not translate into support for the politics of the West.

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This Monday, a two-hour long queue formed in Moscow’s swanky GUM shopping mall off Red Square, as shoppers lined up at one of the expensive boutiques to purchase the latest must-have item: t-shirts with pictures of Putin. The 15-year love affair between Russians and their leader shows no sign of abating. Nobody should expect a ‘colour revolution’ in Moscow any time soon.

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