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Putin's Popularity

Russian Voters Crave Stability and Security, Which Is Why Vladimir Putin's Quasi-Authoritarian System Continues To Score An Enviable Approval Rating

by Dilip Hiro

Russian president, Vladimir Putin's threat to point his military's nuclear missiles at European cities if US president, George Bush, extends the present California-Alaska anti-missile defence line to Poland and the Czech Republic, is the latest example of the Kremlin's growing confidence.

Putin's stance stems from two sources: the soaring wealth being created by the extraction of Russia's enormous hydrocarbon reserves, and the continuing popularity he is enjoying among Russians, who are putting a high premium on security and showing scant interest in the rights to free expression and association.

Two years ago, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer. With petroleum prices rising fivefold between 1998 and now, and the Putin administration effectively renationalising the oil and gas industry, the Kremlin's treasury is overflowing with cash.

By now, Russia has paid off its foreign loans. Its foreign exchange reserves are nearing $300bn. In the words of the Russian deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, Russia's resurgence as a great power is underscored by "sovereign democracy, a strong economy and military might".

Ivanov's reference to "democracy" and Putin's description of himself as "a pure and absolute democrat" in his latest interview to selected journalists from the other members of the G8 have been greeted with guffaws in western capitals. There are unmistakable signs of the Kremlin curtailing the citizens' rights of free expression and association. But, as yet, there is little sign of popular resistance to this policy.

The reasons can be deduced from the results of a wide-scale public opinion survey conducted by the respected Yuri-Levada Institute for the independent EU-Russia Centre in Brussels, and published in late February.

The poll showed that 35% want to return to the Soviet system, 26% think Putin's quasi-authoritarian system is more suitable for Russia, and only 16% want western style democracy. Almost two thirds of the respondents prefer a strong state assuring security to citizens to a liberal state committed to upholding liberties. Instead of favouring separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, they want an overarching state authority to coordinate the institutions of national power.

When choosing their priorities, 68% ticked "security", 64% "housing"; and only 18% "free expression" with a measly 4% "free association". As for national identity, 75% think of Russia "as a Eurasian state with its own path of development" whereas only 10% consider Russia as "part of the west with a vocation to move closer to Europe and America".

While 58% of the respondents regard America as an unfriendly country, 45% think of the European Union "as a menace to Russia's political independence", and a threat to its financial and economic independence, and intent on imposing "its foreign culture on Russia".

Popular opinion in the west holds that Russian President Boris Yeltsin ushered a new dawn in Russia with democracy and free market. This runs contrary to the prevalent perception in the Russian Federation. Most Russians associate the Yeltsin presidency with the debilitating loss of a welfare state, high unemployment and inflation, mass pauperisation and gross inequality.

They find that Putin's rule has restored a social order of rules and regulation, and provided them with security and predictability. The post-Soviet constitution, with its provisions for regular elections for the president and parliament, remains intact. So far, there has been no formal move to amend it to provide Putin with an extension beyond the two consecutive terms of four years.

Though the regime changes in the Soviet Union, and in Iraq, came about through widely different routes - a sudden internal breakdown of the political system in the Soviet Union, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship by the invading Anglo-American forces - the end-result has certain common points.

In both cases, the disappearance of the ancient regime led to a wild dislocation of society, with chaos and mayhem becoming the rule in Iraq. While the dazed citizenry exercised the right to vote in both cases, it craves security and stability that were the norm under the earlier social order which was anything but democratic.

Little wonder that, seven years into his presidency, Putin continues to score an approval rating of 70% plus, a figure that makes western leaders green with envy.

Born in the Indian sub-continent, Dilip Hiro was educated in India, Britain and America, where he received a master's degree at Virginia Polytechnic & State University. He then settled in London in the mid-1960s, and became a full-time writer, journalist and commentator. He has published 27 books.

© 2007 The Guardian

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