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Putin's Popularity Rooted in Nationalism

  • Daniel Schearf

Russia's economy was struggling even before it was hit with western sanctions for annexing Crimea from Ukraine. Despite the downward trend, President Vladimir Putin's popularity has reached an all-time high on a wave of nationalistic fervor. But analysts say the high numbers are set to drop.

The value of the Russian currency, the ruble, is at a historic low as western sanctions and falling oil prices take a toll on the economy.

But Putin's approval rating is over 80 percent since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

The boost came at just the right time, says Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent surveyor of public opinion.

“Putin's popularity had been decreasing since August-September 2008 when it was at its peak during the Russia-Georgia war, and it had been falling until January this year, when his support and popularity were at their lowest level," Gudkov explained, adding that Putin is riding a wave of nationalist euphoria and "an imitation of mass support."

“As it is, the competition is suppressed, mass media are under severe censorship, the Duma, the Russian parliament, is assessed very negatively as a body totally dependent on Putin and the government and regarded not as a parliament but as an assembly of branch lobbyists, representing the interests of influential groups. Thus, by manipulating mass opinion they create an imitation of mass support," Gudkov said.

Putin's supporters say by standing up to the West, he has restored Russia's status on the world stage.

The Russian president says the self-styled victors in the Cold War have been ignoring Russia while reshaping the world to suit their own needs and interests.

"Of course the sanctions are a hindrance. They are trying to hurt us through these sanctions, block our development and push us into political, economic and cultural isolation, force us into backwardness in other words," he said.

RusEnergy analyst Mikhail Krutikhin says sanctions pushed about a third of RusEnergy's oil and gas company clients to abandon hopes for contracts in Russia. But he also notes the anti-western talk is tied to the price of oil, Russia's most important export, accounting for half the government's budget.

“I think the higher the prices of oil, the more vociferous are the supporters of Mr. Putin," he said. "The nationalistic rhetoric sounds much louder. And, as soon as the price of oil goes down, I think the popularity of Putin and that sort of rhetoric also diminishes.”

Putin's response to sanctions was a ban on western food imports that is pushing up consumer costs.

Analysts say there are already signs the Kremlin's patriotic euphoria and propaganda is beginning to wear thin, as economic problems make people assess situations and prospects more realistically.

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