LONDON - A year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin sailed to victory in what challengers dubbed a “filthy election.” Facing weak candidates — some likely encouraged to run by a Kremlin eager to give the poll a veneer of greater competitiveness — Putin basked in his re-election, promising a flag-waving rally of loyalists off Moscow’s Red Square that “success awaits us.”
But with less than a month to go before marking the anniversary of his re-election, Putin faces rising public frustration with his rule and unprecedented dips in his approval ratings. In a recent opinion poll, nearly half of those surveyed said the country is heading in the wrong direction.
Putin, who has held power since succeeding Boris Yeltsin in 1999, had always been guaranteed victory in an election timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Many pro-Putin voters interviewed by VOA last year said they were backing him because he had restored Russian strength and transformed the country from a regional power to a global player.
The domestic political landscape has changed since then, and the spell of Russian foreign adventurism doesn’t have the pull it once had, say analysts. The 66-year-old Russian leader appeared to acknowledge that Wednesday in his first address to parliament since his re-election.
Shift in focus
He went much more lightly on foreign and military issues in contrast to his last annual address in which he saber-rattled and unveiled a raft of new missiles, bragging about their stealth and speed. This time, he focused more on domestic challenges.
In response to rising public anger at the country’s economic malaise, Putin pledged to increase spending on development and social benefits, announcing a jump in child benefits along with tax breaks for families. He also pledged to almost double disability support payments. Putin boasted that for the first time, the country’s currency reserves cover external debt obligations and said economic growth should exceed 3 percent by 2021.
“Thanks to many years of common work and the results achieved, we can now direct and concentrate enormous financial resources on our development goals for our country,” Putin said.
“Nobody gave these funds to us; we did not borrow them. These funds were earned by millions of our citizens, the whole country,” he added.
“In the near future, this year, people should feel real changes for the better,” Putin pledged.
A tough sell
Whether Putin can deliver and reverse his growing unpopularity waits to be seen.
Analysts say Russians are unlikely to be satisfied with just words when it comes to quality of life issues, including the delivery of public services, municipal amenities or, more often than not, their absence, and on health and safety issues. It is the everyday "parochial" issues that worry them, including the potentially deadly consequences of shoddy and unsafe municipal housing and the reckless discarding of trash as Russia runs out of landfill sites.
Last year, thousands protested when dozens of children, in the town of Volokolamsk near Moscow, were hospitalized with suspected poisoning, the result of noxious gases emanating from an overfull local landfill.
In the past, when his political star has waned, Putin has turned to adventurism abroad to shore up support, offering foreign policy triumphs to whip up his domestic standing. That is unlikely to work moving forward, say analysts such as Mikhail Dmitriev.
Dmitriev says polling data suggest the Kremlin is heading for a rocky few months with signs that dissent is likely to mount, and not just among the usual middle-class Putin skeptics and critics in the Russian capital and St. Petersburg, but in non-metropolitan Russia, in the smaller towns and villages, which traditionally have been the backbone of his support.
Raising the retirement age last year triggered the slide in Putin’s popularity. Cuts to salaries and sluggish economic growth added to the drag on his approval ratings, pollsters say. Real incomes have fallen by more than 10 percent since 2014, and nearly 40 percent of Russians say their material well-being has worsened just in the last 12 months.
Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research institution, noted in a commentary earlier this month that ordinary workers are becoming more vexed with the Kremlin’s failure to deliver higher standards of living, as Putin promised he would do during the election campaign.
“Increasingly he is getting into fights with real Russians who want to complain about government policies. Last September, when he visited the Zvezda shipyard in the Russian Far East, the president got into an argument with the workers there about their salaries. (The transcript of their conversation in which Putin massively overestimated what they were paid was subsequently removed from the Kremlin website),” according to Baunov.
Baunov says the Putin system is increasingly being found wanting and the Russian president will not be able to deliver on the growing demand for economic redistribution “at the expense of the country’s rich capitalists,” in effect the friends of Putin and businessmen close to the Kremlin.