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    March 31, 2015

    The Evolution of Opinion: A close look at 15 years of Putin presidency


    Translated from Russian by J.Hawk

    The proportion of Russians supporting Vladimir Putin’s policies increased by 150% since 2000. The public opinion survey data was discussed at a Moscow round table which was dedicated to the 15th anniversary of the beginning of Putin’s first presidential term. Many experts tried to explain the reasons for the evolution of public opinion.

    There was never a discussion like that. Politicians, political scientists, civic activists and journalists from the presidential pool took a detailed look at the last 15 years. Because it was 15 years ago that Vladimir Putin was elected to his first presidential term. The moderator of the discussion was the head of state’s press secretary Dmitriy Peskov. “Understanding what went well for Putin and what did not go well, what became of Russia and of the world during that time is necessary if we are to look to the future with assurance,” Peskov noted.

    First they noted the present, namely Putin’s record approval rating over the entire history of his presidency. According to the most recent polls by the Obshchestvennoye Mneniye fund, it reached 75%.  Those aren’t election results, it’s the actual level of support among the entire population of the country. Yet Putin began in 1999, while still a Prime Minister Putin, with only 3%. And then the first burst upward, almost to 50%. This was immediately linked to his forceful actions against the terrorists in Chechnya. But there was another reason.

    “In reality, when one speaks of mass opinion, that’s not so. The main factor was that he succeeded. He succeeded, through his strength of will, in having pensions paid,” reminded the president of the Obshchestvennoye Mneniye fund, Aleksandr Oslon.

    The economy that Putin inherited was not simply weak, it was collapsing. A lot had to be done starting from zero. That’s when Putin took his first steps. “What happened then, what the entire team shared was the desire to carry out reforms. We were all in agreement. We followed a strict program which was prepared at the time on Vladimir Putin’s initiative,” notes Aleksey Kudrin, the former Minister of Finance.

    One had to return the control of the country to one pair of hands. That’s when all the oligarchs were made equidistant from the government. That’s when they started to establish vertical authority, without which the regions would have suffered from chaos.

    “In 1999 it was forbidden to sell grain to the rest of Russia, because you over there are democrats and free marketeers, while it’s different here,” remembers Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of the RT TV channel. “The Krasnodar Region, in particular, was close to holding negotiations on separating from the rest of Russia. I want to tell you that a year later none of that was happening.”

    Now one has to have another close look at the governors. When the anti-corruption regulatory agency appeared, the All-Russian People’s Front, suddenly government abuses were detected, in places like Sakhalin or the Chelyabinsk Region.

    “Last year saw many dismissals, we all know that. And people react to that. On the one hand the People’s Front is fighting corruption, and on the other there are results,” adds Aleksandr Brechalov, the co-chair of the People’s Front central HQ and the Secretary of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation.

    Sometimes it took Putin’s personal leadership to achieve results in the economy. Decisions which he made alone, even when he was not the president.

    “It’s enough to remember 2009, when he accepted the full responsibility as the anti-crisis manager,” Peskov continues. “At a time when nobody knew what would happen, he said he would not allow a second 1998 in the country!”

    It is difficult to imagine the scale of transformations that took place. Russia’s GDP increased by 75%, foreign debt decreased by 70%, death rate dropped by 20%, birth rate increased by 40%.  None of that was happening 15 years ago.

    On the one hand, a new Sochi, the site of the Olympics, and the first Russian world-class resort town. On the other hand, the Vladivostok summit on the Russkiy island which was entirely uninhabitable. To further energy independence, the North Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany. At the same time, the construction of huge LNG tankers which leave the shores of the Sakhalin. And a whole gas town in the Arctic, with extraction, processing, and its own port.

    Civil aviation: the new Sukhoi Superjet airliner. Military aviation: the T-50 fifth-generation fighter. Plus the Defense Command and Control Center which impresses with its scale. And, finally, the genuine upsurge of patriotism caused by the return of Crimea to its Russian home port. That will remain in history books forever.

    “Crimea, of course, that was improbable. Improbable. One had to be a bold man to do that. He could have said, like everyone says, that we had done that, we discussed. Putin did not do that. Putin said: I did that. I am responsible. Only a real leader can talk like that,” explains Karen Shakhnazarov, the Mosfilm General Director and a People’s Artist of Russia.

    Everything that happened later, the anti-Russian sanctions, the threats by Western leaders, the world-wide crisis that could not have avoided us, these things not only did not hurt Putin’s rating but rather the opposite—it grew. Russians to a large extent perceive attacks on Putin as attacks on Russia. They expect their president to adopt new decisions and new reforms. It may be that the head of state will announce something on a global scale already in September, at the UN General Assembly, where he had not appeared for 10 years. The trip is already being prepared.

    J.Hawk’s Comment: I remember the beginning of Putin’s first term very well, and at the time there were few indications he would become a historic figure, not only Russia’s history but in world’s history. It really was a remarkable transformation—one that is still continuing.

    On a separate one, I am left with a distinct impression that Poroshenko is trying to be “someone like Putin.” Hence the war on the Donbass, the pseudo-crackdown on Kolomoysky, the “reforms”, except that Putin was the real deal, and his reforms were meant to help ordinary Russians. Poroshenko is still an oligarch, not only in terms of wealth but also in terms of his mentality and outlook on life, which is why Poroshenko is not going to be remembered well 15 years hence.
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