Thursday, December 15, 2016

Why do Russians trust Putin? - By Areg Galstyan

Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the popularity rating of President Vladimir Putin among Russians. According to Levada-–°enter -- one of the leading sociological organizations in Moscow -- Putin's approval rate reached 89%, which is an absolute record for contemporary Russia. Meanwhile, the latest parliamentary elections to the State Duma ended up with one of the lowest turnouts of 47% because of the critical attitude of the population to the legal system and overall distrust of the deputies. Moreover, Russians are extremely dissatisfied with the policy of the ruling party "United Russia": the public usually calls it the President's party.

Thus, there is a unique situation when Russians do not trust the President's party, but believe in the President. This position is doubly paradoxical, as almost every citizen of Russia is sure that all the decisions at all the levels are taken by the only man -- Vladimir Putin.

For obvious reasons, this internal political configuration may seem strange and contradictory. However, if we analyze the Russian perception of a personality and political institutions, it is possible to find a logical explanation.

Firstly, it should be stressed that Russian history has always distinguished the tzar as the leader marked by God from the boyars (note. historical name of Deputies) that have always sought personal enrichment at the expense of the country and the people's interests. In various historical literature and folklore, the tzar is introduced fighting with the enemy, preserving the unity of the country and expanding its territory. In other words, the President has to be a strong personality, able to rule with an iron fist.  The Russian mentality has always perceived the leader's flexibility and indecisiveness as weakness that cannot be forgiven. The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin are considered weak rulers, because it is due to them that the world doubted the strength and power of Moscow.

For a long time people have been waiting for a new leader who would be able to restore Russia's greatness. Such a leader -- Vladimir Putin -- became the new president that strangled separatism in the North Caucasus, reformed and strengthened the institutions of power, defended the interests of the Russian world in Ukraine and rebuffed the West in Syria. The current Speaker of the Russian Parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, expressed his view of Vladimir Putin, saying, "…there is Putin -- there is Russia; there is no Putin -- there is no Russia." In turn, Alexander Dugin -- one of the Russian leading foreign policy ideologists and the leader of the Eurasian movement -- said "Putin is everywhere. Putin is everything. Putin is absolute. Putin is irreplaceable." The last documentary entitled "The President," which is dedicated to the fifteenth anniversary of Vladimir Putin's rule, shows the current struggle of the Russian leader with oligarchic clans that do not wish to see him in the Kremlin. Putin's closest allies say that before his coming to power, these elites were set up on budget cutting, stripping oddments of state property and its repartition among themselves.

In addition, many people in the country see Putin as a man who is capable of protecting the interests of the state and, what is more important, releasing Russian Orthodox civilization from alien Western elements. He often speaks about the special way of Russia, which is based on respect for traditional values. Despite the existence of different points of view, Russians commonly do not accept such phenomena as gender equality or gay marriages. Of course, there are LGBT and feminist movements in Russia, but the state's attitude to them should be condemnatory. In other words, Russians are opposed to Western standards as the natural form of their life. In this respect, Putin just gives the people what they want. Therefore, the Parliament adopts the law against homosexual propaganda or announces the ban on the adoption of Russian children by foreign citizens.

Moreover, many influential Russian experts say that Putin's mission is to protect the "Russian world" and conservative values around the world. Philosopher Ivan Ilyin identified the main ideas of the Russian world:  be Russian (spiritually), believe in God (the interpretation of God in Ilyin's concept has both spiritual and ethical senses), be a strong personality ("obedience to the tzar") etc.

Policymakers believe that full support for the "Russian world" is an absolute foreign policy priority of Moscow. This is recorded in the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation. Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine and political affairs in Crimea and Donbas, the term "Russian world" has been firmly established in the lexicon of the representatives of the Kremlin. So, the Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, giving comments on Ukraine, called Putin the guarantor of the "Russian world." State-run media often write that the Russian President enjoys great prestige and respect among conservatives worldwide because of his ideological convictions and willingness to protect Russian interests in the world.

In addition, Putin is often presented to the Russian public as a successor of the Orthodox Byzantine emperors. He is the first Russian leader, who annually visits Mount Athos in Greece that is sacred for all Orthodox peoples. Last year the constituent assembly of "Byzantine club" was held in the Russian Foreign Ministry's press center. The founders say that the goal of the club is the adoption of Russia as a successor to the great Byzantine civilization. Sergey Markov -- the President of the club and a member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation -- said that Russia is another Europe, for which not only law and economics matter, but also spirituality. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia did not break under the weight of the Mongol yoke and was able to get out of this ordeal as a united state, that subsequently began to be viewed as a kind of heir to the Byzantine Empire by the West and  the East .

One of the articles published by Izborsk Club -- an influential think-tank of Russian ultra-conservatives -- says that Vladimir Putin became the hero of a multi-polar humanity and the main enemy of unipolar pro-American liberal elites. Not surprisingly, many Russian politicians from other branches of power like to say that Vladimir Putin's personality is more important to society than the state institutions. This image is reinforced by not only foreign policy achievements, but also by the format of communication with the people. Thus, President Putin often holds teleconferences directly answering the questions and taking the complaints of the people across the country. During the live broadcasts, the President punishes deputies, mayors and governors that ignored the problems of the people. By establishing a direct dialogue with the people, Putin distances himself from the bureaucratic class, which is not very popular among Russians.

Another important factor is the fear, which sits deep in the majority of Russians. It is not that people are afraid of Putin. On the contrary, they do not know what will happen to the country without him. One of the traditional features of Russian history is deep dependence of the unorganized majority of the population on the decisions of influential people. Russia has never had institutions that would encourage the formation of civil society, where every person builds his/her own life. The average Russian is deeply convinced that his/her desire and activity are not able to improve the country's development. Lack of faith in their own power intersects with banal laziness and unwillingness of the majority to participate in public and political life of their country.

On this basis, all hope has always been attributed to the tzars or the Communist Party leaders or the presidents. The current generation of Russians, passing through difficult times of crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union, wants to have a leader that will keep the stable way of life, which is available today. According to the vast majority of people, there is no leader in Russia, capable to become a worthy successor to Putin, and without him life in the country will get worse. Thus, it may be noted that President Putin is not perceived as a part of the political elite or the chief of executive power. In the eyes of the vast majority of the population, Putin is a new Missionary of God and the successor of Russian tsars and Byzantine emperors.

Areg Galstyan, PhD, is a regular contributor to The National Interest and Forbes and the head of the American Studies Research Centre.