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Analysis & Opinion
12.08.10 Mocks Populi
By Tom Balmforth

Russian media this week reported record lows in the ruling tandem’s ratings, as the economic crisis continues to resonate and 2010 is marked by a series of disasters. But although the wildfires have cost Russia an estimated $15 billion and left thousands homeless, it seems that the drop in ratings has actually been exaggerated. The latest natural disaster has been a handy PR platform for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his side-kick Dmitry Medvedev to appear like decisive leaders, and some analysts say that Putin and Medvedev are actually benefitting from the polls as they seek to gauge public feeling and tighten up their own administrations.

The Vedomosti business daily on Tuesday published approval ratings of both Putin and Medvedev from three pollsters – the independent Levada Center, the part state-owned VTsIOM, and the state-owned Public Opinion Fund – which the paper said showed the lowest measurements at least “since the beginning of the year.”

At the beginning of the year 62 percent of Russians trusted Medvedev versus only 52 percent at present, and Putin’s ratings this month were at 61 percent compared to 69 in January, the state-owned Public Opinion Fund pollster found, Vedomosti reported. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s popularity has not dropped this much since 2006, and President Dmitry Medvedev’s – not since the economic crisis hit half a year into his presidency, Vedomosti reported.
Masha Lipman, an expert for Carnegie Moscow Center, said the apparent dip in ratings reflected the “souring mood” in Russia, but stressed that the ruling duo’s approval ratings remain high and that the decline is in public trust toward them. “Even by Russian standards there have been a lot of crises this year. These recent fires may be horrible, but they are an episode in a sequence of really bad accidents and catastrophes,” said Lipman.

Since the March 29 suicide bombings there was the May mining disaster, a terrorist attack on a hydroelectric power plant in the North Caucasus, and now the wildfires ravaging the country, which have cost Russia $15 billion and could be releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere. “Even if people do not respond by demanding accountability from the decision-makers, still these fires contribute to the souring mood,” said Lipman.

One blogger last week delivered a blistering attack on the Kremlin for removing the Soviet-era fire bell from his village and replacing it with a public telephone that doesn’t even work. “Give me back my f***ing fire bell, and get your telephone the f*** out of here,” he wrote. When the head of the liberal radio station Echo Mosvky asked Putin to respond to the obscure-turned-celebrity blogger, Putin actually replied to the writer and informed him that he “liked his writing style” and had duly installed a fire bell in the village.

Throughout the forest and peat fires, the ruling duo have insulated themselves from any public backlash by being constantly visible in the media. “Television continues to portray Putin and Medvedev as the people in charge in a time of crisis,” said Lipman. Yesterday Russia’s man-of-action premier leapt into a firefighting plane and copiloted it over two blazes, which he personally put out in the Ryazan Region southeast of Moscow.

Today several bloggers argued that Putin, who has no known flying experience, had broken the law by piloting the plane, but with the majority of Russians these highly choreographed PR stunts keep him popular. “Putin has quite expertly used television and public relations tricks to inspire confidence, to reassure people, and he actually succeeds – he’s really good at it,” said Lipman.

During the fires Medvedev has played the bureaucratic foil to Putin’s sleeves-rolled-up problem solving on the ground. The Russian president has mainly sat in his ornate presidential office firing the slew of high-level officials who did not cut their August holidays short to deal with Russia’s worst natural disaster in recent times. But Putin remains the people’s favorite. “Whenever we ask people to choose between Putin and Medvedev, they overwhelmingly vote Putin,” said Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center.

Deceptive stats

Indeed Vedomosti’s headline of “Putin and Medvedev’s ratings fall to lowest in several years” is misleading. “Often if we look at it from month to month, then it looks like a real drop, but actually if we look at the whole sequence, then we see that it’s just a fluctuation and nothing more significant than that,” said Volkov.

Moreover, Vedomosti, one of Russia’s most influential dailies, misquoted the statistics. “Our data wasn’t presented entirely correctly in the Vedomosti article,” said Volkov. Instead of quoting Levada’s most recent popularity ratings from July 27, Vedomosti in August quoted the June ratings, which show a month-on-month fall in public trust of Putin (from 48 to 44 percent) and Medvedev (from 39 to 38 percent). July’s Levada ratings actually show a recovery of trust in Putin (from 44 to 48 percent) and Medvedev (from 38 to 39 percent).

VTsIOM stats were also misrepresented. “There was no such big drop,” said Olga Kamenchuk, the deputy director at VTsIOM. According to VTsIOM, approval ratings for Medvedev and Putin actually increased over the last fortnight from 43 percent to 46 and from 51 to 53 percent respectively, although Kamenchuk stressed that polls have a 3.4 percent margin of error.

Therefore, if there was indeed a drop in approval ratings it actually took place a month ago and had to do with the “difficult economic situation with jobs,” she explained. “I think that at the end of this period the levels may go back to what they were, especially due to the PR machine that is already working quite actively,” said Kamenchuk. “From that point of view I don’t think the fires will cause much of a drop in ratings.”

Alexei Mukhin, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, said that releasing these statistics suits the ruling tandem. “I don’t believe that these ratings get published simply out of love for art.” The ratings serve several purposes inside the presidential administration, and outside it, he said. Firstly, publicizing ratings generates discussion between political analysts and society, which allows the ruling tandem “to canvas the mood in society.”
Secondly, approval rating drops give leaders a pretext to tighten up their own administrations. “It is possible in this case that Dmitry Medvedev needed a specific reason to gain support for dealing more toughly with certain bureaucrats. Or possibly so that he can be more decisive in his Interior Ministry reform,” said Mukhin.
The source
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