Sunday, July 27, 2014

Putin: What Russians Think

To the right is the cover of a March issue of Der Spiegel, a popular German magazine.  It depicts Russian president Vladimir Putin as a giant towering over smaller and presumably less effectual leaders of Europe and the United States.

Translated, the cover says this:

"The Arsonist:  Who Will Stop Putin?

I know one answer to that question: Nobody in Russia will stop Putin.

The country's information flow is so controlled from Moscow that actual facts play only a very limited role in shaping public beliefs in Russia.

A Russian polling organization called the Levada Group regularly takes the pulse of attitudes there.  Levada, formed by scientists who split off from the state polling organization in 2003, is broadly respected for its methods and independence.  Here are some findings from March and April of this year.

Russian Attitudes in March

-- 63 percent said their country had regained the status of a superpower.

-- 72 percent approved of Vladimir Putin's performance as president of Russia

-- 65 percent agreed with the Kremlin's stated goal of getting involved in Crimea to protect the rights of Russian-speaking people there.

-- 56 percent viewed the United States negatively, the highest percentage ever.  (Only 7 percent held that view in 1990; the previous high had been 50 percent in 2000.)

Russian Attitudes in April

-- 79 percent of Russians agreed that "Russia is returning (to) its traditional role of a superpower and asserts its interest in the post-Soviet space."  (This was a 16-point jump in the space of a month.)

-- 80 percent approved of Putin's performance (up eight points in a month.)

-- 78 percent believed that Russia faced grave threats from its enemies.

-- 77 percent agreed that "Russia needs 'a strong hand,' in other words an authoritarian leader, to guide the country 'in certain situations, such as now.'"

-- 61 percent disapproved of the United States (up five points in one month); 53 percent disapproved of the European Union.

-- 68 percent were convinced that Western sanctions would boost economic growth in Russia.

There have been no more recent polling reports, but it is likely that Putin's approval rating has improved since April.  Its historic high, 88 percent, came after Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 -- an action that also was pitched as an effort to protect the rights of Russian speakers.  National belligerence works for Putin.

And so does his control of information.  A day after the Malaysian jet was shot down, the state-controlled Russian television news reported that Ukrainian national forces, abetted by the American CIA, were responsible.  Yeah, right

When a Russian-armed separatist posted on the internet that he had shot down what he thought was a Ukrainian military jet, the post was wiped out.  So was a Russian soldier's social media post four days ago that he had "been shelling Ukraine all night."

Putin's lowest approval rating, 61 percent, came during economic hard times last year, and Russian prosecutors took out soon afterward against the polling group, calling them "foreign agents" for receiving three percent of their funding from outside Russia.

I doubt that any American president ever has had an approval rating as high as Putin's lowest one.

But we don't have a national-run media.  Politicians here can't order the assassinations of hated journalists or even the firings of editors, as was done in 2011 when the once-respected paper Kommersant Vlast started investigating reports of electoral manipulation by authorities.

Interestingly, here is the Kommersant Vlast cover from July 21, four days after the Malaysian jet was shot down.

America and its press have their problems, but neither would stand for this kind of blatant hackery.  

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