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I've read reports (pre-dating the shooting down of MH17) that the war in Ukraine has increased Putin's popularity with the general Russian public. Link1, Link2.

However, does Putin need to be popular with the general Russian public? Is he at risk of losing power if he's not popular enough?

In order to be at risk of losing power due to unpopularity with the general public, I assume elections would have to be fair enough that he could lose the vote. In addition, if he stopped being the President of Russia or Prime Minister of Russia, he'd not be able to control Russia by other means.

If popularity with the general public is not important, then who, if anyone, is he accountable to?

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    because he is an egomaniac – SoylentGray Jul 20 '14 at 8:15
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Yes. For several reasons.

  1. He is likely to ballot for a one more term.

  2. If he chooses to step down, he wants a person of his choice to become a president.

  3. There is a high risk of an US-inpired "orange revolution" in Russia, as it happened twice in Ukraine and other neighbouring countries. It is easier to overthrow an unpopular leader.

  4. The quality of functioning of the state apparatus in Russia is very much dependent on the popularity of the president. This affects corruption, rule of law, quality of how the police works etc.

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    No arguments about #4. They can steal a lot more when the president is popular – user4012 Jul 20 '14 at 4:16
  • @DVK this is only in case the president is conspiring with them. And I was not only referring to "stealing" but to general subordination and discipline. – Anixx Jul 20 '14 at 4:21
  • no. He simply gives them cover. It's a lot easier to steal when any protest against the thieves is at best dispersed by the police and nobody cares; or at worst broken up by pro-president mob. – user4012 Jul 20 '14 at 4:24
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    What matters here is not per se the amount of support but how strongly the people feel about supporting him. E.g. for Putin it is better to have 45% of the population who feel very strongly about supporting him, and 55% who are against him because they think it is time for change but don't care all that much who can live with another term for Putin, than having 45% strongly oppose him with 55% of weak supporters who can live with Putin replaced by someone else. This is why Putin has to support the nationalistic agenda. – Count Iblis Jul 20 '14 at 15:26
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    @CountIblis - Something like 2/3 of Russians support killing Ukrainians over gas. atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/… – user4012 Jul 20 '14 at 20:48
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I would like to add one additional point to the items listed in Anixx answer.

Russia is a federation where the balance of power is currently shifted towards the central government, yet there are regional elites that have their interests that might not entirely agree with the central government. The public support for the president is one of the few remaining cornerstones of the legitimacy of the central government in the regions when the budget transfers are dwindling and oil revenues decreasing.

Note that in the past few years central government also used criminal prosecution of regional governors to keep them in line, however this method is clearly unreliable when it becomes the only remaining one. The lower the poll numbers, the more bargaining power in the hands of regional elites.

In his 1999 essay "World Without Russia?" Thomas Graham identifies a pattern of constant struggle between the forces of decentralization and recentralization in Russian history. In 2000 the recentralization trend won. Apparently now this essay is becoming important (and oft quoted) again as Russia is approaching another historical junction.

Centralization often wins when there is an external threat and this is precisely what is being hastily manufactured by the central government. On the other hand decentralization is the only path to sustainable growth. Yet it remains to be seen if this time around the regions would be able to build a sustainable federation.

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