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The People Versus Vladimir Putin

Russia’s strongman may be more vulnerable than you think.

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By CATHY YOUNG
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In one recent controversy, Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee and a Putin crony, was alleged to have physically threatened Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta (the newspaper where murdered reporter Anna Politkovskaya worked), in response to Sokolov’s harsh criticism of law enforcement in an organized crime case. At first, Bastrykin angrily denied the accusation; a short time later, he publicly apologized to the newspaper for his “emotional outburst” and behaving inappropriately. By Western standards, it’s shocking that the head of the Russian equivalent of the FBI can keep his job after a de facto admission that he threatened a journalist. By the standards of Putin-era Russia, the apology attests to public opinion’s newfound muscle.

The opposition and the independent Russian press take Putin’s loss of credibility and public support​—​especially among the educated urban middle class​—​as a given. Is this shift in opinion real, or inflated by wishful thinking? On the surface, Putin’s approval ratings remain impressive; even harsh critics of the vote-rigging in the March election concede that without fraud, Putin’s share of the vote would still have been over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Yet a closer look at poll data suggests that Putin’s popularity is indeed waning.

A nationwide survey in April by the Levada Center, Russia’s premier independent polling firm, found that only 38 percent of Russians believed Putin would have won the election if the media had been free to report on abuses of power; about as many said he would have lost, with the rest undecided. When people were asked to name Putin’s positive qualities, the poll revealed that his “positives” had declined drastically in four years. In 2008, 62 percent praised Putin as “hardworking” and “energetic”; the figure was down to 38 percent this year. “Mature and experienced” dropped from 47 to 28 percent;  “responsible,” from 41 to 17 percent;  “likable” and “charismatic,” from an already-low 30 percent to an abysmal 7 percent.

With those numbers, it seems increasingly likely that the public will desert Putin if it sees a realistic alternative. But is that a moot point with six years left till the next election​—​or could protests swell to the point of forcing real concessions, or even Putin’s resignation? That depends on many things, including the state of the Russian economy and the oil market.

The United States can help by keeping up the pressure. One proposed measure hailed by the Russian opposition is the “Magnitsky bill” pending in the Senate, which would penalize Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses by denying them visas and freezing their U.S. assets. It is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009 after denial of medical care and (more than likely) severe beatings; he had been held without trial for nearly a year on almost certainly fabricated fraud charges after seeking to expose corruption. The Obama administration, concerned about jeopardizing relations with Russia, has opposed the bill, and Senate Democrats have tried to weaken and delay it. But with the Kremlin poised to increase repression in the face of growing discontent, a strong signal on human rights could not be more timely.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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