Russian middle classes are feeling the pain of European sanctions
But they do not blame Putin who has 85-90% popularity, according to polls
The annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 was overwhelmingly popular in Russia
Editor’s Note: Jill Dougherty is currently a CNN Contributor. She is a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with expertise in Russia and the former Soviet Union. She is currently at the International Centre for Defence and Security, researching the influence of Russian media. The views expressed are her own.
Russia’s middle class has had a tough time recently, but they aren’t blaming President Vladimir Putin for it.
No more winter charter flights to sunny Turkey; Putin’s government banned them after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in Syria in late November.
No more Turkish fruits, vegetables, or meats either. They’re also banned.
And forget about Brie,Camembert and other imported European cheeses. They too disappeared from shelves, after the Kremlin banned them in retaliation for European sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Then there’s the sinking Russian currency. The ruble has lost more than half its value since last year.
Some of Putin’s critics predict it’s just a matter of time before frustrated Russians rise up and punish him for their economic woes.
But it’s not happening. In fact, Putin’s poll ratings are in the stratosphere, hovering between 85% and 90%, according to the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling company.
“To think that living standards go down and people, what, revolt? It’s too simplistic,” says Maria Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst associated with George Washington University. “That would follow the logic of ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ But it’s not just the economy, stupid.”
Russians may not be able to buy Turkish tomatoes, but there are other tomatoes to buy – and when many people open their refrigerators, they’re not empty.
“One of reasons the Soviet Union collapsed so quickly was that the Soviet economic model could not properly feed people,” explains Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal.
“There was a real problem with scarce goods. Today, the assortment, the amount of cheese, is shrinking, but it’s not a question of starvation or hunger or even a big problem to get some food. And it will not happen because today’s Russia can produce food.”
When Russians look for someone to blame for their economic problems, many point to the countries that imposed sanctions in the first place – the U.S. and Europe. Fed by a steady diet of government-controlled anti-western media, they feel their country is under attack economically, politically, and militarily.
“There is a siege mentality,” says Maria Lipman. “There are enemies all around, but we stand proud, and we will not bend, we will not surrender to oppression. We are invincible.”
This mood is captured in a new poll by the Levada Center. Seventy percent of respondents said they had a negative view of the United States. Sixty percent were negative about the European Union.
And there’s another factor at work: Russians feel a growing pride in being Russian. Many of them have come to see the decade after the Soviet Union collapsed as an aberration, a period when they were a weak, humiliated, and toothless former super-power.
The annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, reviled in the West, was overwhelmingly popular in Russia, says the Levada Center’s Denis Volkov.
Writing in the Vedomosti newspaper, he says Crimea was a turning point: “As a result, many people felt the rebirth of Russia’s greatness that was lost after the fall of the USSR.”
In focus groups conducted by the Levada Center, Russians put it this way: “We bared our teeth”; “We forced them to respect us”; “If they don’t love us then at least they fear us.”
Putin’s government “intentionally exploited post-imperial complexes” that Russians still felt, Volkov says, “obviously calculating that reuniting Crimea to Russia would strengthen support for the regime.” But the strength of that effect – and how long it has lasted – have surprised even the Kremlin.
Russia’s current military action in Syria has only intensified those emotions. State media air video of sophisticated new Russian weapons being deployed in Syria, of terrorist headquarters destroyed by massive bombing raids – and it’s having an effect: A December Levada Center poll shows that 85% of Russians are proud of their armed forces; 68% are proud of their country’s political influence in the world; and almost 60% think Russia is better than the majority of other countries.
It’s not a black and white picture, however. Asked about Russia’s economic achievements, only 27% said they were “very proud” or “somewhat proud.”
Nevertheless, this growing patriotism and support for their president – combined with assurances by Putin that the current economic crisis is “complicated but not critical” – “makes it easier for people to put up with economic hardships and for Putin to preserve his high legitimacy and high approval rating,” according to Maria Lipman.
Even if Russia’s middle class turned sour on their president it would not mean a profound change in his approval rating, says Fyodor Lukyanov.
Russia’s middle class, according to the Russian business journal Kommersant, has remained stable for the past 15 years at approximately 20% of the population. Citing government statistics, the journal predicts that the current economic crisis will reduce the percentage of Russia’s middle class to 15%.
“The impact of the middle class on Russian public opinion,” Lukyanov says, “is visible and quite important, but limited.”
Western-oriented economists often describe the middle class as a product of a market economy which, in turn, leads to demands for democracy. But Lukyanov says that’s only part of Russia’s middle class.
There’s been a “renaissance” of engineers and personnel working for Russia’s defense industry, he says, an elite class in the Soviet Union that fell apart in the chaos of the early post-Soviet period. Now they’re back, and the Kremlin is paying attention. The group has almost nothing to do with the market economy, Lukyanov says, and they support Putin.
Among these Russians, the Kremlin media apparatus has been quite successful in transforming Western sanctions into a plus. Lukyanov explains: “Putin was very skillful to create the idea that we are experiencing trouble but the rest of the world is treating us as real competitors, a real force, not like before. And for middle class it’s important to feel that you are a citizen of a very important country.”
Neither Lukyanov nor Lipman can predict how long Russian consumers will soldier through these economic difficulties without blaming Putin. But the overall mood in Russia seems clear.
The Kremlin, through state media, “has created an atmosphere in society which makes all losses and suffering in society less painful,” says Lukyanov. “The feeling of being surrounded by hostile powers creates another feeling: that security is more important than prosperity.”
Russia’s economic crisis may not have dented Putin’s popularity, but mounting financial problems and an inability to compensate for devalued pensions and wages will inevitably have an effect on popular support for Putin and the system as a whole, says the Levada Center’s Denis Volkov.
“So far, however, the time to blame Putin has not come.”