Understanding Putin’s rising popularity in Russia

Henry Hale, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. (photo by Shannon Harvey.)
Henry Hale, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. (photo by Shannon Harvey.)

The controversial public image of Vladimir Putin was the subject of Henry Hale’s Feb. 26 lecture “Why Do Russians Love Putin, Or Do They Really?” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hale’s lecture was sponsored by the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies (CSEEES), one of six area and global studies centers at UNC.

Hale, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, discussed the results of a panel study he conducted in Russia in 2012 and again in 2015. The survey polled a representative sample of over 1,600 Russians after the 2012 presidential elections regarding their opinion of Putin and the reasons they chose to support or not support him.

Returning in 2015, the survey reached out to 1,027 of the same respondents, plus a new group of approximately 600, to gauge and to explain the surge in the president’s popularity after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in early 2014. The survey found that Russia’s recent economic downturn and the death toll associated with the Crimean conflict did not hurt the president’s popularity in a significant way.

“Conflict tends to generate this rallying around the leader and an increased willingness to accept centralized authority and to support the leadership in conflict,” Hale said.

According to Hale, when the survey was first conducted in 2012, support for Putin stemmed from a variety of factors, including growth in the Russian economy; the president’s right-of-center, pro-market orientation; and his job competence and leadership skills.

The second round of the survey found that, years later, much of Putin’s popularity came from the same factors. More importantly, voters who were predisposed to supporting Putin but were not as public in their support in 2012 were drawn in by the rallying effect after Crimea in 2014.

“One finding is that while a lot of this rallying behavior — this surge in support for Putin — is clearly sincere, there does seem to be elements that are not,” Hale said.

Hale said another key finding of the survey was that people’s perception of Putin was based significantly on how they believed the general public perceived the leader — if they believed many other Russians supported him, they were more likely to say they did so themselves, regardless of their beliefs.

Many of the qualities that draw Russians to Putin, Hale explained, are at odds with public perception of Putin in the U.S. For instance, Putin has not seen a surge in support among ultra-nationalists. Rather, his support has grown among Russians who favor politics that are inclusive of ethnic minorities and that support strategic alliances with Western nations.

“The center was pleased to host Professor Hale,” said Donald J. Raleigh, Jay Richard Judson Distinguished Professor and director of CSEEES. “He engaged the audience in a vibrant discussion about an important contemporary topic, and one that we see as central to helping more students engage in cutting-edge scholarship on Russia.”

About the Center

Founded in 1991, CSEEES works to promote understanding of and engagement with East European and Eurasian countries through a variety of projects and activities, including teacher training, public outreach, course development, instruction in area and language studies, conferences and workshops, and faculty and student exchanges.

Approximately 30 Carolina faculty members are affiliated with the center.  They teach large numbers of undergraduates and attract an outstanding pool of graduate students in a variety of fields such as political science, anthropology and history — in fact, every Russian history doctoral student in the past ten years has been the recipient of one of the most prestigious academic awards, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad scholarships. CSEEES’s interdisciplinary master’s program, the Russian, Eurasian and East European studies track in the Curriculum in Global Studies master’s program, has trained more than eighty students since its inception, approximately 65 percent of whom work for the U.S. government.

Learn more about the program on the CSEEES website.