Vladimir Putin addressing a rally of supporters at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in 2012. Photo: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
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Why do Russians still support Vladimir Putin?

Talking to Russians young and old, Jana Bakunina found five main reasons why support for the president has not declined in the face of international pressure.

The news of the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician, dominated the news this weekend. It was possible to imagine – just for a day or two – that the charismatic Boris Nemtsov, who first entered the national political arena in Russia back in the Yeltsin days, had been a prominent figure without whom the opposition would struggle to have a say against Kremlin. Unfortunately, the truth is that Nemtsov was hardly a force to be reckoned with. However open his position on Putin was and however brave his last interview to the Moscow radio station Echo Moskvy was, just hours before his death, Boris Nemtsov was not important. Like any other opposition leader in Russia, he was a scribble on the margin of current affairs. The overwhelming majority of the Russian population supports the country’s president, Vladimir Putin.

A recent poll, conducted between 20 23 February 2015 among 1,600 Russians aged 18 or more in 46 different regions of Russia by an independent Russian not-for-profit market research agency Levada Centre for Echo Moskvy radio station, found that 54 per cent of the population agreed that “[Russia] is moving in the right direction”. Eighty-six per cent of the respondents approve of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president. When asked to name five or six  politicians or government officials they trust, 59 per cent responded: ”Putin”.

Let’s put aside the possibility of rigged polls because there is little to suggest Putin’s popularity is fake. Putin is respected, if not revered. He is referred to as batyushka, the holy father. Many Russians are particularly upset and angry about Nemtsov’s murder because western fingers are pointing at Putin. In their opinion, Nemtsov was most likely killed as a provocation to destabilise Russia and fuel hostility between Kremlin and the west. “With all due respect to the memory of Boris Nemtsov, in political terms he did not pose any threat to the current Russian leadership or Vladimir Putin, said presidential press secretary Dmitriy Peskov. “If we compare popularity levels, Putin’s and the government’s ratings and so on, in general Boris Nemtsov was just a little bit more than an average citizen.”

Russians love and support their president. I wanted to understand why, so I spoke to a number of people in their 20s, 30s and 60s who helped me crystallise their reasoning into the following arguments.

Putin is a strong leader. Russia has always done better under formidable leaders, however autocratic and repressive. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Josef Stalin are some examples. Old and sickly, indecisive leaders and those who, like Gorbachev, tried to please all, never inspired trust or respect. The president’s public images work to reinforce his power. ”Putin is without a doubt the strongest political leader out there. He is a brilliant public speaker, he controls every dialogue and is a strategist, whereas his counterparties are reactionary tacticians.” 

Putin built Russia’s middle class. There is a popular, if ignorant, view that Russians are either super rich or extremely poor. You don’t need to travel to Moscow (a quick trip to Cyprus or Turkey’s sea resorts would do) to see that many Russians now drive a decent car (anything other than a Lada), travel abroad, wear clothes from Zara and can afford to buy whatever else signals middle class. Since Putin came to power, Russia’s gross national product per capita increased from 49,800 roubles in 2000 to 461,300 in 2013, according to the Federal State Statistics Service of the Russian Federation. From the same source, we learn that Russian citizens travelled abroad 9.8 million times in 2000 and 38.5 million times in 2013.  

Putin has improved social welfare in Russia. A sales manager in his late 20s talked to me about Putin’s welfare reforms, raising pensions, investing in education and healthcare, infrastructure and social security laws which sought to encourage families to have children and address declining population. For the first time in the last 20 years new births in Russia were recorded as higher than deaths in 2013. Average pensions (stated in 1992 prices) went up from 694 roubles a month in 2000 to 9,918 roubles in 2012. Crime went down, including murders (from 28.2 per cent in 2000 to 10.1 per cent in 2012, the coefficients indicating deaths from murder per 100,000 people). There were 9.3 hospital beds in Russia per 1,000 people in 2012, as compared to 3 beds per 1,000 people in the UK in 2011

Putin has restored Russian might. Throughout his time in office, Putin has demonstrated his dedication to addressing the values Russians care about most: the integrity of their country, its sphere of influence in international relations, and its ability to withstand the US dictating its policies to the world at large. This is perhaps the core factor in Putin’s popularity, which came across in all the conversations I’ve had with those Russians who support the current regime. ”It’s not about the economy or the welfare,” a professional woman in her 30s said to me, ”it’s about thinking on a much bigger scale and more globally”. Putin has gradually rebuilt Russia’s defence industry, making it a strategic priority. Taking Crimea, Putin protected Russia’s military base on the Black Sea, was an important manoeuvre at the time of the accelerating hostility from the US and Nato. The Russians have regained self-respect, rising from the financial ashes of the 1990s and restoring national pride. ”The world has been looking at us as a third world country throughout the 1990s but today we are a force to be reckoned with.” 

There is no one else. Ultimately, there is no other viable candidate to lead Russia instead. If it’s a chicken and egg problem, it would take time to grow credible opposition, although the soil is hardly fertile. As it stands, even moderate supporters of Putin agree that current opposition leaders are neither convincing nor capable. Putin has a track record of delivering economic stability, however justified were his means. Russians are too used to local and national government officials helping themselves to the state pocket, so the prevalent philosophy to the change in power is that the incumbent is always ”the least worst”. A woman in her 60s said to me: ”What’s wrong with Putin? At least he holds the country together – look at what happened to the Ukraine. It’s in pieces; its people are beyond despair.”

Russian people have survived many periods of hardship since the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, which destroyed its peace, independence, culture and cities (including the then-capital, Kiev). It is perhaps this early history, as well as the civil war after the Bolshevik Revolution, the famine that followed, the Second World War and the Stalinist repressions, which indicates that Russian tolerance for austerity is higher than in the western world. Russians do not seek prosperity but stability. They are less concerned with individual freedom than with the collective sense of status and integrity. Spanning both European and Asian continents, Russia has inherited the Eastern sense of community, attitude of acceptance and predisposition towards authoritarian government. 

In the increasingly cool climate between Russia and the west, it helps to understand each other’s values.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue