Category Archives: Russian public opinion

10/2/16: "Чем хуже, тем лучше"

My latest column “Чем хуже, тем лучше. Откуда у российской экономики все больше сил“ for is out at in Russian.

This time, I am covering the topic of how Russian economy deleveraging leads to a future uplift in its potential growth, before tackling the cost of such deleveraging that is driving Russian public opinion of policies and direction of the State in a follow up column.

6/2/16: Down the Ruble Hole? Russian Opinions & Russian Economy

Latest Russian figures on wages and earnings, rounding up 2015, are pretty horrific. In USD terms, average wage is now down more than 30 percent in a year through December, falling to around USD560 per month at year end.

Wages Woes?

In Ruble terms, things are more palatable. Nominal wages are up 4.5 percent to RUB34,000, which means that real wages have fallen roughly 9.5 percent in 12 months through December. The average salary was down to RUB30,311 (USD381) per month, from end of September average of RUB32,911 (USD463). Rate of real wages decline accelerated in December compared to full year averages to 10 percent compared to December 2014.

However, average real incomes excluding wages, but including private business income and state payments, were down 4% y/y in 2015. One sign of the fiscal policy direction is that President Putin signed off on a minimum wage hike for 2016 that raised (as of January 1st) the minimum wage to RUB6,204 (USD87) a month, up on RUB5,965 or USD84 per month in 2015.

Beyond this, underlying labour markets trends, despite sharp cuts to employment reported in all surveys of PMIs for Services and Manufacturing over the last 24 months, official unemployment remains benign at 5.8 percent. This masks vast regional variation. In the Central Federal District, which includes Moscow, unemployment is below 4 percent, against, per BOFIT data, 12 percent in North Caucasus. BOFIT reports figure for Inigushetia at  30 percent. Unemployment rate for under-20 years of age is at around 20 percent.

2016 is expected to be another hard year for wage earners, as Korn Ferry — Hay Group forecast that Russian companies will increase salaries on average by only 7 percent in 2016. Given expected inflation in 14.6 percent range this will entail another 7.5 percent cut to real wages.

Feeding Rising Cutbacks by Households

Notably, economy, salaries and inflation have been identified as the main economic concerns in this week’s survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM. Low salaries were raised as concern by 13 percent of respondents in January survey. 12 percent of Russians were concerned about rising inflation in December 2015 and this rose to 20 percent in January data. Another 12 percent of respondents said they were concerned about unemployment.

These trends are feeding into decline in consumer demand. Based on state-run VTsIOM poll published earlier this week, as of the end of December 2015, some 63 percent of Russians have cut back purchases of goods over the last 6 months. 59 percent are substituting in favour of cheaper goods and 26 percent are dipping into personal savings to make ends meet.

In another poll, published at the end of December, covering the period of mid-December, VTsIOM, Russians are reporting lower social well-being with the welfare Self-Estimate Index reporting own conditions of the respondents falling to the lows of 2009 and 24 percent of Russians estimating their own financial situation as being “bad”. The Social Optimism Index was showing that only 27 percent of Russians think their lives are going to improve in 2016, and 33 percent of Russians said the economic situation in the country was bad.

That said, for now at least, 45 percent of Russians positively assess country’s overall development path and only 17 percent of respondents disagree with this view.

Still, based on yet a third poll (also from December and also by VTsIOM), if in August 2014 introduction of the food imports embargo against the Western countries was opposed by only 9 percent of Russians, by mid-November 2015, some 20 percent of respondents expressed opposition to the embargo. Still, as shown by the poll results, the majority of Russian citizens continue to support the ban on food imports, although the number of those supporting it falling from 84 percent to 73 percent since the introduction of the embargo. In line with this, fewer Russians consider the food embargo to be an effective measure: down from 80 percent in August 2014 to 63 percent mid-November 2015.

And Touching the Values Systems

In a way, all of this translates into some serious fodder for political analysts (apart from us, economists). You see, much of Russian system legitimacy rests on two factors: immense economic gains over the period of 2000-2012 or 2013 (depending on timings of the crisis) and national (not quite nationalist) aspirations for a historical revival.

Back in July 2015, Levada Centre - probably Russia’s most reputable polling organisation - found that 42 percent of Russians said they preferred "decent" wages and pensions over the freedom of speech and the opportunity to travel abroad. 49 percent, though said they won’t. The results in July 2015 (data was collected in June) were similar to those in 2013 survey (43 percent preferred financial stability over the opportunity to travel abroad and the right to free speech, against 46 percent who opposed such  trade off). But this still marked a big change on 2008 when only 35 percent of Russians were willing to trade freedoms for income and 54 percent of Russians opted for freedom of speech and travel ahead of pensions and salaries.

While the above figures suggest that large share of population is closely anchored to financial and economic fortunes of the country, there are preciously few signs that those adversely impacted by the crisis are willing to take up the issue with authorities. Levada Centre July poll found that 69 percent of Russians would tend to avoid any interactions with the authorities and only 23 percent were determined to press authorities to deliver on promises. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of Russians do not believe that people can hold authorities to account and 22 percent believe they can. Subsequently, only 18 percent of the Russian population thought that mass protests are likely to arise as the result of the ongoing crisis and only 14 percent of respondents expressed willingness to participate in protests.

Yet, for all their imperfections, opinion polls are showing some tremors in the facade of the public support for state policies and institutions.

Obshchestvennoye Mnenie Foundation poll published on February 5th showed that 54 percent of Russians see economy as being in a crisis. 41 percent said the economic situation in Russia is satisfactory and only 3 percent of the participants said that the economy is in a good state. The number of Russians that have a negative view on the state of the economy is increasing, and rapidly so: just 43 percent of the respondents in December last year felt the economy was in bad shape and only 30 percent did so in May of 2015. And 58 percent now think that the economic situation in the country is worsening, while a month ago this answer was given by 41 percent of people. Which flies in the face of many analysts and the Government view that the economic crisis has bottomed out. Note: it is worth noting that in general, public opinion on timing of bottoming out of the recessions lags actual underlying numbers. Still, for a ’stabilising’ economy, only 9 percent of Russians currently believe that the economic situation is improving.

Levada Centre poll published at the end of January found that 45 percent of Russians believed that the country was “moving in the right direction”, down from 64 percent in June 2015, and from 56 percent in December 2015. January marks the first time for over a year that the state policy approval rating fell below 50 percent mark. Meanwhile, those who feel that the country was on a “wrong route” rose to 34% in January poll compared to 22 percent back in June 2015 and to 27 percent in December 2015.

President Putin's personal approval rating fell to 82 percent in January, compared to a record high of 89 percent in June 2015 and to 85 percent in December 2015. The proportion of respondents who named him among the politicians they trust also declined. This currently stands at 58 percent, down on 64 percent in June 2015 and 60 percent in December 2015.

What Does All of This Mean?

All of the above adds up to a picture in which the country is sliding gradually toward becoming un-anchored from the key driver for social cohesion: economic normalisation (compared to the 1990s) delivered during the so-called Putin Era. While the ongoing geopolitical revival still compensates for the negative economic momentum, that compensation is starting to fade.

One reason for it - cumulative losses on the economy front. Key responses to the crisis have been: devaluation of the Ruble, push toward imports substitution and conservative push back against the pressures on capital account side. All were necessary and rather successful. But all of them also transferred large amounts of pain onto the shoulders of the households and SMEs working in the private sector. Public sector employment and wages have been better shielded from the crisis, but there too, strains are starting to appear. As the result, real, tangible and compounded pain is now feeding through to the ordinary folks.

The other reason is the weakening of the geopolitical dividends perceived by the ordinary Russians. Crimea was the high point of 'return to roots' in Russian psyche - a point of reversal of perceived historical injustice inherent from the Soviet times and a point of a payback for years (since 1991) of virulent anti-Russian rhetoric across the majority of the former USSR states, including Ukraine. These were perceptions of the average Russian (do not confuse them with my own views). The conflict spillover into Eastern Ukraine was already a step away from the Crimean narrative, but it was a proximate one. And hence it had weaker, but nonetheless significant, support on the ground in Russia. But Russian push into Syria has completely divorced the country geopolitical strategy from the hearts-and-minds of the Russians on the ground. Syria is a foreign land, with alien religious strife and probably more reminiscent of Chechnya to an average Russian, than of the traditional spheres of Russian interest.

The twin factors: increased economic pressures and weakening geopolitical dividends, are now working through public perceptions. The outcome of these is far from predictable. Current lack of serious discontent is likely to persist over time: Russia is not Ukraine and it will not opt (socially) for the convulsions of knee-jerk 'revolutions' . But, if the economic crisis continues unabated, there will be political 'blood'. One way or the other.

A note to the above: Surveys in Russia — even those conducted by reputable pollsters such as Levada Center — need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Reliance on polls is a tricky thing, especially for polls in societies highly skeptical of social researchers and authorities, like Russia. Here is a good article on some problems identified in some recent polls:

27/3/15: That Russian Liberal Opposition: Facts Piling Up…

Recently, I wrote about the sorry state of the Russian liberal democratic opposition ( and Putin's strong showing in public ratings. Here is another data set, this time reflecting this week's data:

Q: Imagine that next Sunday there will be presidential election in Russia. Which politicians would you give your vote to? President Putin's share of the vote:


Here's the link to longer-dated series: and a snapshot from the same (I omit spoiled votes and those who are not planning to vote):

I have trouble spotting viable liberal opposition that can be supported by a democratic regime change. But may be I am just not seeing something... like it or not, but these are the numbers we have...

21/3/15: Two Pesky Facts and Russian ‘Liberal Democracy’ Dream

Here's a problem, folks. Let's take two facts:

  1. Vladimir Putin's approval ratings are currently in the upper 80s:  
  2. Russia ranks as the third country in the world in terms of access to internet:

Which gets you thinking.

If Russian public opinion is down to Kremlin propaganda and media control, then how come Russians, enjoying wide access to internet, are not rushing to their web browsers for the alternatives presented  in the Western free press (including in Russian), the independent Russian press (which does exist) and in the new media (which is very rich, diverse and widely available in Russian)?

In the USSR days, when there was no internet and there was no access to foreign publications, media etc and when the Soviet authorities actively suppressed access to foreign broadcasts, while closed borders were enforced for the few who dared to smuggle in foreign press, many Russians tuned to these voices. I grew up regularly listening to the BBC Russian Service and Voice of America and Radio Liberty. Many of my friends and their families did as well. Apparently, today, the survivors of the same channels - available freely - have very little impact on Russian public opinion. Why?

Russian culture is culture of extreme scepticism over authority. Scepticism that borders on cynicism. And Russian culture is a culture of kitchen politics (in modern world perfectly facilitated by social networks and alternative media). Russians have access to these sources at a rate of access that is extremely high and open. And yet their views remain non-liberal in the Western context of this term.

Is today's state of traditional media control reinforcing what is already a prevalent Russian public view: the set of beliefs that are largely consistent with those espoused by the Kremlin? Is it possible that Kremlin is not necessarily actively altering the public opinion, but rather tailoring its own positions to that opinion, while reinforcing existent biases? Can it be that such tailoring of policies is more democratic than the liberal alternative that has no popular support in Russia?

In this, who wags what? The proverbial dog of Moscow, the proverbial tail of the nation or the bone of free media access dangled on the web?

The uncomfortable nature of this problem is that in the West, we are told to believe in the potency of the Russian liberal opposition (which has access to internet and uses it extensively to promote ideas, sketches of policies and even more actively - acts of protest and own image) and that this liberal opposition is democratically anchored. We are told that, were the opposition leaders given a chance, they would win democratic mandate from the people to change and reform Russia. We are told that once Putin is gone, Russia will embrace change led by the liberal opposition. And yet, where is the evidence to support any of this?

I sympathise with the principles and values espoused by some of the opposition leaders (not all, since there is a huge range of views these leaders hold). But, any serious observer of Russian politics and economics will quickly discover that the liberal opposition is incapable of providing a properly designed reforms agenda. I cannot find credibly structured and costed alternative budgets, legislative proposals, regulatory white papers etc - all that we, in the West, tend to associate with functional opposition. The opposition cannot even provide its potential base with a coherent core message, beyond the incessant talk about the need for more democracy, the need for drastic (but unspecified) anti-corruption reforms, and the need for more liberalisation of everything.

While the Russian Government can also be very sketchy on policies impact assessments ex-ante their adoption, at least it provides some data that can be used to measure their effectiveness in the medium term. Russian liberal opposition? Not much, if any.

Western democratic opposition parties publish own policies, own alternative budgets, factually comment on Government policies and produce alternative ideas that are tested in the public domain. Russian liberal opposition is predominantly pre-occupied with promoting itself to its own support base. When personality clashes abate for short periods of time, what is left in the public view is the talk about big ticket changes (opening up to foreign investors, achieving peace and partnership with the West, combatting corruption etc - all good ideas), but no tangible, specific, cost-benefit weighted proposals. The opposition can freely use internet to promote such analysis and proposals. It does not. Instead, it uses the web for sloganeering. An average Russian interested in, say, the expected impact of liberalisation of the domestic monopolies (or near-monopolies) on, say, unemployment is left with vacuum of data, estimates and insight. One cannot expect any, even remotely rational person, to vote for the opposition leaders promoting such a policy, unless that person is fully insulated from any potential fallout from it. Hence, the core support base for the liberals in Russia is... yes, the urban upper middle class

In other words, we, in the West, are being told to trust the dream that has very little basis in reality and feasibility, and despite alleged claims of democratic nature has very little support within the electorate. It all reminds us of the policy that promoted regime change in Iraq as the means for creating a functional democracy there, to be led by the liberal Iraqi opposition. It didn't happen thus, not because we didn't try, but because we couldn't find liberal opposition capable of governing. We based our expectations of Baghdad on a naive dream and we missed the real Baghdad by a mile. Ditto for Cairo, ditto for Tripoli, ditto for Kabul... keep counting.

Yes, Russia is not Iraq - neither philosophically, nor ethically, nor socially, nor economically, nor politically, nor historically, nor culturally, nor geopolitically. In all of these terms it is more complex, statehood and institutionally more developed and stronger. Which means the pretty dreams of the post-regime change nirvana are even more out of touch in the case of Russia than they were in Iraq.

In the Soviet days, people of Russia could have been excused for not actively pursuing the alternative because they didn't know better - they had no access to alternative media, internet and to Western 'voices'. Yet, they desired such access and sought it whenever it was available. Today, Russians support the values represented by Putin, even though they are not actively denied access to alternatives. It is uncomfortable for the Western ideologues of regime change, but it is thus.

Here are some of the opinion polls on public approval ratings for various Russian parties and politicians:

Political parties first:

Yes, the hope of liberal opposition is clearly alive... in the minds of the West, but not in the minds of the Russian voters. About the only two - very remote - democratic choice alternatives per Russian voters are: Communists and LDPR (nationalists). The entire liberal alternative is about powerful enough (if they concentrated all their votes on Moscow alone) to win a couple of seats in the city government.

Politicians next:

And once again, there is no sight of liberal alternatives anywhere in the positive trust territory. And, incidentally, none were present even before the Crimea and during the 'softer' power periods of the Kremlin rule. The entire political spectrum besides Vladimir Putin, even if it were to include Putin's closest allies, does not reach 34% of the voters in terms of trust.

Which brings us back to the first two facts: Russian voters have access to alternatives (even if imperfect, but certainly much wider than their access to the same during the Soviet era); no they do not support any of these alternatives. Firstly, as Hertzen once said: "Who is to blame?" and lastly. as Lenin put it: "What is to be done?"

Just some food for thought...

Update: Here is a 2012 article from WaPo on the weak performance by Russian liberal opposition in the Presidential polls:

20/2/15: Russian Perception of the West: Hitting Historical Lows

Levada Center report from earlier this month points to a rising anti-Western sentiment in Russian public opinion. Based on the (gated) article covering Levada findings (see

  • 44% of Russians held a negative perception of the U.S. in early 2014. This rose to 81% at the end of 2014.
  • 4% of Russians saw US-Russian relations as hostile, this rose to 42% in late 2014.
  • 71% of Russian hold a negative view of the EU
  • 1% of Russians saw EU-Russian relations as hostile in early 2014, and this increased to 24% by the end of 2014.
  • 40% of Russians still believe that Russia needs to improve its relations with the West, with 36% saying Russia should further distance itself from the West.
  • Proportion of those who believe that Russia is now on par with the world's most powerful nations fell from 45% in 2008 to 27% at the end of 2014.

Levada Center comment on the results of the latest surveys points to the fact that end-2014 data marks the worst public perception of the West and the US in Russia over the last 25 years.