By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, March 19:

It was no surprise that Vladimir Putin won the Russian Presidential election last Sunday. With no one of any standing to challenge him, he bagged 88% of the vote, a record till date. The nationwide turnout was 74.22%, surpassing the 2018 level of 67.5%.

Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov finished second with just under 4%, newcomer Vladislav Davankov was third, and ultra-nationalist Leonid Slutsky fourth.

However, in some places, the followers of the anti-Putin leader Alexei Navalny (who died in suspicious circumstances in an Arctic prison in February) protested.

As expected, the Western press dubbed the election as a massive fraud, given Putin’s reputation as an iron-fisted ruler. But what is not taken into account is that the Russians have never tasted democracy as the West knows it. They transitioned from Tsarist absolutism to communist dictatorship, and then to Putinesque authoritarianism. Perhaps democracy had a brief look-in after the breakup of the USSR.

In Russia in the ruler is judged by other yardsticks. If Lenin ended Tsarist rule and established a modern State, Stalin made it an industrial and military power that could defeat Hitler’s army. His successors made the USSR a space and nuclear power to match the US, but failed to build the economy to match the West in a globalized world.  

The West succeeded in dismembering the USSR, but Putin came and salvaged Russia. And to defeat the West’s plan to use Ukraine as a bridgehead to intimidate Russia and destroy Russia, Putin initiated military action against Ukraine in February 2022. The West imposed punishing sanctions on Russia and poured billions of dollars into Ukraine to enable it to drive out the Russians. But success has eluded it so far.

The war is now in the third year with no end in sight. But while the going has been bad for Ukraine, Russia has been able to circumvent the sanctions, keep its economy humming, and build international links principally with China. And thanks to burgeoning defence production, the Russian economy grew by 3%.

Though sections of Russians society dislike the war and many have fled the country, the bulk of the population has remained in the country, with most of them ardently supporting the war fired by the proverbial Russian nationalism.         

Putin told supporters in a victory speech in Moscow that he would prioritise Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. “We have many tasks ahead. But when we are consolidated – no matter who wants to intimidate us, suppress us – nobody has ever succeeded in history, they have not succeeded now, and they will not succeed ever in the future,” Putin declared.

Supporters chanted “Putin, Putin, Putin” when he appeared on stage and “Russia, Russia, Russia” after he had delivered his acceptance speech, Reuters reported.

Putin portrays the war as part of a centuries-old battle with a declining West that he says humiliated Russia after the Cold War by encroaching on Moscow’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

A new survey of Russians highlights a sentiment towards Putin’s leadership. Most Russians see the war in Ukraine as defence against threats from NATO and the West and report little personal effect from the conflict.

A recent poll of the Russian public conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago finds little material improvement in the quality of life for many Russians since the war, but also not a significant deterioration in overall economic conditions despite international sanctions.

Overall, Russians have a favourable view of Putin’s job performance. While 67% approve of how Putin is handling foreign policy, fewer, 58% approve of his management of domestic affairs. But the Russian public on the whole views their country’s actions in Ukraine as a justified response to an outside threat.

Attitudes among Russians about their nation and its place on the global stage are palpably strong. 94% have at least a moderate level of pride in their Russian identity. 62% believe Russia is unjustly treated by the world.

A notable concern for many Russians is the perceived encroachment of Western values on traditional Russian beliefs. 64% see the conflict in Ukraine as a civilizational struggle between Russia and the West.

However, 74% agree with the importance of having an opposition in the nation’s political system. But only 42% feel an immediate need for an opposition.

The above mentioned survey was funded and conducted by the University of Chicago. The poll was conducted in Russian between November 13 and November 21, 2023, with Russian mobile numbers throughout Russia, including Crimea.

The most reputable public opinion data available in Russia are from the Levada Centre, a non-governmental research organisation conducting regular surveys since 1988.

Levada surveys on from 17 to 21 February found that the majority of respondents (52%) felt negatively towards Ukraine. Most (60%) blamed the US and NATO for the escalation of tensions in Eastern Ukraine, while only 4% blamed Russia.

Levada polls suggest that the net public approval of Putin had surged by about 13 percentage points since December 2023, a rally-round-the-flag effect, with almost three-quarters (71%) expressing approval of his leadership by February 2024.

These were not isolated results; even stronger sentiments were recorded in the pre-war poll conducted on 7-15 February for CNN in Russia by a British agency, Savanta ComRes, where half (50%) agreed that “it would be right for Moscow to use military force to prevent Kyiv from joining NATO”.

Two thirds of Russians (64%) in the poll said that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’, a position taught in the Soviet era and a view that Vladimir Putin has been pushing, compared to just 28% of Ukrainians.

In their survey of 25-27 February, VCIOM reported strong support for the “special military operation” in Ukraine, with two thirds (68%) in favour, around one quarter (22%) against, and only 10% unable to provide an answer.

The Washington Post also reported that a poll conducted a week into the assault by a consortium of researchers again confirmed that the majority of Russians (58%) approved of the invasion while only a quarter (23%) opposed it.

Western commentators point out that Russians are not exposed to as much information as Westeners, even Ukrainians, are. The main of source of information is domestic television, which gives only pro-Russian or pro-government content. It is also believed in the West, that the Russians indulge in self-censorship, which is common in countries with authoritarian regimes.



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