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SOCIETY

Putin vs. Putin: Polls suggest even loyalists desire change in Russia's leadership

In the aftermath of Russia’s latest round of one-sided “presidential elections,” Kremlin authorities presented the public with results similar to those seen in places like North Korea — 87% in favor of the dear leader, at least officially. Yet pinpointing the true extent of support for Putin among Russians actually presents a challenge, as conventional opinion polls lose relevance when society is in the grip of a military dictatorship. However, researchers of public sentiment have observed a fascinating trend: when asked to envision the ideal leader for their country, even Russians who express staunch loyalty to the ruling regime and its policies describe someone vastly different from Vladimir Putin. Moreover, when contemplating a vision of the Russian state’s future, they advocate for a course diametrically opposed to their country’s current trajectory.

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Before and during the elections, various factors challenged the perception of widespread support for the president: the surge in popularity of anti-war candidate Ekaterina Duntsova, who was not permitted to collect signatures in support of her candidacy; the sharp rise in recognition of little-know Boris Nadezhdin, who was not permitted to campaign despite having collected far more than the required 100,000 signatures; and the lines of voters gathering to cast a ballot at exactly 12:00 on Mar. 17 in connection with opposition calls for anti-Putin Russians to come out and demonstrate their numbers. However, what's most intriguing is that the call for change isn't just coming from the president's opponents, but also from his supporters.

In the fall of 2023, the independent Public Sociology Laboratory (PS Lab), alongside colleagues from the polling firms Khroniki and ExtremeScan, conducted eight focus groups with wage workers from four regions across Russia. These sessions delved into discussions on the country's economic situation, the presidential elections, and the “special military operation,” the Kremlin’s official euphemism for its ongoing war in Ukraine. Later in the fall, PS Lab ethnographers ventured into three Russian regions, engaging with individuals from diverse communities to probe their sentiments towards the war. Throughout these expeditions, researchers also conducted “in-depth interviews” with Russians.

No illusions

Some of the PS Lab informants genuinely support Putin, casting their votes for him in the elections and harboring hopes for positive change. For them, Putin represented the candidate best able to build upon economic successes and fortify the day-to-day stability that has largely endured despite sanctions. Those employed in industries fueled by military contracts largely believe in the prospects for Russia's economic growth and the betterment of people's lives under Putin, while Russians who may not have experienced an economic bump due to the ongoing war still desire stability over change, expressing sentiments like, “I'll still vote for Putin because he's currently in his place. I don't see anyone else.”

And yet, there remains a significant portion of Putin supporters who hope he will conclude the “special military operation.” Their rationale is simple: “I'll vote for Putin because everything started under him, and he should be the one to finish it.” Conversations with these individuals on the eve of the election revealed that many in Russia viewed Putin as a candidate for peace, rather than war.

Question: Is anyone expecting any changes?
Respondent 1: No, nothing will change.
Respondent 2: Changes will come, I believe, when everything is over. Then maybe we'll start seeing some changes.
Respondent 3: The first thing we're waiting for is the end of the war. I personally await the conclusion of the military operation.

The majority of PS Lab respondents insist that some hypothetical new president is not necessary in order to bring about an end to the war, as the incumbent himself could conclude it just as easily.

Question: Can a new president change the situation on the front?
Respondent: Both the current and a new one can. It was the case in 1996 when Yeltsin signed a peace treaty in Chechnya before his elections. In principle, such a situation is a powerful asset for both the incumbent and a new president.

Regarding the elections themselves, most informants harbored no illusions about the outcome of the predictable process.

Respondent 1: So why vote when it's definitely going to be Putin?
Respondent 2: He has already chosen himself; there's no alternative.
Respondent 3: Besides, everything is decided without us.

Such a paradoxical approach to elections, and to the broader landscape of internal Russian politics, is widespread, even among those who align with Putin's foreign policy stance. Take, for example, a respondent in a focus group — seemingly the most fervent supporter of the SMO (Special Military Operation) — who justified Kremlin actions by citing Western hostility towards Russia. Despite his support for the war, however, this respondent still criticized the Kremlin’s actions on the domestic political scene, bemoaning the lack of a democratic political process and the absence of the sort of Russian civil society that could serve as catalysts for political change:

“Political life is practically nonexistent here. Consequently, we don't engage in discussions about the events occurring in our city. For instance, there was a scuffle in the Pobeda [“Victory” park]. The news report says: 'Law enforcement agencies will handle everything.' They don't specify what exactly they'll handle or who's at fault. So, you're left there, pondering on your own. I believe we lack a civil society.”

While exposing elections as deceptive and declaring their refusal to vote, respondents also discussed how altering the rules of the game could bring about change in the country, potentially involving them in politics, even if only as voters in a legitimate democratic process. A conversation about the potential emergence of a truly independent challenger to Putin went as follows:

Question: So, should such a candidate even exist? Will he get airtime?
Respondent: If he's granted airtime, then yes, but if not, there's no point.
Question: He should definitely receive free airtime if he's a candidate. How could it be otherwise?
Respondent: There certainly should be [a new candidate]. Democracy — that's what it's all about. All opinions should be heard.

In essence, respondents acknowledge that they live in a state without political change and expect to continue living in such a state. However, just because change seems impossible in the here and now does not mean that there couldn't be a different sort of Russia in the future.

What people really want

As they contemplate the elections and potential alternatives, respondents are keenly aware of the specific changes they hope to see. Their focus lies mainly on concrete social issues that demand political resolution:

“I want a president, whether it's Putin, Lavrov, or Shoigu, who presents a clear four to five-year program with a definite plan to improve the construction sector, the economy. People need to see whether he fulfills his promises or not within a year. If he does, it builds trust, and we can move forward. That's the kind of president that truly matters to me.”

Other respondents express similar sentiments:

“We need a president who prioritizes our country and its problems over global issues. Look at regions like the Ulyanovsk region or the Kurgan region; consider how people are living there. Meanwhile, we're heading in the wrong direction. Half of our country's homes lack proper plumbing, and there are even outdoor toilets in the old town. Yet nobody is interested in solving these issues...”
“We must improve our education and healthcare systems to ensure a better future for the next generation.”
“Our hospitals and schools are deteriorating.”
“The pension system needs reform. I strongly oppose the new pension system, which is excessively complex and impossible to navigate. As someone who has dealt with certain financial structures before, I can't even calculate my coefficient or anything.”

The research indicates that people who are loyal to the current leadership — those who in no way harbor sympathy for protest movements or hold oppositionist views — nevertheless raise the issue of political democratization. Respondents often express thoughts like, “It would be good if Russia had many different parties and politicians so they could compete with each other, and people could make a political choice from a variety of political programs.”

People loyal to the current leadership, distant from protest movements and opposition views, nevertheless raise the issue of political democratization

Are the respondents surveyed by PS Lab ideological supporters of the Western liberal-democratic model? They themselves would probably say they don’t, but it can be indirectly inferred from answers like these that the desires of the Russian electorate are not as foreign as they often appear:

“I like the ideal world story of Northern Europe, where there are many parties with strongly different, often narrow interests. There are parties for ecology, for example, and they are represented in the percentage in which they were chosen. (...) The regions [in Russia] are being overlooked; there should be opportunities for various parties to concentrate on specific areas, allowing everyone to choose according to their preferences. To make a difference. This is what diversity means.”

Put simply, even during the “SMO” era, it is not only supporters of the truly independent, non-systemic opposition who are advocating for political competition. Russians seem to understand that only political diversity offers the opportunity for their specific concerns and preferences to, in effect, come up for a vote:

“I would also look at the candidate's program. For example, if a candidate talked about changes in domestic policy that interest me more, e.g. regional development, with less focus on Moscow and St. Petersburg, more attention to the regions, changes in the tax system so that more money stays in the regions rather than going to Moscow, that's what would interest me.”

The respondents thus favor the liberal-democratic system of Western countries not as a matter of ideology, but rather as a means of making politics accessible to people by prioritizing their vital interests — whether those interests are associated with generational characteristics, socio-economic backgrounds, or regional affiliations. Such a diversified approach brings politics closer to the people, thereby addressing the crisis of representation and bridging the gap between the world of power and the world of ordinary citizens:

“Indeed, the newcomers may lack experience, but they won't resemble the incumbents who've maintained their roles for two decades straight. I would like to see fresh perspectives from those who grew up around the same time I did and who can offer a new outlook on the country. I would like to choose from among such individuals.”
“A fresh perspective is undoubtedly necessary, along with a concrete program that addresses the needs of the people, not just empty promises. What about employment, subsidies, childcare, and kindergarten facilities, finally resolving the housing and utilities issue and bringing law and order?”
The respondents favor the liberal-democratic system not as an ideology, but rather as a means of making politics accessible by prioritizing people's vital interests

Paradoxically, even though many Russians appear loyal to the Putin regime and have accepted their lack of alternative political paths, they are not merely prepared for change — they actively desire it. This inclination may not be readily apparent to external observers and currently holds no capacity to influence the political process in Russia. However, its existence indicates that if circumstances were to arise in which such changes could be enacted, people would offer them decisive support.

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