The insecurity of Vladimir Putin's leadership is a dominant theme in Western discussions about Russia.
Putin's alleged 'loss of touch' with the population, and the emergence of an opposition led by 'new' figures such as Alexei Navalniy, and highlighted by the recent mass demonstrations calling for Putin to go, are themes woven together to assert that Putin's leadership is exhausted – even that Putin himself doubts the legitimacy of his leadership. Furthermore, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is seen to be hemorrhaging popularity and power – and many see his dismissal by Putin to be imminent. Commentators sense political crisis and use terminology redolent of turning points and dramatic moments, as they consider the possible impending departure of both Russia's president and prime minister.
Yet there is a strong sense of what Russian novelist Viktor Pelevin might call 'discourse-mongering' in this narrative. Tensions between Putin and Medvedev are already long mongered – with versions asserted for years that they would run against each other or that Putin would fire Medvedev. Many doubted that Putin would appoint Medvedev Prime Minister, despite Putin's publicly stated intention to so do. Since Medvedev's appointment, rolling predictions of his imminent departure have continued. Yet following a government meeting in January at which Medvedev presented the government's priorities up to 2018 to Putin, such predictions have again been postponed.
Some commentators refer to Putin's falling approval rating to assert his inexorable decline, and posit the 'inevitability' of his departure, perhaps even before the next presidential election in 2018. Yet commentators also (often simultaneously) suggest that he could remain president 'until 2024', and, of course, Putin himself has not ruled out seeking another six year term in 2018. So we are left confused between a leadership facing imminent crisis and one staying for twelve more years.
Opinion polls taken by the independent and respected Levada Centre suggest a more nuanced scenario. Clearly, support for Putin and Medvedev no longer reaches the heights it did before the economic crisis. Polls indicate that Putin's core support is currently some 35%. In December 2012, only 23% of those polled wished to see him as president for another term after the current one, and 45% would prefer to see someone else as president after 2018. Compared to the early years of Putin's first presidential term, he is seen as less energetic, less able to lead, and less able to guarantee stability in Russia.
Yet polls also suggest that direct and immediate popular opposition to Putin remains limited, and far from crisis levels. At the height of the demonstrations in 2011 and early 2012, Levada polls suggested that only 21% fully or partially supported the slogan 'Putin must go', while 61% fully or partially opposed it. Polls in January 2013 even suggest a slight recent upturn in support for Putin on the three measures noted above - his energy, leadership and as a guarantor of stability. Some 65% still support the actions of Putin and 56% those of Medvedev, and even those who would like to see him elected again in 2018 have slightly increased in number.
Indeed, there currently appears to be only limited public demand for change before 2018. Levada polls in June 2012 suggest that only 15% saw a majority turning against Putin before the end of this presidential term, while 61% thought that support for Putin would remain stable or gradually decrease.
Polls also remind us of support for alternative figures to Putin. A large percentage of those polled currently see no alternative to Putin. Nevertheless, the preferred alternative politician to Putin is Medvedev, with just 14% support. A slightly different question about who would be the best alternative actually to lead Russia in place of Putin – ie. most able to run the country – returned most support for Communist leader Gennadiy Zyuganov with 12%, followed by Medvedev. But while he currently leads the formal opposition in parliament, Zyuganov is unlikely to be elected president in practice.
The continuing low level of support for opposition politicians such as Navalniy (less than 1%) is particularly noteworthy, while polls suggest a public belief that the next president will be appointed by Putin alone, or with the sanction of the public (56%), rather than an independent or anti-Putin figure (23%).
Opinion polls are not the whole picture, of course, and the Russian leadership faces a range of difficulties other than popular opinion. But on the basis of these samples of opinion, Putin and Medvedev have lost some support compared to the halcyon pre-economic crisis days. Yet it appears premature to write him off: Putin is still seen as an authoritative figure, and the best person to lead Russia. So he remains in power rather than in crisis, and for now, in the view of the Russian public at least, alternatives to him will emerge from within his team for a potential stable handover in the 2018 elections – not, as many commentators might wish, a more 'liberal' or Western leaning figure with whom it is necessarily easier 'to do business'.