Why Vladimir Putin Is Still So Popular in Russia

By Christopher Read
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Others took refuge abroad, like Boris Berezovsky, who was given asylum by the United Kingdom and eventually committed suicide in Berkshire earlier this year. Berezovsky's former protégée, Roman Abramovich, with whom he fought and lost a long court duel in London, took a different strategy.

Making himself a public figure in British life gave Abramovich some protection from Putin's control but, at the same time, he maintained positive working relations with Putin who put a golden chain round his neck by reappointing him as governor of the small and distant Chukhotka region when he wanted to give it up in 2004.

This was typical of Putin's new style. He was not going to be a creature of the oligarchs, who would have to toe his line or leave Russia. Putin gained immense popularity in 2009 by publicly taking to task one of the richest Russian-based oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, for shortcomings in his aluminium-smelting factory in Leningrad province.

Putin's style has certainly been authoritarian, but to see oligarchs as human rights victims is to stretch the definition.

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Other elements of his popularity have been a more assertive international stance in which Russia shows independence in the face of American and western opposition -- currently manifesting in the crisis in Syria, one of Russia's oldest allies -- and a relatively successful economic policy which saw a period of growth, falling unemployment and rise in real wages, sometimes achieved by increasing state intervention in the economy, including the re-nationalization of factories and industries.

Obviously, none of this was popular in the West, since they curtailed Western influence over the country, limited business opportunities and, supposedly, revived Soviet-era ghosts. The response of the Russian population, apart from its oligarchs and intellectuals, has been much more favorable and, even though they are slipping, Putin's poll ratings remain very high.

It has often been said that the pattern of governing a vast country like Russia is that if the center is weak, chaos ensues. On the other hand, if the center is strong, state construction and tyranny ensue. Russians as a whole seem to prefer the latter to the former. Even so, Putin is no tyrant.

There are many freedoms in Russia despite the obvious imperfections of its democracy. One of the most important features which is still lacking as a key to escaping this historic cycle is a genuine rule of law. Russia has never enjoyed this privilege. At one time Putin appeared to be constructing it. Worryingly, that project appears to have been stalled.

However, his authoritarianism has been aimed in the direction of constructing a viable state, not only from the Soviet rubble but from the dissolution of central authority and economic meltdown promoted by Yeltsin. The dangers of over-centralizing are obvious, and the process is far from over. The situation needs to be watched carefully, but the full complexity with which Putin is dealing needs to be taken into account.

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Christopher Read is professor in Twentieth-Century European History at University of Warwick. This article was originally published in The Conversation.

(AP Photo)

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