(ELBLÄ?G, Poland) -- Comedian Norm Macdonald was fond of pointing out that Germans love David Hasselhoff. As true as it may have been (and may still be), Germany's infatuation with "The Hoff" pales in comparison to Russia's admiration of Vladimir Putin, that archaeology-loving, race-car-driving, tiger-tranquilizing, bare-chested survivalist known affectionately to some former world leaders as Pooty-Poot.
A new poll by AP-NORC Center confirmed yet again that, despite a deeply troubled economy, international notoriety, and a ruble that has collapsed in value, Russians are standing by their man with a stunning 81% approval rating. This is not a fluke result. The Levada Center, which has conducted monthly opinion polling on Mr. Putin since he first became prime minister in August 1999, shows similar numbers. (See chart.)
The raw data provided by the Levada Center via RussiaVotes.org indicates that Mr. Putin has maintained an approval rating of 61% or higher since he has assumed high public office. (The only exceptions were his first two months in office when many Russians still didn't know who he was.)
What can we conclude from this? An Eastern European political observer commented that Russians may be afraid to admit that they disapprove of Mr. Putin. While the data does not preclude that explanation, I find it unconvincing. Mr. Putin's popularity went soaring within months of his taking office, well before he began his autocratic consolidation of power. Moreover, his approval rating has remained high for 15 years. The more tyrannical he behaves, the more popular he becomes.
Putin's popularity, therefore, is likely to due something else: Russians don't think highly of Western-style democracy.
The Moscow Times, reporting the results of a different Levada Center poll, wrote that 45 percent of Russians believed a Western-style democracy would be destructive to the country. Along similar lines, an op-ed in USA Today explained that "in Russia's political tradition, where the leader stands above the law, Putin is popular because he is powerful."
The unsettling conclusion is that an anti-democratic, tyrannical bully who is willing to invade his neighbors for the sake of Russian glory is exactly the sort of leader Russians want. Mr. Putin is not acting in defiance of the will of the people; rather, he is the embodiment of the Russian mindset. This is deeply troubling.
Last year, I wrote an article in response to Mr. Putin's NYT op-ed titled, "The Dangers of Russian Unexceptionalism." At the end, I concluded that I wished that "Russians will get the truly exceptional leader that they have always deserved." Unfortunately, I was wrong. Russians want Putin as their leader, and thus, they deserve whatever economic catastrophe likely awaits them in the not-too-distant future.