Russia’s economic fortunes often determine the popularity of its leaders, and the personality of those leaders, in turn, influences the country’s socio-political development, argued Daniel Treisman in his new book, The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev. Treisman, professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, spoke about the confluence among economy, politics, and personality in a presentation of his book at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Carnegie’s Nikolay Petrov moderated.

Russian Exceptionalism 

Too often, scholars studying Russia either adopt a pessimistic view of their subject matter—which assumes nothing in Russia is capable of positive change—or argue that Russia cannot be understood through rational thought and analysis, Treisman said. He argued that such approaches distort the picture. For his own work, he used a logical approach backed by strong econometric analysis. He argued that Russia’s developments closely mirror the trajectory of other countries in its income group, such as Argentina, Turkey, Mexico, and Malaysia.

Russian Economy and the Popularity of Its Leaders

  • Economic sentiment and popularity: Tracking the popularity ratings of Russian leaders as measured by two Russian public opinion centers, VCIOM and the Levada Center, from the late 1980s until the present, Treisman uncovered a strong relationship between the index of economic sentiment—which measures how people perceive current and future economic conditions—and the popularity of the ruling leader. While Treisman acknowledged that popular perceptions of the economy can be, and have been in the past, distorted by propaganda, he argued that the index generally reflected actual economic conditions as measured by real wages, labor demand, and real wage arrears.
  • Gorbachev and Yeltsin: In 1990-1991, food shortages pushed Mikhail Gorbachev’s popularity ratings to an all-time low, making it very difficult for him to execute his policies. His officials began to defy his orders and some even staged a coup. Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin, who was a member of the opposition, enjoyed high approval ratings. But as soon as Yeltsin came to power, Treisman said, his popularity began to slip as falling oil prices deprived Russia of much-needed income from exports, even as the economy struggled following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
  • Putin: The 1998 Russian financial crisis rendered the ultimate blow to Yeltsin’s popularity and brought Vladimir Putin to power. At the same time, external factors as well as internal reforms made under Yeltsin succeeded in helping the national economy to recover. Putin’s first years as president coincided with greater competitiveness of Russian goods resulting from the currency devaluation, high oil prices coupled with increased oil output, and growth in other sectors of the Russian economy, such as agricultural machinery and textiles. As a result, Treisman said, Putin’s ratings soared. These higher ratings dampened the opposition and provided the president with greater traction to execute his plans, Treisman said, giving Putin an opportunity to put Russia on a path toward greater democratization. Ultimately, Treisman said, Putin decided against enacting real democratic reforms despite having the popular support to enact them.

Russia: Today and Tomorrow

  • The Putin phenomenon: Treisman argued that Putin has a very cynical view of the world, believing that everything can be bought or sold. This is reflected in his politics, which handed control over large sums of money to the state and ranked democratic principles second to maintaining monetary control. Overall, however, Treisman judged, Putin has put a number of sensible macroeconomic policies in place, such as creating a reserve fund.
  • The Medvedev and Putin tango: Treisman argued that even the occasional friction between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, now the prime minister, is part of a well-considered strategy. He explained that the two men serve different purposes and appeal to different segments of the crowd. Medvedev appeals to the international community and the urban Russian elite, while Putin appeals to the mainstream Russians from the provinces. Medvedev focuses on modernization and has even spoken about the urgent need to fight corruption and reform the political system. Putin, on the other hand, is more rigid and works to keep the existing power structures in place. Ultimately, they work as an effective team, serving the same goal of modernizing Russia without threatening their own or their allies’ political security.
  • What lies ahead: Treisman concluded that history hasn’t been fair to Russia’s leaders. As a general rule, they have either been punished or rewarded for the policies of their predecessors. Today, Medvedev and Putin run the country together and are reasonably popular. But the global financial crisis has strained the Russian economy, and Medvedev and Putin have been forced to deplete the reserve funds to protect Russian incomes and pensions. Their popularity will depend on how Russia continues to fare economically. Whether Medvedev and Putin can ride this wave of change or whether they will be pulled under it remains to be seen, Treisman said.