By Wayne Allensworth
Yevgeny Prigozhin (english.nv.ua)
In my recent article on the “coup” that wasn’t in Russia, I raised the question of what the popular reaction to Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s aborted “March for Justice” might be; i.e., would the crisis this past weekend undermine Putin’s poll numbers, for instance? And what would the incident do to Prigozhin’s poll ratings? Possibly, I wrote, the public and Russian elites might see the rebellion as a sign that Putin was faltering. Or they might simply breathe a sigh of relief and be thankful that Putin quickly contained and ended the crisis. I also noted that Putin probably would not find it prudent to punish anyone in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, but that someone would pay for the embarrassing and potentially destabilizing incident.
Here are some numbers from the latest polling by Levada Center, considered a reliable source by Russia watchers: Levada conducts a monthly poll asking whether the country is moving in the right or wrong direction, along with a question on rating politicians and public figures. As far as the right or wrong question for June, keeping in mind that the polling was done June 22-28 (Prigozhin’s “March for Justice” was on June 24), the numbers fluctuated. Over this year, 66 to 68 percent of respondents have said the country is moving in the “right direction,” while “wrong direction” polled at 21 to 24 percent. This month’s “right direction” figure was, understandably, down significantly to 61 percent. On Saturday, June 24, at the time of the march, the “right direction” figure dipped to 53 percent. As Putin moved swiftly to end the crisis, that figure recovered somewhat to 61 percent. “Wrong direction” stayed within what has been the normal range for this year at 23 percent. What changed was the figure for those saying they found it difficult to give an answer. That figure rose from 10-11 percent to 16 percent, indicating that some respondents were naturally unsure of the situation in the immediate aftermath of Prigozhin’s march.
On the question regarding how respondents rated the actions of public figures, again, the polls fluctuated. Prior to the crisis, on June 22-23, the figures for approval and disapproval of Putin stood at 81 percent and 17 percent. They dipped slightly on June 24 to 79-19, then rose June 25-28 to 82-14, likely as a result of Putin’s quick action to end the crisis. Putin’s approval numbers have been hovering around 81 to 82 percent against 14-16 percent disapproval for some time. So, the crisis has not thus far harmed Putin’s approval ratings, although further developments related to the “March for Justice” are likely.
Levada also regularly asks respondents to name their most trusted public figures. It’s an “open question.” Pollsters didn’t prompt respondents by offering a list of choices. In recent months, Prigozhin’s name began appearing on the list. He’s been very active on social media and the activities of his company Wagner have been widely reported and commented on. Prigozhin’s trust rating has been clocking in at about 4 percent, which is significant, as that matches the usual figure for former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, for instance. In June, in the aftermath of “Prigozhin’s rebellion,” Putin, as usual, topped the list at 42 percent, which matched last month. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin occupied second place at 17 percent, followed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at 14 percent, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu at 8 percent (10 percent in May), and several others, including Medvedev at 3 to 4 percent. Prigozhin’s rating dipped slightly from 4 to 2 percent, and Levada noted that he was on the verge of falling out of the list.
Overall, Levada Center commented, trust in the top state figures had not changed, but it also noted the dip in both Prigozhin’s and Shoygu’s ratings. Shoygu, by the way, has long turned up on lists of the most trusted public figures in Russia. Prigozhin had been lambasting the Defense Ministry headed by Shoygu for incompetence, corruption, and mismanagement of the war in Ukraine.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu (7dnevno.hr)
That’s not all. Levada followed up with a poll comparing Prigozhin to a list of other public figures, including Shoygu. Again, the poll was conducted June 22-28, so only part of the responses were registered during and after the “March for Justice.” Prigozhin’s overall ratings for approve/disapprove of his actions came in at 34 percent approve, with 15 percent completely approving and 19 percent expressing likely approval. Levada noted the fluctuations over the period of the crisis. Prior to the crisis, on June 22-23, for instance, Prigozhin garnered 30 percent full approval and 28 percent likely approval, for a 58 percent total. On the other hand, 16 percent said that they likely disapproved of Prigozhin’s activities, while 21 percent completely disapproved. In the period following the crisis, June 25-28, Prigozhin’s numbers were 11 percent complete approval, 18 percent likely approval, with 15 percent likely disapproval, and 32 percent complete disapproval. Levada Center stated that Prigozhin’s approval numbers would likely continue to decline. Levada Center also observed that Shoygu’s overall approval rating declined from 60 percent before the crisis to 48 percent afterwards.
Another poll asked respondents who approved of Prigozhin, as well as those who disapproved, what they liked or disliked about him. The top response for those who approved of Prigozhin was that he told the truth, that he was an honest man. For those who disapproved of him, the top response was that he was a traitor who had organized a rebellion against Putin. Levada also got to the crux of the matter—Prigozhin’s political prospects—by asking respondents whether they would vote for him if he ran for president. On 22-23 June, prior to the crisis, 6% said they definitely would, while 13% said maybe. The figures after the march were down to a combined total of 10%.
Despite what the anti-Putin Western media are claiming, the takeaway is this: Putin is not on the verge of being ousted. Warmongers in the West will keep beating that drum to justify continuing the war. But Russia is not teetering on the edge of collapse. Ordinary Russians fear chaos and flinch at the notion of an open rebellion against vlast, the authorities, especially Putin himself. Putin acted cautiously, choosing not to punish Prigozhin at this time, as he does have a constituency, probably among a segment of the most pro-war Russians. Prigozhin’s personal poll ratings have sharply declined, but this is Russia we are talking about. It’s a “low trust” society and the people, the narod, have no illusions about vlast. They appreciate someone who tells the truth and uncovers incompetence and corruption, but that does not mean they want a revolution, or would like to see an “extravagant,” as they say, figure like Prigozhin in power. Shoygu, who has been a relatively popular figure for a long time, has seen his authority take a hit. Putin may make some “cadre decisions,” but probably not right away, as he does not like being portrayed as susceptible to pressure.
As far as Prigozhin goes, Putin will likely wait to bring down his wrath on his onetime crony. At a meeting this week with top level defense and security officials, Putin put budgetary expenditures on Wagner over the past year at something north of 86 billion rubles. He also noted that another 80 billion rubles went to Prigozhin’s food distribution company for supplies to the military — and wondered where the money had gone. The point was clear enough. Putin was telling his subordinates to build a criminal case that he can hold over Prigozhin’s head, which will serve both as a warning to him and a means of discrediting and punishing a traitor. In the meantime, security efforts will tighten, and the various “clans” within vlast will use “Prigozhin’s rebellion” to settle scores with rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the rebellion. That is exactly what is going on with the reported disappearance, questioning by investigators, or worse, arrest — take your pick of rumors — of General Sergey Surovikin, who was reportedly supportive of Wagner’s criticisms of the military establishment. Shoygu won’t forget that.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.