(CNSNews.com) -- A recent survey by Russia’s leading independent polling agency found that President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating is at its lowest since January 2014. The survey also indicated that Russians held unfavorable views of the government overall and were pessimistic about their country’s prospects.
In the poll published on Jan.31, the Levada Center showed that the Russian president’s popularity had reached a five-year low. Among those surveyed, 64% approved of Putin and 34% disapproved.
Although these numbers still reflect broad public support for the Russian leader, they also indicate a significant drop in popularity from even a year ago. In January 2018, Putin had an approval rating of 80% and a disapproval rating of 18%.
Outside of Putin, the rest of the Russian government fared much worse.
Russians negatively assessed the job performance of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (33% approve, 66% disapprove); the State Duma (33% approve, 64% disapprove); and the federal government as a whole (38% approve, 61% disapprove).
Moreover, many Russians have a bleak outlook for the future. For the first time since 2006, more Russians think the country is moving in the wrong direction (45%) than those who think it is moving in the right direction (42%).
Public perception of Russian leadership took a major hit following the Kremlin’s announcement of a controversial pension reform policy in June 2018. Under the plan, the government would gradually raise the retirement age for men from 60 to 65 by 2028 and for women from 55 to 63 by 2034.
Supporters of the measure argued that such reform was necessary to address the growing deficit in the country’s pension fund caused by a shrinking workforce. “If we don’t make any decisions, it will inevitably lead to a de facto reduction in pension benefits. We cannot allow that,” warned Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma.
However, critics pointed to Russia’s relatively low-life expectancy rate and argued that many citizens may not live long enough to receive their pensions. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov proclaimed that under the new policy, Russians "will all get their pension in their coffins."
The World Health Organization lists the life expectancy for Russian males as 66 years old and for Russian females as 77 years old.
The pension reform initiative proved to be enormously unpopular. An overwhelming majority of Russians, nearly 90%, opposed raising the retirement age. Before long, anti-pension reform protests broke out. Following public outcry, Putin lowered the planned increase in women’s retirement by three years. Yet, ultimately, he signed the pension reforms into law this past October.
Beyond the anger surrounding pension reform policy, Russia’s economic problems reportedly contribute to the Kremlin’s faltering popularity.
Although the country’s GDP growth last year exceeded expectations, many Russians have a low standard of living. In November 2018, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration released a study showing that 22% of Russian live below the poverty line. Another 35.6% of them have enough income for subsistence goods like food and clothing, but not much else.
Consequently, it comes as little surprise that the four biggest grievances Russians have with their government are its inability to deal with rising prices and falling wages (57%); provide jobs (46%); look after the population’s social security (43%); and resolve the economic crisis (36%).
The Kremlin’s economic record, more so than its restrictions on civil liberties or foreign policy decisions, apparently is the main source of public disenchantment.
Rising discontent will likely constrain Putin’s room for maneuver on foreign policy. George Beebe, former Director of the CIA’s Russia analysis and a former Special Advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, told CNS News that the Russian president currently finds himself in a political dilemma.
“On the one hand, as [Putin] grows more unpopular, he’s more vulnerable to his critics on the patriotic right and he cannot, under the pressure of their criticism, show weakness in foreign policy,” said Beebe.
At the same time, it is not clear how to inject new energy into the Russian economy, the underlying source of his declining popularity, “while you have such poor relations with the West and while sanctions continue to bite,” he said.