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Why Putin Is Popular: An Aristotelian Explanation

04/22/2014 12:24 EDT | Updated 06/22/2014 05:59 EDT

What is the origin of Vladimir Putin's new popularity (approval rating) in Russian public opinion polls? The usual answer that it is due to the nationalist rallying in the wake of the invasion of Crimea. This is only a part of the story.

During Putin's first two presidential terms, from 2000 to 2008, his popularity varied from a low in the mid-60s to a high in the low-80s. The low was touched only in mid-2000, just after his first presidential election, and in mid-2005, just after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. After that, it rose back slowly into the mid-80s.

It is worth mentioning that after the 2008 invasion of Georgia, it actually began to fall from the mid/low-80s to the mid/high-70s through the end of 2010. There it remained until early 2011, after which it fell precipitously into the mid-60s, never reaching even 70 again.

So during Medvedev's presidency, from May 2008 to May 2012, Putin's popularity fell from the mid-80s and hung around the high-70s, until a Chechen Islamist-claimed suicide bomb blast at Moscow's Domodedovo airport killed over three dozen people in early 2011. After that, Putin's popularity (approval rating) collapsed into the mid-60s until the invasion of Crimea.

By the time that the Olympics began in Sochi, therefore, it was down into the very low 60s. But Putin's approval rating skyrocketed after he got approval to send troops to Ukraine. But it is just as likely that the boost he got around that time was propelled also by the outstanding performance of the Russian Olympic team in Sochi.

By early March 2014 after Sochi, it had spiked already back up to the low 70s. And by last week it was back to 80 per cent, not far from its all-time high. In mid-March a poll showed that 86 per cent of Russians in Russia believed that Crimea was part of Russian territory, and 90 per cent supported its annexation.

It is also worth mentioning that has also been a moderate correlation between the world oil price and Putin's approval rating through the end of 2010. In early 2011 this correlation seemed to break down, but in fact it resumed in late 2011 until the present, only with a base rate (statistical "constant") about 15 percentage points lower in 2012-2014 than in 2000-2011.

This signifies that the year 2011, and early 2011 in particular, was a critical time for the loss of that much popularity: the bomb blast as Domodedovo was crucial then. Just as this year, so were apparently the Olympics at Sochi: but not the fact of the Olympics themselves, but the combination of their spectacle together with, even more important, the first-place medal-list finish of the Russian Olympic team.

That is what Aristotle would call the "proximate" (or efficient or motive) cause of Putin's popularity. But Aristotle distinguished four types of cause. Another one was the "formal" cause. This refers to the arrangement, shape or appearance of things.

In the case of Putin's approval rating, it refers to how he has created, since 2012 in particular, a political media machine and how this has shaped Russian political attitudes. That is not something so recent as the Sochi Olympics, although the almost Soviet-style media consolidation and crackdown on dissident publications has happened in just a couple of months.

In retrospect, the high point of Russian civil disobedience against the regime is epitomized by the Pussy Riot performance for which they were indicted in February 2012, arrested the next month and convicted that August. In fact, summer 2012 marked the start of the irrevocable turn towards centralization of political control over the Russian media system (or, as it is called in Russian, the "system of mass information").

This has especially accelerated in recent weeks, with the consolidation of state propaganda outlets into a streamlined unitary ideological structure, the forced closure of the last radio and television stations daring to publicize dissident opinions and the shuttering of the last newspapers voicing alternative views as well as their websites.

This engineering of the means of forming mass public opinion in Russia is the "formal" cause of Putin's popularity. It began preparing the ground two years ago. By conditioning the Russian public with general attitudes such as images of Russia and the U.S. in world politics, it created the "cognitive predispositions" allowing events in Sochi and Ukraine to achieve the echo in Russian opinion that they have done.

I will seek to address the other two Aristotelian causes ("material" and "final") of Putin's popularity in Russia in another article soon.

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