Not long before U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump started talking this week about the qualities he admired in Russian President Vladimir Putin as a leader, Putin’s government demonstrated some of that leadership by classifying the nation’s oldest and only independent polling agency as, essentially, a spy network.
It was a move that in many ways explains Putin’s iron grip on power in Russia. At the same time, Trump was firm in his praise.
“Certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader,” Trump said Wednesday during a candidate forum on NBC. “If Putin says great things about me, I’m gonna say great things about him. I’ve already said he is really very much of a leader.”
The target of Putin’s most recent action, the Levada Center public opinion polling group, began work in 1987, when the Soviet Union was governed by the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev. It survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic turmoil of the 1990s, the rise of a ruling class of oligarchs and then 16 years of Putin, first as president, then as prime minister and now again as president.
Speaking on Russian television, Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, said the reclassification as a “foreign agent” “will mean that the Levada Center will have to stop working, because you cannot conduct polls with such a stigma put on you.”
Putin has a lengthy enemies list. He is known for being quick and ruthless in handing out punishment. It no doubt helps keep his rivals in check.
The first example of this involved a televised political puppet show that under President Boris Yeltsin, who led Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, had become known for making fun of the president. In 2000, soon after Putin came to power, the owner of the station that ran the show was charged with fraud and fled Russia to escape jail time. Others followed him out of the country. The show, of course, stopped airing.
The Levada Center’s most recent poll indicated Putin has an 82 percent approval rating. But it was essentially shut down anyway.
Former oligarch and oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky once accused Putin of being corrupt. He was jailed and charged with fraud, and his Yukos oil company dismantled. He was released in 2013 and went into exile.
The rock band Pussy Riot performed an “anti-Putin punk prayer” in a Moscow cathedral and also went to jail.
Other perceived Putin critics have been killed, including former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who was shot to death near the Kremlin, former Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium, and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot to death after criticizing Putin’s policy in Chechnya.
The question now being asked around Russia and Europe is what did Levada do to merit its new pariah status, and why now?
Levada has been a target of the Kremlin for years; its founder, Yuri Levada, was purged in 1972 during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, only to be restored to his teaching post during Gorbachev’s open-government years.
The Putin government attempted to take over the Levada Center in 2003, though the effort failed, and its future became especially dicey in 2014, when Gudkov gave a speech that critics claimed painted the government as an oligarchy.
This week, the logical assumption of the motive for the move is that the independent organization had come out with polls that indicated Putin’s popularity was falling. Given the politically charged nature of everything Russian since the invasion and takeover of Crimea in 2014, Westerners would expect that. The Russian gross domestic product, after all, was $2.2 trillion the year before that invasion, which led to broad economic sanctions. Today, the Russian GDP is a bit more than half that, $1.3 trillion.
But the poll that Russian and European media accounts say was the apparent cause of the reclassification actually showed Putin stronger than he has been in the past. The most recent, and last, Levada Center poll, for August, indicated Putin has an 82 percent approval rating. That’s up from 68 percent in 2011, and 65 percent in 2000.
That same poll indicated, however, that voter malaise is rising in Russia and support for Putin’s United Russia Party in upcoming parliamentary elections is shrinking.
The Democrats are eating him alive on this, and they’re wrong. The Cold War is over.
Frank Mitchell, Values Voter conferee
In January polling by the center, United Russia appeared to have support from 39 percent of Russians. By last month, that had fallen to 31 percent.
Perhaps most embarrassing, the poll also said that only 48 percent of eligible Russians intended to vote in the elections. Among those who didn’t intend to vote the reasons included “United Russia will win anyway,” “Elections are rigged” and “I’m sick and tired of the infighting at the top levels.”
The reclassification as a “foreign agent” was an extreme measure to take against the Levada Center. The classification stems from a 2012 law approved by Putin that requires nonprofit organizations that received international funding, no matter how minuscule, to declare themselves “foreign agents.”
The term “agent” in Russia, since the Soviet days, has been synonymous with “spy.”
Die Zeit, an influential and thoughtful German weekly publication, titled an article on the classification: “Russia is destroying its mirror.” A pointless act.
In an interview with German news organization Deutsche Welle, Manfred Sapper, the editor of the magazine Osteuropa, said he was deeply disturbed by the news.
“It’s a further step into the self-isolation of Russia, and an attack on the freedom of science,” he said. “It’s a disaster.”
German Green Member of Parliament Marieluise Beck said, “Another pillar of democratic culture and freedom of speech in Russia is under threat.”
The German magazine Der Spiegel asked whether the move was out of anger at the poll, but even that survey showed that of those who did intend to vote, half would be voting for Putin’s party. While those numbers were down from two-thirds in January, they still indicate a man and a party fully in control of Russia.
The poll also indicated that almost three times as many Russians support Trump for the U.S. presidency as support Clinton, though half of all Russians had no opinion on the matter.
If Putin is widely liked in Russia, however, he is not in the United States. In fact, Putin is one of the more reviled figures among American voters. According to a May NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, just 8 percent of those surveyed viewed him favorably; 59 percent held negative views.
Compare those numbers to the approval ratings for President Barack Obama – 49 percent positive, 41 percent negative – or Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, at 34 percent positive, 54 percent negative. Even Trump scores better than the man he so admires, 29 percent positive to 58 percent negative.
Yet the Trump campaign wasn’t backing off the candidate’s praise for the Russian leader. On Thursday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-presidential candidate, endorsed the admiring view of Putin. “I think it’s inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country,” Pence said.
Several attendees at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a gathering of Christian evangelicals, also seemed unfazed by Trump’s positive talk about Putin and Russia.
Don Krahel, 85, a retiree from St. Clairsville, Ohio, said the Putin talk was just Trump’s way of doing business for when he became president.
“One of the things he does, he’s always negotiating or setting up for a better relationship,” Krahel said. “He’s setting Putin up for a better relationship. He’s not going to present himself as a wimp. He’s not going to be a tiger, but he’ll negotiate from strength.”
Frank Mitchell, a summit attendee from Tennessee, called the flap about Trump seemingly praising Putin “a red herring.”
“The Democrats are eating him alive on this, and they’re wrong. The Cold War is over,” he said. “The conflict we have with Russia today is not the same conflict. But you listen to conservative reporters on TV or somebody like Rush Limbaugh, they say, ‘Once a communist, always a communist.’ That’s crazy.”
Lesley Clark and William Douglas contributed to this report from Washington.
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews