1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Lessons for Putin

Fiona Clark, MoscowMarch 6, 2016

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev turned 85 this week, but even with the passing of time Russians still don't like him. Is there a message here for the seemingly untouchable Putin? Fiona Clark takes a look.

Mikhail Gorbachev (Michael Ukas - Pool/Getty Images)
Image: Pool/Getty Images/M. Ukas

Mikhail Gorbachev must have been a little surprised to see the birthday card from the Russian prime minister's office had got his name wrong, calling him Sergei by mistake. It was quickly corrected but the error serves as a metaphor for the lack of respect Russians have for the last of the Soviet presidents.

While the West loves him, hailing him as the hero who brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the tyranny of decades of communist rule across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, he's not quite so popular at home.

An opinion poll released to coincide with his 85th birthday showed that just 12 percent of those surveyed thought he did the best he could for the country by introducing reforms that were needed, while 24 percent said he was an "offender" or criminal who had maliciously destroyed the Soviet Union.

According to the poll from the state-run All-Russian Public Opinion Center (VTsIOM), 6 percent of the 1,600 people surveyed said Gorbachev's main achievement was bringing an end to the Cold War, while 5 percent applauded his introduction of democratic freedoms. However, almost half believed he'd done nothing good for the state, and one in three found it difficult to think of anything positive he'd done.

And it seems that time is not healing old wounds here, with animosity toward him growing. In 2011 just 4 percent of respondents said he hadn't done anything good while 73 percent found it hard to think of anything.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1986 copyright: AP Photo/Scott Stewart
While many historians say Gorbachev was pivotal to ending the Cold War, Russians are still peevedImage: AP

Bitter memories

Mikhail Mamonov, the head of research projects at VTsIOM, attributes Gorbachev's declining popularity to today's economic problems which are reigniting painful memories of the turmoil of the late 1980s and the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"The current difficult economic situation in the country exacerbates the perception of economic problems 25 years ago. In the mass consciousness of Gorbachev [is] a person who was not able to save the country," Mamonov said.

It's a message both the incumbent president and the West should take on board. While Vladimir Putin might be riding high on a wave of public support, with another VTsIOM poll showing 74 percent of voters would re-elect him as president in the 2018 election, his legacy may well depend on how he manages the current crisis.

People will forgive a lot if they are feeling economically satisfied, but between 2014 and 2015 the percentage of people who said they could either not afford to feed themselves, not afford to buy new clothes or said they had enough for food or clothes but not enough for new appliances rose from 67 to 75 percent, a Levada Center poll showed. Another poll from that center, taken last November, showed there was a growing number of people (27 percent) who thought the government's policies were taking the country in the wrong direction, up from 22 percent the previous year.

Double-edged sword

This might be exactly what Western leaders who back sanctions have been waiting to see, but it may come at a price. The more pressure the government feels, the more it increases its nationalism, fueling anti-Western rhetoric and clamping down on freedom of speech and opposition figures. Ironically, these are all moves Gorbachev's glasnost (openness) and perestroika (rebuilding) were working against.

And this is only likely to get worse if the economy continues to crumble. The government-controlled media machine might generate sanguine headlines like "ruble crushes dollar" when it makes a miniscule recovery, but there's no denying it's buying less than half of what it did. Without a doubt, that's hurting lower income earners which make up the vast majority of the population.

No alternative?

Putin speaking at summit copyright: Michael Klimentyev/RIA Novosti
Putin's mistakes may yet come back to haunt himImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M.Klimentyev

But it's worth noting that while three quarters of the population say they'd vote for Putin (should he decide to run again), they have no other choice. There is no viable alternative to run against him, and unless he has a radical democratic epiphany right about now, that's unlikely to change. And even if he decides to swap seats on the tandem of power with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev once again, he'll take the handle bars with him.

It's also interesting to note that even without an alternative leader on the horizon, about a quarter of respondents said they would not vote for Putin. But there's still a long road ahead until the 2018 election, and a lot can change.

The ultimate irony, though, will be if Putin's popularity tumbles with the economy, and we see polls 25 years later that show the public remembering him with the same scorn as Gorbachev.