Vox Populi

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev

The Russian reaction to the Khodorkovsky affair.

While Western pundits continue to decry the arrest of former YUKOS CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky as the advent of a new dictatorship in Russia, Russians themselves appear to have quite a different take on recent events. And the reaction so far, as assessed by the Russian polling and research firm ROMIR, seems to validate the thinking behind what I described as “Putin’s gambles” in an NRO piece last week.

First and foremost, most Russians have responded positively to the arrest–54 percent as opposed to 13 percent who viewed it in a negative light. Fifty-two percent believe that Khodorkovsky was arrested because he personally or his company must have done something illegal. Certainly, state dominance of the mass media has contributed a great deal to this impression. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate that most Russians still cling to the default position that all oligarchs engaged in illegal activity during the privatization of the 1990s; it is striking that in another ROMIR poll asking Russians which big-business figure they found to be the most sympathetic, 74 percent answered “not a single one.”

The second conclusion is that many Russians do not believe that the arrest will fundamentally affect the economy. Half the respondents said they anticipated that Khodorkovsky’s detention would have no impact on the economy, and twenty percent even ventured to say it would have a positive impact. Asked whether they felt Western investment might be in jeopardy, a plurality (47 percent) felt that the arrest would have no impact on continued FDI flows into the country, although a significant minority was pessimistic on this score.

Of course, Russians are not politically naive; asked what they felt was the motive behind the arrest, 27 percent said it was to “strengthen legality” but close behind were those (20 percent) who said it was tied to the pre-election campaign.

And indeed, there are some indications that Putin’s gamble here–that the arrest might pay political dividends–may prove to be correct. In recent weeks the Communist party–the leading opposition force and the principal rival to the pro-government United Russia party (and, incidentally, a beneficiary of the largesse of Mr. Khodorkovsky, in his attempts to put various opposition parties on more secure financial footings)–has slipped in the polls, to about 23-percent support. United Russia, however, has preserved its lead, with its support remaining stable in the 27 to 30-percent range. Only three other parties are likely to cross the 5-percent threshold needed to obtain party-list representation in the parliament: YABLOKO, the Union of Right Forces, and the Liberal Democratic party. If this pattern holds until the elections next month, then United Russia will emerge as the majority party in the legislature.

Putin’s reputation and prestige on the international stage have suffered as a result of this arrest, as his cold reception in Rome to attend a summit meeting with the EU attests. But he can take comfort in the fact that European journalists, Western think-tank pundits, and U.S. senators can’t vote in Russia’s elections. And Putin does appear to have learned one lesson from his democratically elected counterparts in the West. It’s your poll numbers that matter. So far, the polls are going his way.

–Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.