Vladimir Putin: Superstar

By Willis Sparks

Vladimir Putin is an amazing man. You may have seen him co-piloting an aircraft recently and dumping 12 tons of water to extinguish two of the many wildfires raging across Western Russia. But did you know that in 2008 he used a tranquilizer gun to save a group of scientists and a television camera crew from a charging tiger? In 2009, he saved Russian shoppers from high prices by ordering a grocery store executive to put sausages on sale, forced one of the world's richest men to restore laid off workers to their jobs by reopening a cement plant, taught judo to the Russian national judo team, and went to the bottom of the world's deepest lake in a submarine. In April, he hugged a polar bear. He swims Siberian rivers for exercise and enjoys bare-chested summer horseback rides. Without question, women love him. It's said that he will never have a heart attack, because his heart isn't foolish enough to attack him. Or maybe that's somebody else.   

What's all this about? Yes, Putin's approval numbers have fallen to their lowest levels in four years as next year's Duma elections loom. President Dmitry Medvedev, his handpicked successor, has dropped ten percentage points since January. Suicide bombings in March and a mining disaster in May haven't helped. The Kremlin is only now containing the wildfires, which have killed dozens of people and left thousands homeless. The worst drought in 100 years and fears of food inflation have forced the government to ban the export of grain.   

To some extent, Putin's penchant for action-man poses reflects recognition of past mistakes. Ten years ago this month, the Russian submarine Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea. At a time when it appeared a rescue mission might still save the 118 crew members aboard, Russia's newly inaugurated president famously refused to cut short his vacation at a Black Sea resort, inviting a firestorm of criticism. Just as the loss to folksy populist Kent Hance for a House seat in 1978 taught George W. Bush that he must never be "out-Christianed or out-good-old-boyed again," so Putin appears ready to prove he is the ultimate man of the people. He has been constantly on television during the wildfire crisis, even as other officials, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, appeared reluctant to admit that anything's amiss.

Yet, all these stunts reveal less about Putin's strength than his country's weakness. Russia remains a nation not of laws but of men, and the public is losing confidence that the men in charge are willing and able to improve their lot. Recent polls have found that 43 percent of Russians don't expect "anything positive" from their prime minister. 56 percent are "unsatisfied with what's happening in the country." As president, Putin eliminated direct election of regional governors in favor of Kremlin appointments. 59 percent of Russians surveyed would like to see that decision reversed. A poll from another agency found that 82 percent say state officials don't respect the law.

Nor do Russians have much reason for faith in the integrity of public institutions. United Russia, the party that holds more than two-thirds of Duma seats, represents little beyond loyalty to Putin. Courts inspire minimal confidence. Russia's media remains far from free.

Putin has enjoyed strong popularity for more than a decade. Though his numbers have fallen, the end of a long hot summer will likely offer him a boost. He'll probably get most of what he wants from next year's legislative elections, and there is no coherent opposition in Russia to block his plans for the presidential vote in 2012 -- whatever those plans may be. Perhaps he'll want his old job back.

But over the longer term, outsiders are left to wonder what a Russia without Putin might look like. Even Russia's resident superhero can't live forever, and it's not at all clear what personality or institution will have the public credibility to take his place.

Willis Sparks is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Global Macro practice.