An international team of researchers has released an exhaustive look at support for Russiaâs autocratic President Vladimir Putin across several neighboring countries.Ìę
The study, Ìęwas a massive effort.ÌęFrom 2019 to 2020, researchers led by John OâLoughlin at CU Boulder contracted with local polling companies to survey more than 8,400 people face-to-face in six nations: Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Ukraine.Ìę
The teamâs findings give a deep look at the type of people who support Putin, a former KGB spy who once held a photoshoot of himself riding a horse shirtless. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results reveal that Putin is more popular among men than women, and less popular among younger and more educated people.Ìę
âOur research has shown that Putinâs machismo and his authoritarian personality appeal to people who have more close-minded personalities, hold traditional values and donât trust science,â said John OâLoughlin, professor in the and Department of Geography.
In the former Soviet Union, Putin remains a complicated presence.
In Georgia, for example, the survey found that Putin was wildly unpopular, with more than 70% of respondents indicating that they had âno trust at allâ in the leader. He boasted much more favorable ratings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, which have traditionally held close ties with Russia.Ìę
OâLoughlin noted that he and his colleagues conducted the surveys before Russia launched its long and bloody invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The researchers are planning to return to the same respondents in early 2024 to see how the war may have reshaped, or not, their attitudes toward Putin.
They separately conducted phone interviews with hundreds of people living in parts of Ukraine under KyivÌęcontrol in October 2022, and responses show that the . In the country, support for joining NATO, a military alliance including the U.S. and dozens of European nations, soared from 44% to 77% since 2019.
âIt was dramatic,â OâLoughlin said. âWe asked the same people exactly the same questions, and the shift in attitudes was incredible.â
Whether the same shifts will happen in other former Soviet Union nations is less clear. Ìę
âWe have what's called a ânatural experiment,ââ OâLoughlin said. âWe werenât expecting the war in Ukraine, but we can see the effects of the full-scale invasion on peoplesâ attitudes about Putin and Russia and toward the West and NATO.â
Putinâs stamp of approval
Asking people about Putin, however, can be a loaded topic, he added.Ìę
People donât always tell the truth on surveys. In some cases, they may be worried about the consequences. In others, survey respondents merely give researchers the answers they think they want to hear.Ìę
To get around those limitations, OâLoughlin and his colleagues undertook what researchers call an âendorsement experiment.â
During the roughly 45-minute surveys, the team asked participants a seemingly innocuous questionâwhether they supported drilling for oil in the Arctic. For half of the respondents, however, the researchers tacked on an extra caveat: âPresident Putin of Russia strongly favors oil drilling.â
âThe difference between the more neutral question and the question mentioning Putinâs endorsement gives you an idea of his real support,â OâLoughlin said.
It made a difference, too. In Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, the fake Putin endorsement made people less likely to support drilling in the Arctic. The opposite was true in Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Appeal of the âstrong manâ
The findings could provide researchers with clues about why some people find autocratic leaders in the mold of Putin so appealing.Ìę
Researchers, for example, asked the survey respondents if they agreed with the statement: âHusbands should make the important decisions in a marriage.â
People who said yes were significantly more likely to support Putin than those who disagreed. The same was true for people who agreed with the statement: âI see myself as conventional and uncreative.â
âOur biggest surprise was that these results were consistent across the different countries in our study,â OâLoughlin said. âItâs the same people in every place who like or dislike Putin.â
OâLoughlin noted that, in Russia, Putin has tapped into nostalgia for the former Soviet Unionâan era that many people in the region, and especially older generations, still view as a time of relative peace and stability.
âIn the U.S., thatâs easy to dismiss, but many people want security, peace and quiet,â OâLoughlin said. âThey believe that if you donât have a strong, authoritarian leader, the whole society is going to collapse.â
Coauthors of the new study include Andrew Linke, a former doctoral student at CU Boulder now at the University of Utah, Gerald Toal at Virginia Tech and Kristin Bakke at University College London.Ìę
The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.