Russian President Vladimir Putin took a beating in the domestic and international press last week over his handling of the Kursk submarine tragedy, but political experts and sociologists say the crisis is unlikely to have a long-lasting impact on the president’s relationship with the Russian people.
Despite initial charges of inaction and a cold-blooded response to the plight of the 118 men trapped on the sunken sub, observers say the reservoir of voter trust Putin had built up will provide him with a soft landing. As evidence, many cited a new VTsIOM poll taken during the crisis showing his approval rating still hovering around 65 percent.
"He hasn’t really lost any support," said Georgy Satarov, a former adviser to Boris Yeltsin and now head of the INDEM Foundation. "There won’t be any great loss. He has made considerable mistakes, but they have been forgiven. He has a comfortable margin for error – the trust voters put in him. This isn’t political trust, though – it is the faith of the people in their hero-leader."
Still, political analysts were unanimous in the view that no matter what the impact on Putin’s rating, both the president and his team made serious mistakes in handling the crisis. The public might look the other way and find justification for a still-popular leader, they say, but that doesn’t absolve Putin of responsibility.
"He should have come back from his holiday and showed his concern and support," said Yury Kobaladze, a former chief of the SVR (Russian foreign intelligence service) press bureau and now managing director of Renaissance Capital. "That he didn’t is his mistake and that of his team."
But Kobaladze doesn't think Putin should have gone to Severomorsk, the site of the tragedy. He agreed with the president's explanation that being there would only have hampered the rescuers.
However, he said, the contrast of Putin relaxing in sunny Sochi while 118 men were trapped at the bottom of the Barents Sea was a public relations disaster.
"How could they have shown him with his glowing tan; with smiling academics; and in short-sleeved summer shirts?" Kobaladze asked. "Obviously the meeting had been prearranged. But so what!"
Kobaladze said the behavior of Putin's officials was a hangover from the Soviet era – the thinking that: "The boss is on holiday; it’s not worth bothering him and we’ll make do somehow."
One senior Kremlin official who accompanied Putin to Sochi told The Russia Journal that the advisers did not immediately realize the full extent of the tragedy.
"From where we were, everything looked different," the official said. "The military said they were working out the situation, that rescue work was under way and so on."
But Kobaladze didn't accept the lack of professionalism, particularly because, he said, a proper handling of the situation could actually have brought Putin some political dividends.
"I headed the press service of the foreign intelligence service for 10 years. I know from the inside what a sensitive and difficult a job it is. But what has happened there was a failure. It was lamentable.
"They had a splendid opportunity to strengthen the president’s authority," he said. "Putin could have come across as a wise, understanding and sympathetic leader. But he lost that chance, and he lost a part of what he had."
That aside, in explaining the lack of political fallout for Putin, INDEM's Satarov harked back to the very beginning of the 1990s when a now-disgraced Yeltsin was at the height of his popularity.
"Remember Yeltsin in 1990-91? Whatever happened, a justification was always found; it was always enemies, attacks and so on," Satarov said. "The same with Putin. Whatever he does, his version of events will be right and will inspire the greatest trust. This is a psychological phenomenon – belief in a leader, a hero."
Alexei Grazhdankin, a sociologist and deputy director of the respected VTsIOM polling institute, said that even the small drop in Putin’s rating reflected in some surveys was linked more to the president’s inactivity than to his callousness or lack of concern for the victims of the Kursk. Russians, he said, were more willing to forgive insensitivity than indecisiveness.
"His behavior in this situation didn’t have a direct impact on the basic source of his support – voters’ hopes that he will improve their lives," said Grazhdankin. "People aren’t looking for humanity from him; they’re looking for state decisions."
Grazhdankin conceded that in this tragedy, not only the authorities had adhered to a Soviet system of values, but the people, too.
"We’re not used to considering losses," Grazhdankin said of the public's reaction to the Kursk and to conflicts like the one in Chechnya. "Perhaps we’ve become callous, but certainly few here place a high value on human life."
He said that to a large extent, people were more worried by whether or not Putin would improve their lives. "[Concern for human life] is important in a prosperous society, but unfortunately, it’s not yet the case here," he said. "If Putin has half the elite shot, but living standards rise, people will carry him in their hands."
Nonetheless, many experts said they still thought that the Kremlin would have to do something to smooth over the negative effect of Putin’s behavior and show some decisiveness.
In an interview with state-owned RTR television, Putin hinted at something to that effect. He assailed those "with villas on the French and Spanish coast," a thinly veiled reference to Boris Berezovsky – who had just set up a fund and collected over a million dollars for the Kursk victims’ families – and other media owners.
"This would be the saddest thing," said Kobaladze. "It would be dreadful if the authorities divert attention to the ‘hostile’ press and start clamping down on the media.
"The only achievement of democracy in Russia has been freedom of the press," he added. "They have to realize it’s better to have the media make mistakes than to gag it and not let it show its own mistakes."
Aida Shakaryan of the ROMIR polling center said she thought that time would be Putin’s best ally in this situation.
"Everything is forgotten with time – all the more so as Russians have such difficult lives today that their own problems keep their thoughts more occupied than would any propaganda maneuver. For the most part, Pushkin Square has already been forgotten."
However, Satarov said that, though there would be no immediate impact on Putin, presidential errors build up in a cumulative fashion, and once an irrational belief in the hero leader evaporates, the public mood changes quickly.
"When the belief disappears, the accumulation of mistakes will come to the fore in people's minds," he said, although he added that while the hero status remains, anything is possible.
"Let's take the April 1993 referendum. That came after a year of a severe reform. But more than 50 percent of voters continued to support Yeltsin. So even economic factors don't initially affect a hero."
"But what is necessary for such support to continue is for the hero to work wonders," Satarov added. "While Putin manages to do this, people will accept Chechnya and the economy. They will find excuses for Putin in his boyars; in enemy plots and so on."