Departure of Ukraine’s Yanukovych Holds Lessons for Putin

After months of street protests that had culminated in violence, the Ukrainian parliament voted to impeach President Viktor Yanukovych on February 22nd. Yanukovych had previously sacrificed closer ties with Europe in favour of a pro-Moscow stance and his removal from power provoked a strong military, diplomatic and economic backlash from Russia, as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s project of a ‘Eurasian Union’ of former Soviet states to rival the EU was dealt a potentially terminal blow.
But Russian unease is also likely to be driven by factors that are closer to home, namely the ability of events in Kiev to energise a liberal opposition that saw its own street demonstrations crushed between 2011 and 2013.
It is important to recall that despite some similarities between events in Kiev over the last few months and Moscow over the last few years (such as shared frustration over corruption and a remote governing faction), the Russian protests never expanded far beyond major cities and the urban middle class. There are good reasons for this. In early 2012, 45 percent of Russians told us their economic wellbeing had improved since the fall of communism, whilst 31 percent said society had become more equitable. When they looked forward twenty years, those figures rose to 52 percent and 46 percent respectively. Moreover, 70 percent told us they believed the government was helping make progress on these challenges. To a great extent then, people believe (or at least did in 2012) that the system can deliver for them, lending legitimacy to a social bargain whereby people accept a more authoritarian leadership in exchange for rising wealth and living standards.
However that bargain is threatened by Russia’s weak recent growth thanks to its economic reliance on lower oil prices. Between 2012 and 2014 Russia’s net trust in government (the difference between those who express trust in government and distrust) fell from 36 percent to 13 percent (click to enlarge chart to left). Whilst trust in government rose steadily during the early Putin years, this is the most sustained fall in trust in government recorded. It takes place amid a slowdown in Russia’s fellow emerging markets and means trust in government has reached a nadir not seen since the depth of the global financial crisis in 2009. When we delve deeper (see chart below) we can see that trust among low income workers and those on average incomes – previously the most trusting demographic segments – has fallen sharpest, making them among the least well-disposed to government and creating the potential for an influential alliance for change. And whilst trust among those on ‘very high’ or ‘high’ incomes barely dipped between 2012 and 2014, just 16 percent of Russians in 2013 believed that the rich deserve their wealth, further suggesting social dissatisfactions.
All of this is not to say that Russia is on the cusp of revolution. The Putin regime has been in power far longer than that of Yanukovych and enjoys stable levels of trust among the wealthy and powerful, while many ordinary people appear to believe that they can prosper within the current system. However, the steep decline in trust among those on low and average incomes – who form the bedrock of any stable system – should serve as a warning that the overthrow of Ukraine’s government may well hold lessons for those who rule its giant eastern neighbour.

This post was written by former GlobeScan Research Analyst, Alex Lewis.