Staunton, March 27 – Even though polls show Vladimir Putin’s approval rating close to its highest level ever, his Anschluss of Crimea is upsetting many citizens of the Russian Federation, with ethnic Russians at least so far concerned mostly about its cost and non-Russians upset about the rights Moscow says it is defending in Crimea but isn’t giving them.
Russian media yesterday highlighted a Levada Center poll showing that public approval of Vladimir Putin is now at almost its highest level ever, a trend that many suggested represented enthusiasm for what the Kremlin leader is doing in Ukraine or a general rallying round the flag at a time of tension with other countries.
But the survey did not tap the depth of this support or indicate how febrile it may prove to be. That Putin’s poll numbers may change as the Ukrainian crisis proceeds is suggested by rumblings in various parts of the country, rumblings that highlight the divide between that country’s ethnic Russians and the quarter of the population that is not ethnically Russian.
In at least some predominantly Russian areas, people are complaining about Crimea as they did about the Sochi Olympics, arguing that Moscow is spending so much money on one of its projects that it does not have funds to pay for new housing and other civic services in their home areas.
According to Maksim Kalashnikov on Forum-MSK.org yesterday, Novosibirsk residents have been demanding that the city replace 105 barracks-type housing blocks but officials have said that there is no money to do so. At a public hearing, one woman said that Moscow has “billions” for Sochi or Crimea but apparently no money for her and her fellow residents.
These are “terrible words,” Kalashnikov says, and he suggests that “today they are being pronounced throughout the entire country.” Such words do not mean that Russians oppose helping their co-ethnics in Crimea and elsewhere, but they show that Russians are increasingly angry that the center is spending money on its projects and not on theirs.
What makes this development especially interesting is that the anger many felt about the wasteful spending on Sochi is being invoked in discussions about Crimea. By some estimates, the Kremlin spent 50 times on the Olympiad what Novosibirsk spends each year. Depending on the future course of Ukrainian events, it may spend far more there.
If the issue of Crimea and Ukraine comes to be defined as a question of who gets what, then however enthusiastic Russians may be now about what Putin has done, that support is likely to erode as they reflect on what this latest Kremlin move is costing them. That happened in the case of Sochi, and there is every indication that it will happen with Crimea.
Meanwhile, reaction to the events in Ukraine among the non-Russian portion of the Russian Federation population appears to be somewhat different, with some among the non-Russians discussing Ukraine not in terms of cost but in terms of what it says about Moscow’s treatment of them as opposed to ethnic Russians abroad.
Some non-Russians, one Chuvash commentator has suggested, are angry at the Ukrainians because the Ukrainians do not seem to understand just how much better they had it as citizens of an independent country than do non-Russian groups inside the Russian Federation.
Unlike the Chuvash, the Chuvash say, Ukrainians have “their own state, the opportunity to get an education in Ukrainian and much else which we do not have.” And at the same time, Moscow is justifying its actions in Ukraine by citing the need to protect the rights of ethnic Russians that it does not protect for ethnic Russians or non-Russians at home.
Some of the Chuvash anger at what has happened in Ukraine both before and since the Russian intervention is simple envy: the Ukrainians stood up and took their rights, and the Chuvash and other non-Russians within the Russian Federation have not yet done so, the blogger says.
But there is more going on than that. According to the Chuvash commentator, what is happening in Ukraine is especially instructive for non-Russians inside the Russian Federation. The Maidan transformed the “Ukrainian people” into a “Ukrainian political nation,” one that includes all the ethnic groups inside Ukraine.
That development too is still absent in the republics of the Russian Federation or indeed the Russian Federation as a whole, he says, adding that it is time to stop envying the Ukrainians and start emulating them. After all, the former have “lost their statehood,” while the latter “have only strengthened theirs.”