In the Thick of It

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Post-Mutiny: Trust in Prigozhin Below Margin of Error, Support for Peace Talk Grows

July 07, 2023
Simon Saradzhyan and Ingrid Burke Friedman

What made Yevgeny Prigozhin rebel? We have seen multiple explanations offered, including his outspoken hatred for Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov; his evident reluctance to give up control of his PMC Wagner to the Defense Ministry; unspecified personal financial pressures; and his increasing political ambitions. The latter have been most probably boosted by the fact that Prigozhin emerged in May 2023 as one of Russia’s 10 most trusted political figures, as measured by the Levada Center. Asked to name “several” political figures whom they most trusted, 4% of Russians named the mercenary boss. A month prior, that figure had stood at 1%. [1]

The swift rise of Prigozhin’s star on the Russian political scene didn’t last long, however, and, as Levada’s subsequent polls indicate, his decision to rebel holds most of the blame for that. A poll conducted during a period of several days [2] surrounding the June 23-24 mutiny revealed that only 2% of respondents had mentioned him when asked to name political figures they trusted. [3] It bears noting that Prigozhin’s result falls within the poll’s margin of error, which is 1.5%-3.4%. That the failed rebellion was the reason for Russians’ dramatic decline of trust in Prigozhin follows from separate polling the Levada Center conducted between June 28 and July 1. Some 36% of the respondents of that poll said their opinion of Prigozhin deteriorated after the mutiny, while 5% said their outlook on him had improved.

 

Asked about the feelings they experienced because of the mutiny, many of the poll’s respondents cited “anxiety, depression” (28%); “fear, horror, shock” (21%); or “anger, indignation” (21%), while a fifth (22%) said the rebellion didn’t elicit any special feelings at all. Asked why they thought Prigozhin had rebelled, some 21% of respondents blamed the Wagner chief's “personal ambitions,” 20% pointed to his “justified claims” regarding the defense ministry and other authorities, and 17% blamed it on the conflict between the PMCs and the Russian Defense Ministry.

Levada is not the only Russian pollster to register a decline in positive views of Prigozhin. Russian Field, a private polling firm, conducted surveys on Russians’ views of Prigozhin shortly before and shortly after the mutiny. Between June 16-19, the pollster asked respondents about their views of Prigozhin’s role in the “military operation” in Ukraine, at which point 55% voiced approval and 14% disapproved. Asked the same question between June 26-30, those figures shifted to 29% and 39% respectively. [4]

In addition to asking respondents to name political figures they found trustworthy, in its June 28-July 1 poll Levada identified specific individuals and asked respondents to rate their trustworthiness in the aftermath of the mutiny.

Asked about Prigozhin, some 22% of the respondents said they trusted him, while 50% said they did not. Shoigu was trusted by 43%, but not by 45%, according to the poll. In contrast to these antagonists, Putin enjoyed a trust level of 76% following the mutiny, with only 20% expressing distrust. Moreover, a significant majority of Russians do not expect Putin’s grip on the country to weaken, the poll found. When asked about the consequences of the mutiny, 32% of the respondents said they expected the Russian state to consolidate and strengthen while 51% expected “everything to remain as before.”

 

Demographics have borne a strong correlation to Russians’ views of Prigozhin, according to both pollsters. After the mutiny, Levada asked respondents whether they believe that Prigozhin continues to enjoy considerable support among the Russian population. The youngest — the 18-24 age bracket — were most optimistic about the mercenary leader’s popularity, with 39% rating his support among Russians as “very” (8%) or “pretty” (31%) high. Those aged 55 and above were the most pessimistic, with 54% describing his support as “pretty small” (20%) or practically nonexistent (34%). Russian Field found in its June 26-30 survey that support for Prigozhin’s role in Ukraine was strongest among respondents aged 30-44 (33%), and weakest among those aged 60 and up (50%). The latter pollster also revealed a significant gender divide, finding that among men, 37% had favorable views of Prigozhin’s role in the Ukraine war, while 34% had negative views. Among women, those figures were 22% and 43% respectively.

Similarly, both pollsters found links between sources of information respondents relied on for updates about the mutiny and their views of Prigozhin, with both finding that negative views seemed most prominent among those who relied on TV news, and positive views tending to be more likely among social media users and YouTube watchers. An obvious explanation for this trend is the level of control Russian authorities retain over television news, and the relative difficulty containing messaging on user-generated content platforms. In an analysis of Levada’s survey results, this pollster’s director Denis Volkov said: “As one might expect, most Russians learned about the mutiny from television (44%), meaning it was immediately given an interpretation by the authorities. The older the person, the more likely they were to have turned to the television for news.”

If there is a silver lining in all this, it has to be the increase in the number of Russians who hope for a peaceful end to their country’s war of aggression against Ukraine. One, of course, needs to be aware of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, but we could not help noting that the share of Russians voicing support for peace talks had risen to 53% when Levada conducted its June 22-28 poll, as compared with 45% the month before. That’s a positive development, even if it turns out to be short-lived.

Footnotes 

[1] That said, even at his peak in popularity, Prigozhin was still trusted 10 times less than his ex-patron Vladimir Putin (the latter of whom received 40% in April 2023 and 42% in May 2023). It bears noting that gauging public opinion in Russia is no simple task, particularly in wartime. Well-documented crackdowns on public criticisms of the war — including surging treason charges and the shuttering of independent media outlets — inevitably stifle expression of views. Studies have shown that Russians opposed to Putin are more afraid than their pro-Kremlin counterparts to express their opinions openly in public polling.

[2] The poll was conducted between June 22 and June 28, while the mutiny took place on June 23-24; thus some of these results were collected before the mutiny materialized, and before substantial information about its severity was available.

[3] If we were to compare popular trust in Prigozhin with that of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, it would become evident that such trust offers no protection from the Russian state. Navalny enjoyed the same level of trust in the months prior to his poisoning, allegedly by Russian security services, in August 2020 (4% in April 2020) as Prigozhin did one month before the June 2023 mutiny (4% in May 2023), but that did not stop Putin’s regime from allegedly poisoning him, and ultimately jailing him.

[4] These studies were conducted by telephone, among approximately 1,600 respondents each, from across Russia. According to the pollster, the margin of error does not exceed 2.45%.

Photo shared by Fargoh via Wikimedia Commons, under the Public Domain.