13.02.23 Navalny Review

Navalny Forgotten: the politician's significant decline in the politician’s visibility and recognition over the past 11 months appears to be yet another paradox of wartime public opinion

The drop in Alexei Navalny's 'recognisability' over the course of the last year, from 86% to 77%, appears to be yet another paradox in wartime opinion polling. Recognition of Navalny has fallen the most among younger respondents. At the same time, 90% of respondents were also aware that Navalny is in prison. Among those polled by the Levada Center, the number of those who approve of Navalny has also fallen, from 20% in 2020-2021 to 9% in January 2023. However, over the past year, both the share of individuals who approve and disapprove of Navalny has declined. In general, the deterioration in respondents' attitudes towards Navalny is consistent with a broader trend evident in wartime polls. Russian public opinion appears to be both more conservative and loyal to the government than before the war, and assessments of the current state of affairs are inexplicably optimistic. The possible reasons for this shift is the subject of fierce debate.

According to a January poll by the Levada Center, only 9% of respondents said they held a positive view of Alexei Navalny, 57% disapproved of his activities, and 23% had never heard of him. Following the politician’s poisoning in September 2020, the Levada Center began to regularly poll Russians about their attitudes towards Navalny. When Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021, after seeking medical treatment in Germany, 20% of respondents said they approved of his work, 12% had difficulty answering the question, and 50-56% expressed disapproval. 

Moreover, in January 2021, only 13% of those polled said they had no idea who he was or had never heard of him. Corresponding to this, at that time, Navalny had an 85% recognition rate in Russia. 

In fact, Navalny is the first politician in Russia (and possibly the world) to achieve this level of recognition in a large country where not only did he lack access to regular appearances on national television, but his name was practically forbidden. Navalny's popularity had increased from 40% in 2013 to 65% in 2016. Polls taken in July 2021 and February 2022 (during the early stages of the war) confirmed the earlier 85% recognition rate. 

The paradox of current polling is that Navalny's recognisability rating has dropped by ten percentage points. The conclusion that might be drawn from this data is that 10% of Russians who knew about Navalny 11 months ago have now forgotten who he is. Almost all social groups demonstrated some increase in 'unrecognisability'. This drop in recognition was most significant among people with lower levels of education and income, which was to be expected (they were less likely to recognise Navalny in earlier polling). However, when examining the differences between different age cohorts, the most significant increase was observed among the young — ‘unrecognisability’ increased by 9-12 % among respondents aged 18-39. This seems somewhat bizarre as, in earlier polling, this age group was more likely to recognise Navalny than people from older groups. But, nevertheless, the majority of Navalny's supporters remain concentrated in this group, while, in Moscow, his approval rating is unchanged from last year, standing close to 100%. It is also notable that the proportion of respondents who knew about Navalny’s incarceration had increased from 82 percent in February 2022 to 90 percent. 

The percentage of Levada-Center respondents who express disapproval of Navalny has remained relatively stable, ranging from 56% to 62%. And, in January 2023, this figure was slightly lower than it had been in 2021 or February 2022. It appears as though both groups — those who approve and those who disapprove of Navalny and his actions — have shrunk. There are three socio-demographic factors that seem to influence Navalny’s popularity: age, respondents' primary sources of information, and their attitude towards President Putin. Thus, the proportion of Navalny supporters aged 18-24 (14%) is twice as high as the number in the 55+ age group (7%). Among those who disapprove of President Putin, 30% support Navalny (this figure is the same as it was in 2022; in 2021 it stood at 40%). 

‘Do you approve or disapprove of Alexei Navalny's activities?’ % of respondents

The drop in support for Navalny among those polled, as well as the hardening of their stance towards him (59% said the court verdict against Navalny was fair, compared to 44% in February 2022), corresponds with general trends observable in the polls conducted by the Levada Center since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As we have previously discussed elsewhere, the sentiments and preferences of the Russian public appear to be significantly more conservative, while approval of the authorities and optimism regarding the domestic situation in Russia appear to be unusually high when compared to the responses from pre-war polls. For example, those polled made more positive assessments of Russia's economic situation in this most recent survey than they did in 2021, when the economy was flourishing. Furthermore, traditional Russian fears of a world war, disease, and death were 7-10 percentage points lower in 2022 than they have been historically.

Denis Volkov, the Director of Levada Center, attributes this to a broader 'rally around the flag' effect (‘the improvement in presidential and government ratings in February-March 2022 was accompanied by a more general rise in optimism, enthusiasm, confidence in the future, and hoorah-patriotism’). Other experts have identified changes in the 'climate of opinion' as a result of increased social and repressive pressure on 'dissenters,' which has resulted in a shift in the sample, since potentially critical respondents are more reluctant to talk to pollsters. It should be noted that in March 2022, answers to the Levada Center's question ‘Can you talk freely about your opinions of the policies pursued by the country's leadership?’ showed that 42% of those who approved of Putin and only 18% of those who disapproved responded ‘Yes, everywhere and always.’ And, vice versa, 8% of those who approved of the President and 31% who disapproved chose the answer ‘No (afraid or feeling uncomfortable)’. With such a disparity in the perceptions of the 'climate of opinion,' it is difficult to determine a consistent response rate among those who support and those who oppose the Kremlin's policies.