By LAURA MILLS and LYNN BERRY, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — The success and possible future undoing of President Vladimir Putin lies in the contrast between people like provincial housewife Yekaterina Arsentyeva and Moscow student Kirill Guskov.
In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, Arsentyeva sees Putin as the only man who can ensure her children have a decent future. In the capital, Guskov can't hide his contempt for Russia's leader and the culture of corruption he has overseen: "A fish rots from its head," he fumes.
An Associated Press-GfK poll released Monday reveals a stark divide between Moscow and the rest of Russia over the man who has ruled the country for the past 12 years. A total of 60 percent of Russians maintain a favorable opinion of the president as he begins his third term. In contrast, only 38 percent in the capital — where tens of thousands have joined anti-Putin protests — have a favorable view of him.
The division extends to views on the fairness of elections and the state of the economy, while almost all agree that corruption is among the most serious problems facing Russia today.
The split promises to have profound, albeit still unknown, consequences for the future of the protest movement and of Putin himself. The outcome depends in large part on the economy, which the poll shows is the primary concern of most Russians. While anger over the trampling of democratic rights has brought Muscovites out to protest in droves, any deterioration in living standards could prove the catalyst for protests in the provinces. Pending hikes in utilities prices have the potential to cause broad discontent.
The mood in the hinterlands may also change as more people gain access to the Internet and the social networks that have been crucial to the rise of the protest movement in Moscow and other large cities.
For now, people like the 39-year-old Arsentyeva have no sympathy for the protest movement and the educated, urban professionals who have been its driving force.
"If they don't like our country, why do they live here? Let them go to Europe or America and express their dissatisfaction there," she said. Her hopes are pinned firmly on Putin.
"My husband works in a good company that is growing, we have a stable income, I can easily buy diapers, soap, anything my children need and I don't have to stand in line or run around in search of goods in short supply," said Arsentyeva, who is expecting her second child.
Her views reflect a deep-seated fear of social upheaval and of a return to the turmoil of the 1990s, the decade following the Soviet collapse, when salaries often went unpaid for months and store shelves were thinly stocked.
Nikolai Petrov, who studies Russian regional politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that Putin's popularity should be considered support for the existing order and not for Putin himself. "The majority of Russians are still not ready to change the whole system," Petrov said.
Putin's approval rating hit a high of 81 percent as he wrapped up his second term in 2008, according to the Levada Center, which measures his current overall rating at 60 percent, about the same as the 58 percent registered in the AP-GfK poll. Putin handed over the presidency to his junior partner, Dmitry Medvedev, but as prime minister he remained the dominant player in Russian politics.
Putin's decision in September to reclaim the presidency, followed by his party's victory in a December parliamentary election through what observers said was widespread fraud, set off protests across Russia.
After Putin won the March presidential election with 64 percent of the vote, the protests died away in much of the country except for Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The AP-GfK poll indicates that Putin retains broad support, although only 18 percent expressed a strongly favorable view of him. At the other end of the spectrum, 14 percent expressed a somewhat or strongly unfavorable view. The majority falls in between, passively supportive but some increasingly cynical.
Magomed Abakarov, who works for the government in the North Caucasus city of Makhachkala, voted for Putin, but his support is tepid at best.