Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of popularity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that mirrors his approval rating at home in Russia, a new poll has found. Most residents of these impoverished post-Soviet states wish to join his Eurasian Union. America and Barack Obama, on the other hand, fare poorly in the region.
In Kyrgyzstan, 90 percent of respondents express either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the Russian president. Fewer than 60 percent say the same about their own president, Almazbek Atambayev; 26 percent voice confidence in Barack Obama, according to the poll, released last week by Toronto-based M-Vector Consulting, and 35.3 percent in Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In Tajikistan, 85 percent proclaim confidence in Putin, 26.5 percent in Obama, and 31.1 in Xi. (By comparison, in July 85 percent of Russians said they approve of Putin, according to the Levada Center in Moscow.) M-Vector did not undertake the politically sensitive task of measuring support for Tajikistan’s authoritarian strongman, Emomali Rakhmon.
M-Vector interviewed 1,021 adults in Kyrgyzstan and 1,077 in Tajikistan by telephone in late June and early July for the poll, part of its Central Asia Barometer series. The poll has a margin of error of 3.2 points and a confidence level of 95 percent. (The pollster shared the results with EurasiaNet.org by email.)
Putin’s Eurasian Union is almost as popular as he is, the poll found. In Kyrgyzstan, 71.2 percent say their country should join; 8 percent say they are not sure. In Tajikistan, 80.3 percent favor joining; 13.5 percent cannot say.
Kyrgyzstan is slowly moving to join the Eurasian Union, while Tajik officials are non-committal. It is not a surprise, though, that their populations are so keen. Both countries’ economies rely heavily on remittances from migrant laborers. In Tajikistan migrants contribute the equivalent of over half of GDP; in Kyrgyzstan 31 percent. Moreover, by regularly changing legislation and deportinggastarbeiters during times of political tension, Russia has encouraged migrants and their families to fear what will happen should their countries not join.
Tajiks and Kyrgyz also see Russia as the most powerful country in the world. In Kyrgyzstan, 85.1 percent of respondents express confidence in the ability of Russia to “solve world problems.” Only 27.9 percent say the same of the United States. In Tajikistan the results are 79.8 and 40.6 percent respectively.
M-Vector President Yury Gerasimchuk sees Russian media as a “major factor” in the results.
“Ninety percent of the media that people in Central Asia consume are Russian media, which are totally controlled by the Kremlin. Every day people watch Russian TV channels, which are pro-Putin and completely against the U.S. and the West, and they believe what they see,” explains the Bishkek-born pollster. “People compare him with their national leaders and the latter lose. They dream of having guy like Putin.”
The Eurasian Union has been pilloried in the West as – in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – a “move to re-Sovietize the region.” But that’s exactly what makes the union so popular, Gerasimchuk says: People want to be closer to Russia.
Many also broadly support the Kremlin’s line on events in Ukraine – Russia state media has consistently said fascists have taken control of Kiev – though more Kyrgyz than Tajiks have fallen into line here.
In Kyrgyzstan, 66.9 percent of respondents believe “extremists” ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in February. Despite the parallels to Kyrgyzstan’s own 2010 uprising, only 11.30 percent characterize the Maidan events as a “fair change of power that met the demands and interests of the people of Ukraine.” Almost 73 percent support Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea. Tajikistan is more split: 32 percent call Yanukovych’s ouster fair, while 37.8 percent consider it an extremist coup. Overall, 66.8 percent of Tajiks support Russia’s annexation of Crimea.