By Paul Goble
A new poll conducted by the Levada Center finds that Russians are more angry about what they see as growing differences between the rich and everyone else in their country than they are about ethnic or religious differences and tensions among the population (levada.ru/2016/06/27/tochki-raznoglasij-v-obshhestve/).
That is not to say that Russians do not see ethnic or religious differences as a problem but rather at a time of economic crisis, they are more focused on economic issues and the differences between the behavior of the very wealthy and the rest of the population are more immediately obvious, experts say (rufabula.com/news/2016/06/29/social-problems).
Three out of four Russians (76 percent) now say that they sense strong tensions between rich and poor, and four out of five (82 percent) indicate that these tensions could spark conflicts. At the same time, however, only half of those (41 percent) said they felt that such tension was currently “’very strong.’”
More importantly, the share of Russians saying that such tensions are “’very strong’” has risen from 36 percent in 2009 near the start of the current economic crisis to the current level. And Russians remain agitated by ethnic and religious differences: 52 percent say that they feel tensions between people of different nationalities and believe they could spark conflicts. Forty-eight percent say the same about religious differences.
Anastasiya Bashkatova, the deputy economics editor of “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” unpacks these new data and concludes that rising concerns about social class tension reflect the relative decline in the incomes of Russia’s middle class rather than changes in the relationship between the very rich and the very poor (ng.ru/economics/2016-06-29/1_poverty.html).
According to experts with whom she talked, the Gini coefficient in Russia, which measures the incomes of the top ten percent of the population as compared to the bottom ten percent, has actually declined since the start of the crisis. Other comparisons of this type confirm the same pattern, Bashkatova says.
But she notes something very important: Those patterns are true only if one compares the situation now with that of ten years ago or more. If one considers a shorter time period, “the picture is different,” with the Gini coefficient rising since the start of this year and income differentiation increasing. That is what this poll is capturing.
She cites the conclusions of Lyudmila Presnyakova of the Public Opinion Foundation, who says that those who have suffered least from the crisis are those at the very bottom of the class structure, those who “don’t have enough money even for clothes.” And that means, she continues, “the relationship between the richest and poorest hasn’t changed, but the middle is becoming poorer, although it is not yet in the situation of the poorest.”
Nina Kozlova of the FinEkspertiza company offers an additional perspective. She notes that in some sectors income inequality has increased such as in the fishing industry while in others like social services it has remained the same or even decreased relative to where it was before the crisis.
But Andrey Lyushin of Loko Bank probably provides the best explanation for the new numbers. He says that anyone can see differences of wealth if he or she simply takes a walk because now some people are driving luxury cars than are “100 times” the price of the kind of automobiles others have.
When times are tough or when the government cuts back on subsidies or increases the cost of services, that matters more to people, and, he suggests, they feel such income differentiation more strongly.