By Paul Goble
Most countries suffering from an economic situation as dire as that of the Russian Federation would see public support turn massively away from the incumbent administration and major political as well as economic protests as well. But in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, neither has happened.
While there has been a small decline in public backing for the Kremlin leader and there have been some narrowly cast economic protests, there hasn’t been the decline in the one and the rise in the other to a political level that most analysts would normally expect. What is behind this “Russian paradox”?
Following the release of a new study by the Presidential Academy of Economics and State Service which shows that the situation is quite dire (ranepa.ru/images/docs/monitoring/ek-monitoring/monitoring-sept-okt-2016.pdf), Andrey Polunin of the Svobodnaya pressa portal queried three experts as to why things are as they are (svpressa.ru/society/article/159039/).
Vladimir Rimsky, a sociologist at the INDEM Foundation, says that most Russians consider that “they have adapted to the crisis and that things are not so bad.” And they believe that the government has “a very large number of levers” which it will use to improve things – or at least “in the depths of their souls, they simply hope for better.”
At the same time, many are pessimistic about the future because they don’t see any obvious solutions to the lack of growth, difficulties university graduates face in finding jobs, and the problems of pensioners. Even those who appear to be well situated fear that as the situation gets worse, they could lose their position and be forced to take a lower-paying one.
But because of their fears of losing their jobs or worse, such people are afraid “to express their opinion and to show initiative …. That is especially obvious in science, education and in part in marketing.” Consequently, there is no one to serve as the leader of a movement around which those who are suffering can coalesce.
And thus, Rimsky says, there will not be any serious protests because there needs to be a social and political basis for that; and in Russia, this is lacking. Russians know that they need to work through parties, but the parties for various reasons won’t promote their views and wait for orders from above.
What this means, the sociologist continues, is that “the probability of acts of dissatisfaction is increasing in Russia. But these will be actions” of specific groups, seeking specific benefits for themselves, rather than promoting broader political goals. And these actions will be premised on getting the attention of the authorities rather than challenging them.
At most, these could grow into street protests like those in 2011-2012; but right now, there is little prospect of that, Rimsky concludes.
Sergey Markov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Political Research, says that “the Russian economy has reached ‘bottom’ and is frozen in that position.” The usual logic is that “the social sphere falls later than the economy, but its fall continues even after the economy stabilizes.” And thus it is quite likely that the standard of living of Russians will fall more.
In most countries most of the time, that would have political consequences. But not in Russia. The Russian population, Markov argues, “has become accustomed to unpredictability in economic life.” It remembers the fall of the 1990s and the remarkable rise of the early years of this century. And it knows that declines now have only reduced some of the gains.
“The classical model of a crisis develops this way,” he says. “First arrives a financial crisis, then it grows into an economic one, then into a social one and finally into a political one.” But “the logic of the current Russian crisis is completely different.” People see the causes as being “absolutely from abroad.” And so they don’t blame the leadership; they support it.
“The majority of the population of Russia considers the collective West rather than the president and government responsible for their declining standard of living. Precisely this explains the paradox in which a fall in the level of living and a growth of social tension leads to the growth of support for the Kremlin,” Markov continues.
And Yekaterinburg political scientist Fyodor Krasheninnikov says that “there is no direction connection between the dissatisfaction of society and political activity. For people to display political activity, they must have the opportunity to do so … [But] today in Russia there is no such space.”
“Yes,” he says, “in the case of a radical deterioration of live spontaneous risings may occur on the Russian borderlands and in small cities. But the country is still very far from that. One must beside this clearly understand that the majority of the population of Russia is accustomed to live badly and remembers still worse times in the past.”
The current crisis has hid the middle class hardest because they had gotten used to being able to take vacations in Paris and now do not have that chance, Krasheninnikov says. “But for those who earlier could purchase expensive catchup but today must buy a cheaper brand, the crisis is no problem.”