By Viktoriia Demydova
Recent anti-government rallies in Russia stimulated a wide discussion on the Russian middle class. Its potential in changing the existing system in the country was analyzed from different angles. Western publications tend to see it as a growing power that in the future can change the Russian regime.
Thus, The Economist, which estimates the Russian middle class to comprise 25 percent of the citizens of the country, sees its potential to undermine Putin’s power. Die Welt points at the growing consciousness of the Russian society, and its aspiration toward democracy and legitimate government. The Independent characterized the time following the March presidential elections as the week that changed Russia. My goal is not to stereotype and describe the Russian middle class. In this essay, I would like to answer the main question: Is Russian society powerful and does it bear the potential to change the existing system?
Profile of Russian Society
The surveys of the Russian Levada Center show that in the Moscow rallies, 60 percent of the participants were male and all the age groups were represented equally, slightly dominated by people between 25 and 29 years (31 percent). 62 percent of the participants had obtained a higher education, while 45 percent of them work as specialists in different institutions.
The survey of the same Levada Center conducted among Russian citizens in more than 140 cities shows a 44 percent rate of support for the rallies against the electoral fraud, against 51 percent of those who do not support such actions. The research showed decreasing support for the protests between December 2011 and March 2012: In March 2012, the support constituted 32 percent as opposed to 52 percent of citizens who do not support the mass actions.
At the same time, Russian citizens did not demand the abrogation of the Duma election results: 25 percent expressed the idea that the results should be annulled, while 56 percent did not support this idea. The demand to abrogate the Duma election results also decreased from December to March. Interestingly, 20 percent of people found it difficult to answer this question.
Such unawareness and the absence of a strong political position are demonstrated further. On the question about the necessity to ease the party registration procedure, the answers were distributed equally between supporters and opponents of this, while 32 percent of the respondents found it hard to say. The same picture arose with the question as to the necessity to ease the electoral procedure for parties and lowering the threshold for the Duma election: 31 percent of Russians could not answer the question. At the same time, while 51 percent of the participants of the survey favored the direct election of governors, 26 percent of them could not answer the question. To sum up, these examples demonstrate the unawareness of Russian citizens about the political system of the Russian Federation, the lack of a mature political position, and low support for the changes.
As to the views of Russians about dealing with the country’s problems, the most crucial issues are the economic issues, corruption, social injustice and lack of order in the country. These issues should be paid particular attention during Putin’s next term. At the same time, issues like the development of democracy in the county complemented by the protection of human rights and freedoms, as well as the protection of private property and stimulation of small business earn little attention from Russians. While 59 percent of Russians are concerned about economic growth, 46 percent see the importance of the fight against corruption, 44 percent of the respondents called social justice an issue to be addressed, only 12 percent of them mentioned the necessity to strengthen democracy and 7 percent talked about private property and small business. Russian citizens are concerned with social and economic well-being rather than with the global changes in the Russian political regime. In general, they do not see anyone except Putin being Russian president.
Mighty Power – Potential for Change?
Could the Russian citizens constitute a strong power that will change the existing system? To answer this question, one should analyze the electoral behavior. Votes for Vladimir Putin dominate in all age categories, ranging from 58 percent of people aged 55 and more to 49 percent of the people of 40-54 years. Putin leads among all the educational categories, ranging from 71 percent of votes among people with the (unfinished) secondary education to 53 percent in the higher or unfinished higher educational group. Finally, people of all professional status groups supported Putin. The highest rate of support for the Russian prime minister was found among housewives, 60 percent of which voted for Putin, while the lowest turnout was among businessmen at 30 percent. These numbers show high support for Vladimir Putin, which is unlikely to change in a short time.
Russian society is passive. This can be concluded from the voter turnout rate of the elections. During the 2011 Duma election, it constituted 60.1 percent, while during the March 2012 presidential elections, it reached 65.25 percent. Furthermore, the Russian electorate is marked by pessimism. Thus, according to the Levada Center survey, 54 percent of it does not believe that the rallies can change the situation. VCIOM shows that only 39 percent of the citizens are interested in politics, and for 80 percent of Russians, TV is the primary source of information. Moreover, 53 percent of the respondents expressed their indifference to the protests. The social passivity, pessimism and belief that elections cannot change the situation in the country will prevent Russian society from mobilizing, especially combined with the support for the existing president.
Otherwise, it is noteworthy that the Russian civil society that is the bridge between politics and citizens is weak and underdeveloped. Restricted by governmental regulations, it lacks professionalism. Public actions, rallies and protests are mainly organized through social networks. Finally, up to now, there has been no alternative to Vladimir Putin in the Russian political arena. None of the candidates managed to approach Putin in the recent elections.
To conclude, I do not believe that Russian society in its contemporary situation is a powerful force. Western analysts tend to exaggerate its strength. Russian society is amorphous, unconscious politically, passive and pessimistic. It lacks organized structures that can lead to changes in the country. Economic performance, the fight against corruption and order are the most important issues to Russians, whereas democracy and human rights are not that important to them. Voting behavior demonstrates the support for the existing system. In this regard, Russian society needs a long time to transform into a mature active middle class that bears strong potential for political change. In addition, I believe that the support for the existing system is based on economic performance and strong statehood which is important for the Russians. Under these conditions, Russia may face radical change if the economic development does not satisfy ordinary people and/or if the strong power of the president is undermined by instability. As I stated earlier, I do not believe that these three factors can appear together in the near future.