By Paul Goble
Russians are increasingly alienated both from the intellectual class which they sense does not like them and from the powers that be who enrich themselves but neither respect nor assist the population, a trend that Aleksandr Tsipko suggests may be “more terrible” than the fearsome Russian revolt.
In an essay in yesterday’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Tsipko, one of Moscow’s most prominent social commentators, argues that the improvements in the lives of Russians over the last decade have sharpened rather than reduced this alienation, something he suggests few at the top of the Russian political system understand (www.ng.ru/ideas/2010-06-29/9_bunt.html).
Neither the Russian intelligentsia nor the Russian powers that be understand this because they are transfixed by a fear of and opposition to the Russian “revolt” they are always talking about and consequently do not understand that the situation is changing in Russia in ways that make such a revolt unlikely but are creating new threats.
“The new, post-Soviet intelligentsia” in particular, Tsipko writes, need to recognize that there has always been a gap “not only between the powers that be and the people but also between the people and the intelligentsia,” especially now when ordinary Russians see the latter as “talking heads” on television who clearly do not have any love for the people.
But at the same time, he writes, “the powers that be do not see” that “life and post-communist Russia are changing” in ways that undermine their calculations. If a decade ago, it was enough to provide sufficiency and order because of the experiences of the 1990s, Tsipko says, now, ordinary Russians are offended by the yawning divides in income levels.
“As soon as an individual breaks out of poverty,” the Moscow commentator says, “he begins to think more about this own human worth, about the reality that he in fact is an individual human being just like those who purchase yachts for a million.” And that individual begins to ask questions about why some people are able to do that when he cannot.
According to Tsipko, “the special feature of the present situation and its real danger” is that the differences in incomes have become so large and so obvious to the population that they are promoting “an active ferment in the spiritual and political life” of the Russian people even if the powers that be have so far largely ignored this.
No longer are ordinary Russians concerned about whether they will be paid or get their pensions; now, they want to get more. And they know that their incomes are a pittance “in comparison with the reported incomes of the business elite, the bureaucrats, and the deputies” who rule over them.
“Even simply people who have never travelled abroad know that there in the West, there is no crime like [in Russia], there is no such drug abuse, and that there people are respected more.” Some in the expert community recognize this, Tsipko continues, and they are prepared to say openly that “our powers that be do not love the people.”
In forcing officials to declare their incomes, President Dmitry Medvedev has only exacerbated “the strong alienation of the people” from the powers that be because “in using Western mechanisms of the struggle with corruption, our new powers that be did not consider that the post-Soviet individual is different from his Western counterpart.”
That is, Tsipko says, the Russian in contrast to people abroad, is convinced that all this income and wealth are the result of illegal actions, something that further delegitimizes the political system that made such things possible. This, “our new post-communist powers that be do not understand” because they focus on themselves rather than on society as a whole.
Thus, these elites can only be pleased by the way in which Vladimir Putin saved the Russian currency and banking system during the recent crisis, “but at the same time, they need to remember that about 80 percent of our population in general does not have banking accounts and savings and lives from payday to payday and from pension check to pension check.”
Given that divide, “the new moral-political situation [in Russia] is becoming a serious test for the current powers that be.” With each passing month, Tsipko argues, “our people are ceasing to evaluate their well being and their place in society in comparison with the misfortunes and deprivations of the 1990s,” something on which the elites still regularly invoke.
Instead, ordinary Russians see around them “only those who today have more than they do,” something that has the effect of reducing the relevance for them and hence for the Russian political system as a whole of “the electoral, political and moral value of the real achievements” of the last decade.
“Even ‘stability’” and the “power vertical” which brought it into being, Tsipko says, are “now conceived not as a good thing but rather as a repetition of the ‘stagnation’ of the Brezhnev era.” And just as at many points in the past, Russians are again turning against those who brought them what they said they most wanted.
According to Tsipko, Russians now “want not simply stability and predictability in the powers that be as they did ten years ago but stability which guarantees the personal security of all citizens and not only those has the regime protected. Now, they want respect for the individual independently of his success in the field of entrepreneurship.”
“Now,” he continues, Russians “want not only the liberation of the Kremlin from the power of the oligarchs … but an understandable relationship between the incomes of oligarchs big business and their real contribution to the development of the national economy as well as one between the incomes of the oligarchs and those of ordinary citizens.”
Demands for justice, “frozen by the chaos of the 1990s,” are reemerging, he notes, but there is a catch. “there is no path back to socialism,” as even the KPRF won’t talk about “a new confiscation” of property. But at the same time, “the powers that be are afraid to begin a more active policy of income redistribution.”
But when Putin says that “it is impossible to introduce in Russia a progressive income tax,” even his supporters are put off. After all, “what kind of ‘a power vertical’ is it which is not in a position to guarantee the most important thing – the support of the budget through the collection of taxes?”
And that in turn reveals “a new and the most dangerous challenge for the powers that be.” Not only can they not maintain themselves by counting on support for stabilization alone, but “there is already no chance to preserve the former separation of politics from economics,” something that will require giving capitalism “a normal human face.”
The Russian people “and the new middle class in a sharper form are interested in reap steps by the powers that be directed toward the humanization and improvement of life in the new Russia.” And it is in the clash between those interests and those of the powers that be that lies “the entire complicity and difficulty of the problem.
“The supporters of liberalization and of ‘political modernization are defending to the death the capitalist system established by Yeltsin and do not want to hear demands for justice. But the critics of ‘criminal capitalism’ do not take into consideration the demand for changes in policy,” change in the direction of democracy.”
Today, Tsipko says, “dissatisfaction with the powers that be is leading to indifference, to internal alienation both from the powers that be and from politics as such.” And that development, the Moscow commentator says, has led him to conclude that while “a revolt is terrible,” “the current collapse of society with its deepening alienation … is also dangerous.”
Consequently, it is a good thing that the current radical opposition, made up of those who were not able to maintain themselves at the heights of power in Yeltsin’s time, has no political chances.” But at the same time, “the fact that we in fact do not have an opposition or what is more important a demand for one is also dangerous.”