Baku, April 28 – Whether Russia has a middle class is one of the most highly charged issues in political and intellectual life there, with some insisting that rising incomes in recent years have led to the emergence of such a group while others argue that incomes alone do not a middle class make or provide the political benefits such a class is supposed to confer.
Now entering this debate is Igor Bunin, the president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, who in a speech slated to be delivered at a conference there today on “The Middle Class: Problems of Its Formation and Perspectives for its Growth,” says flatly that Russia does not have one yet (www.politcom.ru/article.php?id=6078).
Consequently, it is far too soon, Bunin argues, for anyone to assume that those who have seen their incomes rise will play the kind of stabilizing role in political life that middle classes in Western countries traditionally have and that so many Moscow politicians invoke when they talk about a new middle class in Russia itself.
The shocks of the 1990s are still too much in the memories of those with rising incomes and the dependency of Russia on the sale of raw materials too obvious to allow them to overcome “the general sense of instability” that precludes the development of a middle class in the Weberian sense.
Russian “realities,” Bunin continues, that “those groups which are often classified as middle class do not satisfy the standard criteria” for such a class: Instead, they are divided into two distinct strata, one self-defined and the other defined only by income, that are not prepared to engage in collective social and political action.
Many Russians today refer to themselves as middle class “if their pay exceeds the average for the region” in which they live. But one can hardly speak of a middle class existence for people whose per capita income is only “250 or even 500 dollars” a month, who do not have savings accounts and “live from pay day to pay day.”
In Russia, this self-defined group includes “specialists with higher educations who belonged already to the ‘Soviet’ middle class – the basic mass of doctors, teachers and engineers. Their incomes allow to them to make ends meet but not much more, and they lack the security to give them the self-confidence to act.
The second stratum, Bunin continues, includes the “highly paid groups of the population who can take out mortgages and buy mid-level automobiles on credit.” These are mid-level managers, some of the smaller entrepreneurs, successful doctors in private practice, teachers in private universities, and senior government officials.
The incomes of this group do correspond to the European standard, Bunin notes, “but they do not have any common goals.” Instead, among them “flower individualism and personal success” and “feverish consumerism,” while “firm horizontal ties characteristic of civil society are largely missing.”
Like members of genuine middle classes elsewhere, Russians in this second stratum are “more mobile than their other compatriots, highly value competition, are innovators in style, and libertarians in their personal life.” And they often set the standards that members of the other middle strata try to emulate.
Other than that, these two strata have relatively little in common. They are not necessarily a stabilizing factor in the Western sense, Bunin says, but neither are they likely to power “color revolutions” like in Ukraine and Georgia, because Russians do not hope to live “in Europe” they want to live “as people in Europe do.”
Consequently, the Russian middle strata are not prepared to sacrifice their current status for the happiness of their children within the European Union. They want to continue to consume, something that may give the illusion of stability but in fact does not give anything more than that.
That does not mean, however, that none of the members of these strata will take social actions. Generally, they are profoundly suspicious of political parties, but they do sometimes involve themselves in actions to support or oppose particular actions, like the improvement of roads or the tearing down of favored old buildings.
Consequently, Bunin concludes, one can predict that a genuine Russian middle class will eventually emerge if the economy continues to grow and if there are no new shocks like those in the 1990s. But this process is not going to be quick, because to be successful, Russians who say they are middle class will have to acquire genuinely middle class incomes and ways of life. .