Vienna, December 5 – The statements and actions of Russian leaders, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, over the last few days suggest that many in the upper reaches of the Russian government are fearful that the deepening economic crisis there could trigger social, ethnic, and even political unrest.
And to defuse the situation, they are taking a variety of actions, from restricting negative media coverage of the situation to cutting quotas for new immigrants by half, promising assistance to those who are already unemployed and, in perhaps the most disturbing move for what it indicates about official concerns, banning private ownership of lethal weapons.
Whether these moves will be sufficient or will instead prove counterproductive leading to more demands remains to be seen, but it is already clear, as Georgy Osipov argues in today’s “Gazeta,” “If there is something those in the Kremlin fear, it is the manifestation of massive popular anger” (www.gazeta.ru/comments/2008/12/04_a_2903332.shtml).
As the international financial crisis has spread and the price of oil has fallen, Putin first tried to deny that Russia was experiencing one, promoting feel good stories on state television and allowing his officials to go after those media outlets like the one that printed a warning that Russia could face a series of Novocherkassk-like explosions in the coming year.
(The most recent and most harsh action against media outlets in the current environment was a decision announced yesterday by a court in the Siberian city of Barnaul sentencing a man to a year behind bars for publishing a caricature of Putin portraying him as a skinhead (babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=49094). In the past, those who did so were only fined.)
Then during his televised conversation yesterday, the Russian prime minister not only blamed Russia’s crisis on the United States, thus reaffirming that Russia is in one too, but also acknowledged that unemployment there will approach ten percent and that shortfalls in budgets are generating social and political tensions (www.nr2.ru/society/210172.html).
But as he has in the past, Putin insisted that Moscow in charge of the situation, that it would cut the influx of migrant workers (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=174038), and that the government has all the means it needs to combat what he said were “stupid” nationalists who were trying to exploit the situation (www.islam.ru/rus/2008-12-04/#24126).
One possibility that the Russian authorities appear to be especially concerned about is the danger that economic anger could link up with xenophobia. At a conference in Moscow yesterday, speakers called attention to official projections that a one percent rise in unemployment among guest workers could lead to a five percent rise in crime among them.
And Valery Tishkov, the head of the Academy of Sciences Institute of Ethnology, made a comment that highlights just how big a problem this is. To fight xenophobic attitudes, he said, “one must explain to people that it isn’t the migrants who are guilty that they don’t pay you or five you from your jobs but employers and the state of the economy.”
In short, one can defuse ethnic tensions by playing up class ones, a direction that could just as easily and given the ethnic composition of the security forces on which the Kremlin relies perhaps even more easily than defusing class tensions by playing up ethnic ones as Russian and Soviet officials before them often have.
But the only things that the participants at this high level meeting of officials and academic specialists could agree on were that President Dmitry Medvedev should have a meeting to discuss the situation and that the Russian government should reestablish a ministry of nationality affairs (www.gzt.ru/politics/2008/12/04/223021.html).
Meanwhile, various radical groups have been prediction revolutionary upheavals, seeing the current economic situation as grounds for strikes and other forms of mass action. Because their predictions are self-serving, many will dismiss them, but in the current environment, they add fuel to the fire (www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2008/12/05/62623.shtml).
And some of their predictions are now making it into the more mainstream media, who are picking up on the most recent statements of Putin and playing to a population that is deeply suspicious that the government will be able to do anything or live up to its promises however much they continue to tell pollsters they like the Russian prime minister.
Perhaps the clearest indication that the Kremlin and the Russian White House are frightened is an action that passed almost unnoticed when it was taken last week but that has attracted attention now that Russian and non-Russian druzhinniki are on the streets of some Russian cities, with at least a few of them reportedly carrying weapons.
On November 27, the Russian justice ministry registered new rules prepared by the social development ministry governing the use of weapons of self-defense. From now on, the rule says, such weapons must be of a type that will inflict serious bodily harm. Those rules went into effect on Monday (www.rosbalt.ru/2008/11/28/545597.html).
It is far from clear whether radicals will obey these rules, but the announcement does have two positive consequences. On the one hand, it gives the government authorities the ability to start a prima facie criminal case against anyone with a firearm that does not meet these new standards.
And on the other, it may reassure some Russians that there government has finally decided to try to rein in some of the violence that is again occurring on the streets of Russian cities, the kind of violence that most people had assumed had been left behind thanks to the Putin stabilization and his imposition of the power vertical.