Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Economic Crisis Leading More Russians, Especially the Young, to Take Part in Protests

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 18 – Despite some polls which suggest most Russians have decided to try to ride out the crisis by focusing on their personal situations rather than taking to the streets, many of them are doing just the reverse, participating in demonstrations not only in support of the government but against it as well.
But both media reports about meetings that have occurred and other research suggest that young Russians are increasingly ready to join public protests and will be even more often as the crisis deepens and the weather warms. And to head this off, the government is already taking measures to prevent that trend from leading to an explosion.
The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), a polling agency known to be close to the Kremlin, reported this week that its latest poll shows only one Russian in eleven is ready to take part in public protests, down from one in five who said they were in December of last year (
If the authorities were encouraged by that, they almost certainly were less pleased with reports, including one in “Novaya gazeta” showing that the number of people taking part in protests across the country is growing and the sharpness of the slogans participants are carrying is increasing as well (
Among the slogans the paper reported were “Today, You are Unemployed; Tomorrow, You’ll Be Homeless!” “Corruption, Inflation and Poverty are the Achievements of the Current Regime,” and from the Russian Far East, “If the powers that be don’t need the people, then the people don’t need the powers that be.”
In many cases, the paper suggest, government organized marches in support of Moscow’s anti-crisis program are so “insincere” that they virtually invite either satire or a response. For example, it reports, participants in a Nizhny Novgorod demonstration in favor of domestic cars arrived in foreign ones.
Other examples of this trend were a march in St. Petersburg two weekends ago in which participants said they favored everything the government proposes, including higher rents, lower wages and longer hours, and another in Moscow last Saturday in which a group of young women sought to update the Lysistrata theme.
To the apparent delight of passers-by, participants in this demonstration carried signs with slogans like “There’s no place in my bed for Medvedev!” “Either me or Putin!” “We don’t sleep with Putin supporters!” and “Saint Valentine – Dissenter Number One to Current Regime” (
But in addition to these reports, sociologists had the Moscow Institute of Globalization and Social Movements are quoted in an article appearing in “Novyye izvestiya” today as saying that “the objective conditions for the rapid politicization of young people are being created in Russia” (
These researchers say that up to now, nationalist groups have generated the most interest among young people, but that the worsening economic crisis means that “left-wing” groups who oppose both the regime and the “current systemic opposition” – including the KPRF – have “the greater prospects.”
When the economy was growing, the institute’s leaders say, most young people focused on personal goals, including financial success and took little interest in politics, an approach that the regime was only too pleased to exploit. But the current crisis had destroyed the “happy illusions” of Russian young people and made them far more angry and skeptical.
Partly affected by the economic downturn are students in universities. Because most students now have to pay tuition and only five percent have student loans, they are immediately affected if their parents lose their jobs or aren’t paid on time. And some students are already being forced to leave or at least cut back on their educational plans.
So far, the institute experts continue, most young people still trust Medvedev and Putin, but they “do not understand why no one is hurrying to help them in the struggle with material difficulties. “ And many of them feel that the economic downturn is hitting them harder than anyone else.
These feelings are already leading to “the rapid politicization of young people” as evidenced by their participation in fights between skinheads and anti-fascists, the institute’s director Boris Kagarlitsky says. Many of the young are now on the side of the nationalists, but the nationalists have no answer to the problems of the young and will lose their support.
That would be happening more quickly if the Communist Party had “a more adequate” ideology, he continues. But Russia, he and his colleagues predict, will soon see “the rise of completely new political organizations of the young who will oppose both the regime and the systemic opposition.
Whether the predictions of these experts are right, of course, remains to be seen. But at least some of the powers that be think they may be, and this week Moscow announced plans to provide more assistance to university students, almost certainly in the hope that this will keep them from taking to the streets (

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