Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Attitudes Returning to Those of 1990s -- But Russian Politics Isn’t

Paul Goble

New York, December 29 – Three articles in the Moscow media today – one by Levada Center director Lev Gudkov, a second on the Liberty.ru site, and a third by the editors of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” – show that Russian popular attitudes are returning to those of the 1990s but that Russian opposition figures have proved unable to exploit that reality.
And that combination, all three suggest, may allow both the Russian people and the Russian powers that be to survive the current crisis, but it will not, all three make clear, allow Russia to develop as a democracy and thus prevent a further degeneration of its political and social system.
Writing in today’s “Vedomosti,” Gudkov argues that “the current crisis shows that the political system established in the last decade in Russia is restraining or event suppressing the development of other social sub-systems,” with the siloviki “paralyzing the processes of modernization begun in the 1990s (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article/2009/12/29/222385).
The current economic crisis, he points out, has “touched the daily life of almost two-thirds of Russian families, forcing them to limit their consumption as a result of falling incomes” and that in turn has had the effect of shifting “the emotional balance” in the direction where it was in the 1990s.
Once again, the Levada Center researcher continues, what he calls “an asthenic syndrome” dominates – “a combination of tiredness, indifference, fear and worry,” with social optimism being preserved only among young people or in groups which occupier higher social positions.”
According to the latest polls, 62 percent of Russians call 2009 “’the most difficult’ year for Russia, and this,” he points out, is the worst since 1996, if one does not include the crisis year of 1998.” Moreover, he continues, “today, all positive events with Russians are connected with family and a close circle of friends, and everything bad with the situation in the country.”
“More than half of those polled (55 percent),” Gudkov says, “declared that in the year just passed, they had nothing good to report or that “the only good thing in their lives was that nothing bad had happened.” And that sense of decline has had an impact on how Russians view their country as a whole.
“Again,” Gudkov says, Russians have lost any sense that they know “where the country is going,” with 86 percent saying they do not have “any idea” about that, and more than 70 percent indicating that in their view, the government “does not have a well-thought-through program for getting out of the crisis.”
Not only do a majority saying their “time horizon” is now measured in “several weeks or months, but they disagree as to what the powers that be are doing: “11 percent say that an authorization regime is being established, 42 percent see in the efforts of the powers only attempts to establish order, [and] 19 percent point to growing anarchy and disorder.”
But Gudkov argues that there is one difference between the popular attitudes now and those of the default year of 1998: Today, “there is a reserve of hope that the situation arranged in the early years of this decade can be restored in short order and that all will be as it was under Putin.”
Such hopes, Gudkov says, bear “a quite irrational character.” In any case, “they are not connected with faith in the government –31 percent of those polled say it is coping with the crisis, 24 percent say it is not, while a plurality – 45 percent – find it is difficult to say.” And they are not inspired by official statements to the contrary.
The second article prepared by the Liberty.ru site which tracks protest actions of various kinds in Russia said in a review of 2009 that there had been “a certain activization of the political process as a whole in comparison with 2008, and [that] protests with political demands [had increased] (www.liberty.ru/Themes/Protestnaya-Rossiya-2009.-Itogi-politicheskogo-protesta).
But if the number of actions has increased, the site said, “as before” they involve only “a small part of the population, the so-called ‘people with an active civic position.’” The mass population, it continued “unfortunately remains indifferent to ‘this dirty politics’ and as before do not believe anyone.”
That reality is highlighted by the categories in which Liberty.ru discusses the events of the year: “actions in support of political prisoners,” “actions in defense of freedom of speech,” “actions against militia arbitrariness,” “election actions,” and “actions against fascism or in memory of anti-fascists.”
Overall, “political protest remained the prerogative of the extra-parliamentary opposition,” with parliamentary opposition parties seeking to involve the public only during elections. And if there was a growth in some opposition activity, the most important event of the year was the creation of the MVD’s Center for Countering Extremism directed against it.
In most countries, a deteriorating economic situation and the rise of protests at the margins would also lead to increased activity by opposition political parties, but in its lead article today, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” says that the crisis has inflicted more damage on those parties than on the party of power (www.ng.ru/editorial/2009-12-29/2_red.html).
Indeed, the paper’s editors suggest, the lack of a flowering of the Russian opposition became one of the defining features of 2009, especially given the expectations of members of those parties and many analysts that the crisis would lead to a rebirth of “the political success of the liberals of the 1990s.”
But there was no rebirth, a product not only of the creation in the interim of “a powerful bureaucracy of state capitalism” but also and in some ways even more important, the failure of the opposition to come up with a serious program or work to promote one. As a result, it failed to undermine the claim of the powers that be that there is no alternative to them.
At the beginning of 2009, many expected that the KPRF “would evolve toward normal social-democratic parliamentary behavior.” It had all the chances to do so, “including the blessings of the Kremlin.” But instead, the paper points out, the communists engaged not in a struggle for influence but in an intramural fight for the “purity” of its ranks.
Liberal parties did not achieve much either, and “the so-called extra-systemic opposition” remained in effect on the sidelines. And that combination points to the conclusion, “Nezavisimaya” says, that “the crisis delivered a heavy blow to the ideological movements and political parties of the opposition, much more serious than to the party of power.”
But that lack of political competition among parties has led to increasing factionalism within United Russia. “Such a situation is not healthy for a democratic state,” the editors conclude, because “citizens must have a space where politicians defend their interests before the powers that be,” something Russia lacks as it heads into 2010.

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