Thursday, February 11, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Economic Crisis Highlights Growth of a Specifically Russian Kind of Civil Society, Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Ft. Lauderdale, February 11 – The current economic crisis in Russia has “clearly demonstrated” that there has been a growth in “social solidarity among Russians” and hence of “the construction of a civil society,” albeit of a uniquely Russian because largely non-political type, according to a Moscow analyst.
In an article in the current issue of “Novaya politika,” Irina Alksnis acknowledged that this development has not been “too quick or effective” and that it definitely has not yet taken “those forms which those who are interested only in politics dream” but nonetheless, she says, “the process is going forward” (
Frequently, she observers, Moscow observers say that the well-being Russians enjoyed in the last decade left Russians in “a fat, amorphous and apathetic condition, concerned only by their private problems and invariably loyal t the powers that be, which [they] associate with these good times.”
There is more than a little truth to this, she says, but “this situation has an opposite side: When people become accustomed to live well, they first of all want to live still better and begin to devote their efforts in that direction and second, they view attempts to deprive them of this well-being negatively.”
That is all the more so, Alksnis says, “when the deterioration takes place not because of objective circumstances but rather by the actions of concrete individuals or institutions.”
This should not come as a surprise to anyone because it is widely recognized that “social and civil solidarity is born and gathers strength in periods when people are not at the edge of survival” but rather when “the key problems of their physical existence have been resolved” and especially if those solutions are then challenged.
As long as an individual is focused only on what he will eat or “how he will feed his children,” he won’t be agitated by larger issues, “even if they it would appear directly affect him. But when the situation improves and relative well-being and stability become part of [his] life, then an individual will be agitated” by these broader issues.
According to Alksnis, “a classical example” of this and of how it can lead to the emergence of “a cell of civil society” is the following: Once an individual earns enough to upgrade his apartment inside its doors, he will want to ensure that the entry way, the stair wells, and the outside of the building are improved as well.
That will force him to work with his neighbors and “take joint decisions” about the building. And with each forward step, new challenges will appear. “And each such problem requires the unification of the efforts of an ever greater number of people, who are not indifferent to the issues raised and who are prepared to devote efforts to their resolution.”
“Despite the extremely pessimistic assessments of the majority of organizations involved with the monitoring of the development of civil society in Russia, the situation in fact,” Alksnis insists, “is not so hopeless and sad.” Indeed, over the last few years, “the majority of Russians one way or another” has been involved in the resolution of such superficially small problems.
Such problems in most cases do not have “a clear political subtext and quite often are limited” to issues of daily life that civil society advocates frequently fail to dignity as evidence of the growth of solidarity among Russians, even though such a development is the very foundation of any civil society, even if it is not initially political.
Indeed, she continues, polls confirm that “the majority of [Russians] are little agitated by narrowly political issues, and they are not prepared to unite and undertake any actions because of them,” even if they are quite interested and willing to demand changes in things that immediately affect their lives.
Russians, she notes, have been willing to protest about debts, about unemployment in particular plants and company towns, about deceptive housing practices, about the ban on certain kinds of foreign cars, and about ecological issues of all kinds. And their willingness to do so has increased during the recent economic crisis.
Protest actions have increased in number and variety, especially when people feel that something they had gained is being taken away from them by the powers that be. And not surprisingly, such protests increasingly acquire, as in Kaliningrad and Yugra, a political dimension even if the motives of those involved were not political in the first place.
Despite all these indications of the growth of civil solidarity in Russia, Alksnis argues, there is the impression that “the leadership of the country has not taken this seriously,” preferring instead to view popular action on local problems as evidence of a certain “lack of seriousness,” an attitude shared by many civil society monitors and advocates.
. “However,” the Moscow analyst says, “quantity sooner or later passes into quality, and in a similar way, we are becoming witnesses of how civil society [in the course of an economic crisis during which people feel they are losing what they had gained] is moving into a new stage of its development.”
“The most important thing for the Russian powers that be now,” she argues, is “not to get upset because in fact nothing terrible is happening. There is no threat to the constitutional system or the existing structure of power,” because one is not talking about political radicalism or an organized challenge to the regime.
What is occurring is something larger and more elemental: “Ever more Russians are prepared to publically talk about what agitates them, to express their support for what they like and their dissatisfaction with what they don’t.” And they are doing all this “in a legal framework and strictly according to the law.”
“Of course,” Alksnis says, “from time to time,” there are actions which do involve attacks on the powers that be. But that is “a normal process,” even if during the last decade, those in power and those concerned about civil society appeared to forget about that. “Now,” she says, “it is time to remember that again.”

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