Monday, March 15, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Middle Class Wants Putin Out, Internet Petition Shows

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 15 – The Internet petition campaign launched last week calling for the Vladimir Putin’s departure from office not only has already collected some 7500 signatories but nearly 80 percent of these have given their names, their professions and their place of residence, thus opening a window onto the attitudes of various Russian groups toward the powers that be.
That has been provided by an analysis published in Moscow’s “New Times” today, a study based on an examination of 25 percent of the first 7470 signatories which found that79.4 percent of those signing provided the kind of personal identification data usually lacking in Russian Internet petitions (
According to the article, those signing the petition calling for the departure of Putin came from across the entire country, not only big cities but small ones, not only the European portion of the Russian Federation but from beyond the Urals, and from Russians living in Germany, Canada, the United States and Israel.
But what is “most interesting,” the weekly journal says, is that the signatories listed not only their locations but also their occupations. An analysis of these declarations showed that “above all” it is the Russian middle class which is “demanding” the retirement or removal of Putin from power.
That suggests, the weekly continues, that anti-Putin attitudes have spread far beyond those politicians and rights activists “who professionally struggle with the expansion of the state and the violation by it of the basic rights and freedoms of citizens.” Such people, the analysis found, make up “only 3.2 percent” of the signatories.
Among those signing and providing data on their professions, the largest group consists of the creative intelligentsia, including designers, architects, musicians, journalists and the like. They formed “a little more than 11 percent of the total. They are followed by engineers (10.4 percent), entrepreneurs (9.3 percent, and computer specialists (8.4 percent).
Scholars form 5.5 percent of the total, and managers about 4 percent. Other groups represented include pensioners (7.5 percent), state employees (5.85 percent), and smaller numbers of homemakers and the unemployed. Students, on the other hand, make up only a little more than 4 percent.
The weekly says what is “surprising” is that there are so few lawyers: They numbered only 37 out of the nearly 2,000 listings the weekly examined. Of course, “New Times” acknowledges, “it is not excluded” that they were among the 20 percent of all petition signatories who preferred not to give that information.
That is a useful cautionary warning against making too much of these numbers, and it can be extended. Not all Russians have access to the Internet, especially outside of the middle and upper classes in the cities, and consequently, the pattern “New Times” reports reflects both opportunity and self-selection.
Nonetheless, the weekly says it will be interesting to see how the powers that be react. The last time a major Internet petition campaign was launched in Russia – the one seeking the release from jail of pregnant YUKOS lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina – it garnered some 90,000 signers and President Dmitry Medvedev ordered her release.
The current effort is gathering signatories at a more rapid rate, “New Times” says, and consequently, many will be watching how Medvedev and Putin react this time around. There are three possibilities: the powers that be will ignore it, Putin will respond by leaving, or the authorities will decide to crack down to prevent “a rocking of the boat.”
“The first and third variants seem the more realistic,” the magazine concludes “But one result has already been achieved: the signatures under the appeal with its call to send into retirement ‘the great and frightening’ Putin show that people are able to overcome their own fear.”
Clearly, “by leaving on the Internet their names, with an indication of their cities and professions” and calling attention to their anger about the direction Putin has been taking the country, these Russians are taking a big risk,” “New Times” concludes. Just how big a risk, however, is something that only “time will tell.”

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