Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Window on Eurasia: If Conditions are So Bad, Why Are So Few Russians in the Streets?

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 3 – More than 100,000 Russians took part in demonstrations over the weekend for and against Moscow’s economic policies, but in the case of most of these actions – except those organized by the pro-government party “United Russia,” there were, in the words of one observer, “more journalists than participants.”
And that has prompted some Russians to ask why so few of their fellow citizens took part given that economic and social conditions in their country are deteriorating and at a time when there have been far larger and more assertive actions abroad where the situations in most cases do not appear to be nearly as dire.
Five commentators and politicians have provided some intriguing answers to this question, and a sixth has inquired more generally where Russians may be heading, especially if they once again conclude that direct systemic political action of the kind on view last weekend is unlikely to have a significant impact on the government.
First, Moscow commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky says that the weekend’s protests across the country demonstrated that “Russia is absolutely calm.” One can call this calm “leaden,” if one likes, he added, but this calm is not a piece of Kremlin propaganda but “an INDISPUTABLE FACT” (www.actualcomment.ru/day_comment/71.html).
The reasons for this, he continued, are both numerous and obvious: the very cold weather in much of Russia, “the political cold” and demonstrated willingness of the regime to use force when challenged, and most important, the absence of any alternative to “either the policies of those in power or to Putin and Medvedev personally.”
And behind this, Radzikhovsky explained, “there is no tradition of public activity” in Russia and “no organizations opposed to the powers that be which have the political resources” needed to be effective. The Communists are too self-absorbed to matter, he said, and “the Russian fascists” attract attention without having any real power.
Second, Eduard Limonov, the head of the now-banned National Bolshevik Party, argued that it is wrong to compare protesters in Russia and in Europe. In Russia, “one must start from the fact that we live in a police state where, for many people, simply going into the streets is a kind of act of personal courage (http://www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2009/02/03/society/392600/).
At the same time, however, the radical leader acknowledged, he “recognizes that in Russia today, citizens who are inclined towards the opposition form a minority,” a reality which reflects not so much their “satisfaction” with the way things are as their calculation that this is the best stance to take given the nature of power in Russia.
Third, Ivan Melnikov, a Duma deputy speaker and a leader of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), said that Europeans go into the streets because they know they can do so with impunity and because they are confident that their actions will have an impact on government policies.
Russians, he argued, do not believe that either of these things is true for them. But that is not a good thing because it means that the authorities frequently ignore what the people think until too late and then there is, in Pushkin’s words, the senseless and pitiless Russian revolt. In today’s Russia, unless the powers that be change, that “is only a question of time.”
Fourth, Dmitry Oreshkin, the head of the Merkator Analytic Group, provided a broader explanation. “Our people,” he said, “are not able to draw a clear line between the country and its leaders. To speak out against the powers that be for many of them is equal to betraying the Motherland and its people.”
More importantly, as they learned in Soviet times, Russians are convinced that “participation in a protest action will inevitably involve unhappy consequences.” That has lead to “the de-politicization of society,” something those in power count on but also something that could turn on them if they assume, as some in Moscow do, that they can ignore popular attitudes.
Putin, Oreshkin argued, has been paying attention and in recent weeks has “become more liberal and restrained. He understands that there are two variants: either use the whip and become another China or liberalize the system. In this sense,” the Moscow analyst said, “the situation is much better than in Soviet times but it is very far from the Western one.”
And fifth, Boris Kagarlitsky, the director of the Moscow Institute of Globalization, suggests that the lack of activism reflects a lack of a sense of efficacy. Whatever people do, however many of them go into the streets, any “destabilization” will be the result of “disagreements within the elite” (www.iamik.ru/?op=full&what=content&ident=501236).
All five of these commentators and many others as well are focusing on the short term consequences of the economic crisis, popular anger about it, but “Yevzhednevny zhurnal’s Maksim Blant in an essay published today suggests that “much more interesting” are the larger changes that the current situation may produce (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=8787).
He argues that the economic crisis may lead to an increase in alcoholism, a growth in various escapist strategies, and, “unfortunately, “a search for the guilty.” Confirmation of that last change and danger has not been long in coming: Chechen leader Ramzan Kardyrov has denounced one of his opponents as “an enemy of the Chechen people.”
Any further additional use of this term, which was employed by Lenin and Stalin to their enemies to justify the harshest possible penalties against the latter, would be far moredisturbing the failure of the Russian people so far, given the repressive nature of their government, to match the activism of Europeans (www.regnum.ru/news/1118397.html).

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