Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Misreading Latest Protests, Russian Paper Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 23 – Officials in Moscow are misreading last weekend’s protests, viewing the relatively small size of the demonstrations as evidence that the population is “satisfied” with its situation rather than understanding that any decline in popular participation reflects the increasing “alienation” of the people and government.
That is the conclusion offered by the editors of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” in a lead article published today. And they add that unless Moscow understands this reality and unless the government takes steps to overcome this “alienation,” Russia’s future will be anything but bright (www.ng.ru/editorial/2010-03-23/2_red.html).
Most Russian commentaries have focused on the relatively small size of the demonstrations, and using that facet of the situation alone, the editors say, the powers that be have concluded that the citizens are “satisfied,” that the government’s policies are working, and that the Medvedev-Putin tandem is a success.
In the same vein, the commentaries have insisted and the powers that be have assumed that the Russian people are turning away from the opposition because of “the correct course of United Russia, which is firmly marching forward toward the parliamentary elections despite the petty snares of [its] political opponents.”
But a closer examination of the situation, the editors say, points in a different direction. Unemployment has not fallen but risen, and the government’s programs to deal with the company town problem are not working. More and more groups, including pensioners, are suffering from rising prices.
The commentaries and it should be said, “Nezavisimaya” as well, put little stress on the efforts the powers that be made to keep the size of protests down, not only hacking the website coordinating the various meetings but limiting media coverage of them but also using the siloviki to disrupt the activities of organizers and to move against those who took part.
(At the same time, neither the commentaries “Nezavisimaya” refers to nor that paper itself mentions one of the most potentially significant aspects of last weekend’s protests: They took place in 50 cities at once, perhaps the largest coordinated effort within the Russian Federation ever. For a useful map, see newtimes.ru/upload/medialibrary/002/big_karta.jpg.)
The editors of “Nezavisimaya” focus on the following reality: “people are not hurrying to go into the streets” despite their deteriorating situation, and they “are not demanding anything from the government.” The reason why, the editors say, is that “people simply do not believe that the government can help them.”
Over the last two decades at least, “those taking part in meetings have always appealed to the powers that be. [But] today Russians understand just how useful an activity that is,” even when it involves something as “innocent” as “the defense of one of the paragraphs” of the country’s Constitution.
Russian citizens now, the paper continues, “have selected another path. Now, they dream only about a situation in which the powers that be will leave them in peace and not interfere. And then people with their own efforts will begin to construct around themselves an infrastructure of survival.” With petty bribes, if needed, the paper says, but on their own.
The real situation in Russia becomes obvious if one contrasts the country with the United States. On Sunday, the US Congress voted for the reform of health care, following “a hot discussion” that reflected the awareness among the American people that this measure affected each of them.”
“What problem of state importance would be capable of awakening [such] civic feelings in the population of Russia?” the paper asks. “The construction of a nano-city? Conservative modernization?” Certainly not those ideas, it suggests, arguing that “the powers that be also are living their own lives,” largely out of touch with the rest of the population.
And that means that the real problem Russia faces is the failure of any feedback loop “between society and the powers that be.” As a result, “mutual distrust is growing,” with some in the government experiencing “a fear of an Orange Revolution and many in the population becoming ever less willing to “connect with the powers that be for the solution of problems.”
“It is difficult to plan the future of a country,” the paper says, without knowing the desires of the people. “And it is impossible to carry out reforms without operating on the conscious desire of the citizens to participate in them.” Tragically, the population of Russia is increasingly convinced that everything the powers that be do is intended to benefit only them.”
Last weekend’s protests, their small size in many places notwithstanding, shows that “the powers that be have build up a debt to the citizens.” Overcoming this “alienation” will require that those in positions of power take “concrete steps to meet society,” real steps and not the setting up or more “councils” or “chambers.”
It is far from clear whether the powers that be understand any of this, but unless they stop misinterpreting the social scene in Russia and recognize just how alienated the people are from themselves, it is unlikely that they will take any of the right steps. Instead, it is probable that the alienation now on display will intensify.

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