Tracking changes in Russia’s socio-political climate

Russia’s middle layer of society is certainly very different from a middle class in the classic sense of the term. But its numbers and influence are growing. The image of Russia as a country of impoverished, passive people with mostly paternalist beliefs and orientations is no longer accurate.

Parliamentary elections and presidential elections offer an opportunity for the citizenry and the political class to take a look at how our country is developing, think about the problems it has encountered, and formulate objectives for the future. The need to do this is becoming increasingly clear, primarily because the processes under way in our society in recent years give rise to all kinds of interpretations and judgements. And the processes themselves are not synchronized; in many ways, they are heading in different directions.

On the one hand, it’s obvious that Russia’s all-encompassing crisis – including the socio-psychological crisis – has been overcome. Russia’s prevailing fears of the 1990s – disintegration, civil war, economic collapse, and so on – are now in the past. The terrorist threat has been reduced substantially, and the Chechnya factor has shifted to the periphery of the public’s attention.

A middle layer of society is taking shape rapidly. Depending on the criteria, it now includes between a third and 40% of Russia’s working population; this proportion is even higher in surveys where people are asked to define their own status. In 1999, 37% of respondents said that their material situation placed them in the middle layer; now this proportion has reached 59%. The proportion of citizens who can afford major consumer goods has risen sharply, from 4% to 12% since 1999; the proportion of respondents who say they don’t have any problems providing food and clothing for their families has risen from 21% to 42%.

Russia’s middle layer of society is certainly very different from a middle class in the classic sense of the term. Nevertheless, its numbers and influence on public life are growing. The widespread image of Russia as a country of impoverished, passive people with mostly paternalist beliefs and orientations is no longer accurate. We still have many people living below the poverty line, and even more low income earners. But we are gradually moving away from a type of poverty that is shameful for any civilized country: the poverty of healthy, well-educated, fully employed people – teachers, state-sector health workers, and other state-sector employees.

But an opposing trend is also becoming more apparent. This provides an indication of the other side of the positive changes in Russia over the past five or six years. A substantial proportion of Russian citizens (especially young people) are ceasing to perceive political and social stability as a priority value in itself. Russia’s emergence from economic crisis is rapidly raising expectations among the active societal layers – especially since life for the majority of Russian citizens is still a long way from prosperous.

As a result, the basic indicators of how people feel about themselves and their society are remaining unchanged or showing slight improvement, while satisfaction-with-life indicators are barely rising at all. These indicators have even dropped slightly since 2004, when President Vladimir Putin was re-elected for his second term. In other words, growth in public expectations is starting to outpace economic and social changes.

The steep rise in the number of citizens who are capable of being active consumers (of quality services as well as goods) has caught our state system unprepared – especially its social services institutions. Like their Soviet predecessors, they have turned out to be quite incapable of satisfying the public’s rapidly-rising demands. Most of the services currently offered to citizens by the state are either overtly low-quality or unaffordable even for medium income earners, let alone the poor.

And here’s another curious paradox: incomes are rising, yet many citizens find that their actual lives still aren’t getting better. This goes to show that satisfying material needs is not enough. For many years, our citizens have lived in a state of psychological and physical stress – expending a great deal of vital energy on maintaining more or less tolerable living conditions for themselves and their families. These days, people not only need to make a good living, but also to develop their creative and professional potential.

Yet it’s becoming increasingly unclear how the middle layer can convert its knowledge, experience, skills, and moral values into material income and career growth. People don’t see how democratic institutions can help them to do so – the institutions which are (ideally) supposed to “soften the blow of capitalism” by arming citizens with lawful methods and tools to fight for their rights and interests.

This largely accounts for the fact that most Russian citizens aren’t noticeably concerned about the centralization and elitization of Russian politics and the reduced role of the political opposition. In fact, most citizens are becoming less and less interested in socio-political life, and demand for legal forms of participation in politics is decreasing with every passing year. At the same time, our society is being deideologized. This vacuum of ideas creates favorable conditions for the spread of the most radical and absurd ideological views.

However, opinion poll results in recent years don’t support the widespread view that Russia’s democracy is defective due to some inherent attributes of the Russian people’s mindset and traditions. Neither does research support the idea of a “values gulf” between Russia and “the civilized West.” Russian citizens don’t have any particular problems with understanding what democracy is. Neither do opinion polls reveal much disillusionment with democratic values. But what we have seen in recent years is a pragmatic selection of values, prioritizing those which are of real interest or those which have been in short supply of late.

Above all, this applies to the full range of socio-economic rights and liberties, as well as values like equality for all citizens before the law and an independent judiciary. The overwhelming majority of Russian citizens have an impression of democracy as a system of organizing social life which is primarily intended to ensure law and order and to see that socio-economic rights are realized.

Our version of democracy isn’t providing either, in practice. Consequently, the attitude of most citizens to it may be described as “expectant skepticism.” It’s revealing to note that most poll respondents don’t believe that Russia is resistant to a multi-party system or independent media – but they do believe it has trouble with democracy attributes such as law-abiding behavior, equality before the law, and citizens being able and willing to fight for their rights.

Thus, most Russian citizens are alienated from big-time politics and active participation in socio-political life. Politicians and parties are finding it harder and harder to reach their voters. The situation is very different from the era when political battles were a focus of public attention, eliciting genuine interest, and politicians had millions of fans.

Fortunately, declining interest in the details of inter-party battles is partially replaced by a rise in community activity and the formation of new civic initiatives and associations. Our society is experiencing a subtle but perceptible regrouping of politically “active” and “inert” groups and layers. In the late 1990s, interest in politics and community activism was mostly observed among the least prosperous social groups, but now we’re seeing the opposite trend. Low income groups are losing interest in politics and community life, while the middle layers are taking a greater interest and sometimes even participating. This is understandable, since these groups and layers are more actively involved in various social interaction networks.

These days, the chief sign of this activity is the spread of single-issue movements in recent years. On the one hand, these movements are spontaneous; on the other, they are well-organized and sometimes quite effective. The problem of mass participation is no longer as relevant as it used to be. Politics is no longer all about millions of people. These days, even small groups of activists can use modern communication methods to have a perceptible influence on public opinion and the authorities. Of course, not all of these new formations are in favor of liberal values – no matter how much the civil society theorists might want that to be true. In recent years, spontaneous community activism has given rise to some frightening phenomena, such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration.

The ethnic riots in the town of Kondopoga last year showed that spontaneous revolts are entirely possible in Russia these days – especially when social discontent is transformed into ethnic hatred. But interethnic tension is highest in the largest cities and major industrial centers, not provincial towns. And spontaneous demonstrations are more frequent not where the level of discontent is highest, but where there are few or no opportunities to express that discontent by lawful means: that is, where the authorities are inaccessible to ordinary citizens.

So we’re seeing different trends: a rise in social mobility and political participation, along with social apathy and stagnation interspersed with spontaneous, uncontrolled outbursts of protest. Which of these trends will prevail? The period of initial adaptation, when Russian citizens focused almost all their attention on basic survival, has now passed. These days, many citizens have the need and ability to look beyond everyday life and seek to influence what is happening in our society.

For all their skepticism about democracy, Russian citizens do have a clear understanding that elected institutions, even if they’re very flawed and ineffective at present, are still the most important guarantee against a complete usurpation of power by the oligarchy and the bureaucracy. The people’s historical memory retains a strong resistance to any “emergency powers” or dictatorships; we had more than enough of all that in the 20th Century. But Russian citizens associate the development of democratic institutions very closely with the need for further economic progress, faster solutions to social problems, and the restoration of our country’s devastated moral order.

Now let’s get back to the question of the upcoming elections. We can predict with a high degree of certainty that the election campaigns of 2007-08 will take place in a very different social atmosphere from that of 1996 or 2000, when Russia was in a deep economic crisis, politically and ideologically divided, and fear-mongering was the chief political weapon. These days, it’s very difficult to get Russian citizens really scared about anything, or to impose any agenda in which they aren’t really interested. Their political choices will be determined by their judgements about the socio-economic situation and the actions of the authorities – including the actions of President Putin and the party that represents the authorities. In other words, voters will base their decisions on a fairly simple alternative: if their lives have been good under the current authorities, and they’re impressed with what is happening in Russia, they will vote for the government’s party or not vote at all; if not, they will vote for opposition parties – or, once again, not vote at all.