Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russians’ Greatest Fears Coming True, Undermining Stability, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, September 24 – The eight developments Russians identified as of their greatest fears are all coming true, and that pattern regardless of what else happens undermines the stability of Russian society and the Russian state, according to Moscow economist and commentator Yevgeny Gontmakher.


            In August, Russians were asked by Levada Center pollsters to identify which problems in Russian life were of greatest concern to them. Seventy-one percent said price increases, 40 percent said poverty, 30 percent said increasing income differentiation, 28 percent said a crisis in the economy, 26 percent said an increase in unemployment, 26 percent said corruption and bribery, 24 percent said immigration, and 23 percent said lack of access to necessary medicines.


            In a commentary posted on yesterday, Gontmakher says that all of these problems have become worse in recent months and that both singly and especially in combination they call into question the basis of stability in Russian society and thus Russian political life (


            Inflation will exceed eight percent this year, he points out, poverty is increasing, social stratification is getting worse, the economy is in recession, unemployment and underemployment are growing, corruption is spreading, tensions with immigrants are rising, and access to medicines has declined because of sanctions and counter-sanctions.


            What makes these concerns and these problems so potentially dangerous, Gontmakher says, is that they come after nearly a decade of rapidly increasing social well-being that was fueled by increasing income from the sale of oil and gas abroad and that in turn allowed the Putin regime to proclaim “stability” as its highest value.


            But those economic improvements and that stability came with a cost to the regime: the appearance at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 of people whose level of life had improved to the point that they were willing to do something that earlier generations had not: protest that things were not better.


            For the Putin regime, the economist says, these were the first signs that “something was threatening the stability” they craved and proclaimed.  But the regime made the wrong diagnosis: the problem was not so much the protesters who went into the Moscow streets but rather that there are at bottom two kinds of stability.


            There is stability “connected with evolutionary development” and there is, “on the contrary, stability connected with slow rot.”  The first kind is something that any regime can live with but must work hard to produce; the second is the kind that Moscow now faces – and it can quickly disappear “like the snow in April.”


            The Russian government must recognize the nature of these risks. While they may not lead to open conflicts, they lead people to begin to “feel” that something isn’t right, that things are going in the wrong direction, and as a result that something needs to be done, even if they cannot say just what that should entail.


            And “the second characteristic of these risks,” Gontmakher says, is that they can lead to explosions in unexpected places and as a result of what seem to be superficial developments. Moreover, as the dangers multiply as now, the regime is faced with more tasks than it can cope with and at some point will be threatened with collapse.


            If the economy were doing better, the regime would have more time, but the economy isn’t and the Kremlin doesn’t have it. Consequently, just as bread shortages in Petrograd in February 1917 led to the downfall of the Romanovs, so too banking problems, a devaluation of the ruble, or the shortage of medicines like insulin could have the same effect now.


            The regime will of course try to buy time for itself by propaganda suggesting that all of these problems are the work of foreign governments or a domestic “fifth column,” and that may work for a time, Gontmakher says. But unless it addresses these underlying problems, such propaganda ultimately will not be enough.


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