Staunton, March 17 – High rates of poverty and low levels of social mobility among Russians may make it easier for the Kremlin in the short term, but they carry with them long-term threats of Russia’s decline to the status of a third world country and of the absence of social support for the authorities at times of crisis, according to Yevgeny Gontmakher.
In an article in today’s “Moskovsky komsomolets,” the Moscow economist says that first of all, “mass poverty is a favorable ground for the manipulation of public consciousness” because poor people want the government to help and don’t have the inclination to search out alternatives to the government TV (mk.ru/social/2015/03/16/bednaya-moya-strana.html).
Second, Gontmakher says, such people are more easily mobilized than others to struggle with “’a fifth column’” at home or to go and fight as volunteers in “’Novorossiya.’” They are happy to take money to go to a demonstration, and they are interested in extracting profit from going to war. Moreover, such things are a distraction from their impoverished lives.
And third, “mass poverty does not give a chance to conduct ‘structural reforms.’” That is because the only people making real money are in the oil and gas sectors, and consequently, there is little enthusiasm for poor people to prepare for work in other sectors. Thus, they do not have the training needed to support any change.
But impoverished masses, however convenient they may be for the Kremlin much of the time, can be a disaster because they mean that the regime rests on the most fragile of foundations. Gontmakher points to what happened in 1991. “In March,” nearly 80 percent of the population voted for maintaining the USSR.
However, “when in December of the same year, the Soviet flag was lowered from over the Kremlin and the Russian tricolor was raised, not one (!) person came out into Red Square with a demand to preserve the USSR,” he continues. Instead, “people lay down to sleep in one country, and woke up in another,” without “any reaction.”
The same thing could happen again, he suggests.
“The moral of this tale is very simple,” the economist says. “It is possible to save the country from a descent into third world status” only by ending the loss of human capital that high rates of poverty entail, something that requires spending more on “education and health.” But there is one thing more, he adds.
Russians who are better off need to stop being indifferent to this problem and to end their silence, Gontmakher concludes. They must “use any opportunity to explain what is really going on in the country and propose alternatives.” Failure to do so will ultimately be fatal for Russia as a whole.