Staunton, October 5 – The continuing “trauma” Russians feel from Afghanistan “stopped” the Kremlin from further military action in Ukraine and is limiting Moscow’s moves in Syria as well because however much Russians want to see displays of their country’s power, they don’t want to see bodies returning from conflicts abroad, Yekaterina Schulmann argues.
In an interview published in today’s “Novaya gazeta” concerning the prospects for protest in Russia, the Moscow commentator suggests that many are inclined to exaggerate the extent to which government actions abroad can compensate for economic problems at home or become the basis for protests (novayagazeta.ru/politics/70205.html).
Despite the attention they inevitably get and the expectations of the Kremlin that foreign policy triumphs will trump domestic difficulties, she points out, polls over the last two decades consistently show that Russians are most concerned about inflation, incomes, and housing prices and that those are the real drivers of protest, albeit typically with “a lag time” of about a year.
At the same time, Schulmann continues, it is a misconception to think that protests will come from people driven to despair. In fact, as research shows, those who are the greatest victims are not the most likely to protest. Instead, protesters come from those who have finally understood the far-from-simple link between their lives and the decisions of the authorities.
The Moscow commentator suggests that three “vectors” will be coming together next year: it will have been about a year after the onset of the crisis, any “’post-Crimea’ enthusiasm’ will have “finally died,” and the election season for 2016-2018 will be opening, with various candidates seeking to define and exploit the situation.
It is striking, Schulmann says, how rapidly “the wave of Crimean enthusiasm” has crested and fallen off. Its peak was in May 2014. Now, hyper-patriotic parties like Rodina and the Patriots of Russia still talk about it but do not gain much traction from doing so. Mainstream parties increasingly abstain from talking about it at all.
This is evidence of the fact that the effect of foreign policy actions is “less than people are accustomed to think,” she says. “We exaggerate the effect of propaganda and confuse it with TV ratings: if people like and with interest watch specific programs, that does not mean that their political behavior is changed” as a result.
That behavior reflects in the first instance the underlying interests of people in inflation, food price, and communal services. All polls for the last two decades show that these occupy the first three places in the concerns of Russians. Foreign policy doesn’t challenge any of these for the top spot and is unlikely to.
“Judging from the first polls” about Russian involvement in Syria, Russians “do not much approve out participation in this war because the Afghan trauma still exists and the idea that we are fighting somewhere is viewed in a negative way.”
In fact, Schulmann argues, “precisely this attitude at one time stopped us from further involvement in Ukraine: when the first caskets came back, people didn’t like it. They liked Crimea, they liked talk on TV about the struggle with America, but they didn’t like tha tour soldiers are fighting somewhere.”
Consequently, Schulmann says, Moscow is unlikely to do anything more than engage in airstrikes. Starting a ground campaign would mean victims, and that would have an effect at home.”
At the same time, the Kremlin will seek to use this campaign to strengthen its position among Russians. “The authorities can sell society our military victories or even not victories but simply participation in some world processes as for example in Syria” And they can argue successfully that Moscow’s actions in Syria have ended its isolation following Ukraine.
In coping with the problems at home, the Russian powers that be may seek to “sell Russian austerity, the ideology that now are difficult times, one must economize and spend less” as long as they say that they “are trying as much as possible that these will not be so difficult for [Russians].” That can sustain them for some time.
And the authorities have a third means of trying to distract Russians from problems at home: engaging in “the struggle with corruption.” While such actions are typically more part of intra-elite competition and conflict, they do win support from at least some Russians by suggesting that those on top are paying attention to the crimes of those below them.
Most Russians will express support for the Kremlin’s foreign policy lest they appear “materialistic swine,” Schulmann suggests. But if asked whether they are ready to do anything in support of it or sacrifice their own well-being to those foreign policy ends, their expressions of support will be far more muted.
Russians do not see a contradiction in the fact that they will most likely say yes when asked if they approve the decisions of the authorities. This is a “comfortable” answer: people want to be good and correspond to what they consider to be the social norm and join with the majority.” But that doesn’t speak to the willingness of any of them to make sacrifices.
“In Russia it is difficult to find out popular attitudes because [the country] doesn’t have free elections or a free media marketplace, which typically serve as indicators,” Schulmann points out. “And this is quite dangerous” because it deprives the country of early warning signs that things are going in the wrong direction and must be changed.
And she concludes with this warning: “An authoritarian system falls apart more rapidly and with greater force than a democratic one because there is no advance warning about problems. The worsening of the economic situation in Russia will generate changes in the political behavior of people.”
But just what those changes will be and when they will occur is “impossible to say.” Instead, Schulmann says, “protest attitudes can break out where no one expects them.”