Staunton, November 13 – Some Moscow commentators and opposition politicians are expressing hope that the successor of Russia’s longhaul truckers in forcing the government to retreat on its new road tariff plans will be copied by others, especially since a major reason Russians give for not protesting is that it won’t achieve anything.
(See Aleksey Makarkin’s “The First Protest with Results in Recent Years” in “Yezhednevny zhurnal” (ej.ru/?a=note&id=28931), Alekseyu Polukhin and Diana Khachatryan, “The Strength of the Truckers” in “Novaya Gazeta” (novayagazeta.ru/society/70709.html), and Yabloko’s declaration of support of the drivers (yabloko.ru/regnews/Moscow/2015/11/12_2).)
But an editorial in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” outlines some of the reasons popular anger based on economic factors isn’t likely to be translated into protests given both the general unwillingness of Russians to take part in protests in general and the regime’s skill in diverting such anger to other targets (ng.ru/editorial/2015-11-13/2_red.html).
And “Russkaya planeta” highlights the special advantages the truckers have: they play a key role in tying the country together and thus are in a position to make demands that others cannot. Indeed, it suggests those who called for the new tariffs threatened the territorial integrity of the country (rusplt.ru/society/dorojnyiy-sbor-kto-zarabotaet-na-razvale-stranyi-19686.html).
In a lead article entitled “Why Growing Income Inequality will Not Become a Sharp Political Theme,” the editors of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” note that a recent Levada Center poll found that 69 percent of Russians believe that income inequality has increased during the years since Vladimir Putin became president.
In most countries, such perceptions would quickly become a “serious” political resource for the opposition, but not in Russia, where it is not now and is unlikely to become “central to political discussions.” Instead, the authorities will be able to “preserve their stable popularity” even if people are increasingly upset by economic woes.
“The political culture in Russia does not allow the conversion of a mass sense of growing inequality into such a conversation,” the editors argue, because with Russians, nothing is easier for the powers that be than to take steps that play on “hatred for the wealthy” and thus boost their popularity even though the regime itself bears responsibility for the inequality.
Russians blame the inequality they suffer from “not on conditions but on the wealthy themselves,” they write; and thus the authorities by targeting one or more oligarch for punishment or raising taxes on some of the wealthier can transform what would appear to be a political negative anywhere else into a political positive.
And that is even more likely because Russians count on the state to “solve” this problem, and they don’t care especially how it is done – either by confiscating successful businesses, using tax money to create new jobs, or allow most oligarchs to live in peace as long as a few are punished to appease their feelings.
As a result, the editors conclude, growing economic problems and income inequality will not have immediate political consequences. “The powers that be are quite capable of seizing and using any dissatisfaction arising on this basis and boosting their ratings, by using the simplest political jests.”
The long haul truckers are in what is almost a unique situation, “Russkaya planeta” says, and the government’s decision to introduce new tariffs on them and to allow a private oligarch to collect the money threatened to affect Russia more negatively than even sanctions have, transforming its greatest wealth – the enormous size of the country -- into its greatest misfortune.
That is because if these long haul trucks don’t move goods from one region to another, then places like Krasnodar and Volgograd will be as isolated from their Russian neighbors as much as Kaliningrad and Vladivostok already are and will like the latter be inclined to purchase things when they can from abroad rather than from other regions.
That could tear Russia apart, the magazine says; and instead of introducing such tariffs, the Russian government should be building better roads so that the country will be increasingly linked together rather than split into isolated pieces.