Staunton, May 4 – The reasons Russians are protesting haven’t changed but the composition of those taking part in protests has, Boris Kagarlitsky says; and the groups that are likely to form the nucleus of a new social explosion are not the young and the pensioners as in the past but men in their 30s and lower and mid-level state employees.
In a wide-ranging interview with Kazan’s “Business Gazeta,” the Moscow sociologist says that his projection reflects certain underlying trends in Russian life whose implications have sometimes passed unnoticed, including in the first instance the degradation of the institutions of the social state (m.business-gazeta.ru/article/309544).
As long as the economy was growing and incomes were rising, no one paid much attention to these government support mechanisms because most people did not have to use them; but now that the economic situation is getting worse, Kagarlitsky says, “we have suddenly discovered that these mechanisms do not work.”
Not surprisingly, he continues, that has changed the composi, tion of those doing the protests even if it has not changed what they are protesting about. “Earlier the protesters consisted of pensioners or young people or those in very specific situations with a particular problem.”
Some of that kind of protest, which Kagarlitsky calls the protest of despair, continues; but it has been joined by a larger group of people, more male, aged 30 to 40, with families who had jobs but have lost them and who are now ready to protest. That is, he continues, the groups that earlier were viewed as the most stable and the least likely to strike.
This has the paradoxical consequence that initially, this new composition of the protests “lowers the degree of protest and the level of its radicalism” because unlike young people who have not yet been integrated into the economy and the pensioners who believe they can count on something, these are people who have something to lose, know it, but are driven to act.
Look at what has happened in the Donbas, Kagarlitsky says. There the main participants in the pro-Moscow movement “are not the young. They are adult males … [who] went their consciously and understood what they were going for.” They also understood the risks and were ready to take them because of a sense that they had no other way out.
Many people now talk about “the terrible Russian rising,” he says; but “these people do not want risings.” However, if they are driven into a position when they feel that is the only option, “this will be very serious” -- and not any playing at revolution as some of the marginal in Russia today do.
This group of people is broader than what is meant by the working class, Kagarlitsky says. It includes all who live from paycheck to paycheck. “But there is another category of citizens” that make it up and that are all too often “underrated.” These are “the middle and lower ranks of the Russian bureaucracy,” a group that is seldom studied.
Because Russia remains “extremely bureaucratized, there is an enormous mass of petty and mid-level bureaucrats who now make decisions or are people we do not consider bureaucrats but they work for the state such as the head or dean of a faculty in a higher educational institution or a deputy chief doctor in a hospital.”
“However paradoxical it may seem,” Kagarlitsky says, “our crisis and the neo-liberal reforms have hit this mass of people harder than the population as a whole” because they are subject to pressure “from all sides.” Their incomes are falling, they are losing their positions, but they are still required to act, often against their own interests.
At a certain point, he says, they will revolt; but “this will not be a rising of those at the bottom. This will be a rising of the lower and mid-level links of the state apparatus which already now with all its force is sabotaging the neo-liberal policies [of the central government] at the local level.”
The central government understands this because it has created the problem by giving the regions ever less money while demanding that they be ever more responsible. This leaves regional officials “between the hammer and the anvil” with “a dissatisfied population below and conflict with those in power above them.”
Such feelings will only be exacerbated by “the senseless parliamentary elections this fall,” Kagarlitsky says. And the Kremlin knows this: these people are and will remain loyal to Putin but only as a specific individual “but not to the system” and they are thus available for mobilization against the system but not the president.
“This is an unprecedented situation,” one in which such lower level officials have a remarkable degree of freedom. “For the authorities and for our liberals, the marker is the attitude toward Putin. But for society, this is far from the main criteria.” Russians agree on that but not on other things.
“For liberals and hurrah patriots, the key questions are how we relate to Putin, Crimea, the Donbas or the Americans; but for society, these aren’t questions of interest because on them there is already a consensus. No one in Russia wants to give Crimea back to Ukraine … and therefore it is completely uninteresting for society if that is discussed.”
In many respects, Kagarlitsky continues, “Putin is our Queen Victoria,” “not an absolute monarch” but more than a mere “decorative figure,” someone whose opinions have to be respected and followed but whose opinions aren’t expressed on all things or followed on many of them.
That can be seen in voting in primaries and in single-member districts where the powers that be have not always won or even controlled the situation. “In the future, this will be even more true,” the Moscow sociologist says. In a sense, this “recalled the times of perestroika” when the regime felt compelled to try to reform itself.
But as de Tocqueville warned and as Russia has experienced, the worst time for a bad government is not when it is at its worst but when it tries to correct its mistakes. Then, it can lose control with others coming it to demand change. It is possible that Putin may remain popular at least for a time, but his current system may be destroyed by pressure from above and below.