Staunton, January 13 – Yevgeny Gontmakher, a prominent Moscow economist and commentator, has invoked one of the most powerful images available about the ways in which the human spirit can overcome ever the harshest and most repressive regimes: “like a blade of grass breaking through concrete.”
As anyone who has been on a sidewalk knows, the concrete always looks terribly strong, but the grass always manages to break through and break it apart. And in “Moskovsky komsomolets” yesterday, Gontmakher says that that is exactly the situation Russian society finds itself now relative to the Russian state (mk.ru/social/2015/01/12/korni-travy-ne-vykosish.html).
The Moscow analyst says he has “no illusions” about the prospects for political protest. Few Russians think that such protests would achieve much, and few are interested in taking part. The reasons for “such apathy” are obvious: the systematic suppression of any competition in the political system and the state’s propaganda “against any democratic values.”
The government’s propagandists have found a ready market for that campaign in large measure, Gontmakher says, because under the cover of democratic slogans, the Russian elite privatized the country’s wealth into its own hands in the 1990s, something that has left Russian skeptical of the whole idea of democracy and willing to believe Russia can go its own way.
But that doesn’t mean that it is time “to bury” the idea of Russian society, he argues, and then Gontmakher suggests that the current crisis is likely to become the occasion for its rebirth, albeit in a way that many, including the regime, may not expect.
According to the Moscow commentator, “the population of Russia can be conditionally divided into several groups in terms of their social-political behavior:” the activists who do what their name implies, the watchers who sympathize but don’t act, the beggars who expect the state to give them things, and the lumpen who don’t expect anything from anyone.
The first group numbers no more than three to five percent, the second, 20-25 percent, the third, “no less than 50 percent,” and the fourth, 20 to 25 percent. In the looming crisis, the activists will become more active, but “what is no less important,” others, including the watchers, will as well to defend their positions regarding employment and health benefits.
In sum, he says, Russia can expect to see “an essential outburst of public non-political activism at the micro-level,” which the authorities may not count as such but which they will be unable to ignore. Much of it will be in cities and in the non-Russian republics “where the traditions of mutual assistance have not yet entirely disappeared.”
When oil prices were high, the state could buy everyone off, but now that they aren’t, it lacks that capacity and thus faces what will be for it “an unwelcome surprise.” The Russian people were prepared to be quiet as long as they were taken care of, but once they aren’t, then things have changed.
The government can’t treat such amorphous actions the way it has treated NGOs. It won’t be able to declare them “foreign agents” or arrest the leaders of groups that will form and reform on a more or less constant way.
More important still, Gontmakher says, this new “activism ‘from below’” won’t be easy to categorize. Terms like liberal, conservative and state supporter won’t matter very much because in this case people “will be concerned with the self-organization of their own lives” and well-being.
Gontmakher says that one welcome indication of this is that the support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and for Putin is combined with “extreme hostility to the state as an institution.” Russians don’t associate Putin with the state: Instead, they see him as “a phenomenon apparently completely different, already not human but mystical.”
“But does this mean that such a kasha will be preserved in the heads [of Russians] forever?” the analyst asks rhetorically. “Hardly.” Eventually people are going to demand answers and resources, and while those demands may first be levied at lower levels of the state, they will eventually focus on Putin as “the supreme arbiter.”
Putin and his regime will thus face a fundamental choice: either they will have to adopt ever harsher measures against the population or allow the emergence of civil society “2.0.” If they do the first, anger at the powers that be will grow and a color revolution becomes possible, one that would make what is happening in the Donbas look like child’s play.
That makes the second possibility more likely at least in the longer term because “as is well known, the grass roots have the ability to grow sometimes even under asphalt,” and even the most outstanding ruler “will not be able to “organize an eternal winter in Russia,” Gontmakher says.