Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Are Russians Really ‘Becoming Accustomed to Poverty’?

Paul Goble
Staunton, January 13 – Some Russian experts say that new polls suggesting that Russians expect their own economic situation to deteriorate further suggest that they are “becoming accustomed to poverty,” a development that if true would constitute in their words, “the most serious consequence of the [current] crisis.”

It is certainly true as Dostoyevsky famously observed that mankind can get used to anything, and Russians have displayed remarkable resilience in the face of adversity both in the past and at present. But the evidence does not all point to the same conclusion, however much the Kremlin might welcome such a development.

Instead, the worsening of the economic situation is leading to an increase in the number of crimes of the type associated with deteriorating standards of living, and the rising unemployment rate, both reported and real, means that there are Russians with more time on their hands who may be more likely to support and work for opposition parties in the future.

But even if those trends are overcome, Russian acceptance of increasing impoverishment as a fact of life will have a profoundly negative impact over time by undermining their willingness to engage in the kind of actions like taking risks and sacrificing current well-being for future benefits on which the growth of any country’s economy depends.

In brief, what might be a welcome short-term outcome as far as Vladimir Putin is concerned would almost certainly have the most negative consequences for Russia as a whole in the future.

Writing in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” journalist Nina Zabelina says that “more than half of Russians except a new deterioration of the economic situation,” with real incomes continuing to fall, and “about 52 percent of them now say the worst is still ahead. In 2009, only 30 percent said that (

But on the basis of her conversations with several Russian experts on the economic situation, the Moscow journalist draws the conclusion that “the most serious consequence of the crisis may be that citizens are getting used to life in poverty” rather than seeing it as something from which they can and must escape.

Natalya Zubarevich, a regional specialist at Moscow’s Independent Institute for Social Policy, says that is exactly what appears to be happening. People are increasingly relying on what they can do for themselves – for example, by planting potatoes. “People simply are trying to survive.”

            Their situation, she says, has been made worse by the fact that the current crisis has hit the shadow economy on which most had been relying at least in part about the same as it has hit the public one. That means that Russians have one fewer set of reserves than they did before.
            Andrey Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center agrees.  “What has been taking place,” he says, “could be called negative stabilization.” Workers will see their pay and hours cut, but this will “hardly push citizens toward an active search for work abroad.”  Instead, it is simply leading many to tighten their belts rather than engage in black market activities.

            And Georgy Vashenko of Moscow’s Freedom Finance says that the authorities have the capacity to keep things from getting out of hand even in the marketplace. Up to now, they have made sure that domestic production of alcohol, tobacco, and medicines hasn’t fallen and that prices for these have grown “more slowly than inflation.”

            But two other reports today suggest that Russians may be less accustomed to their new impoverishment. On the one hand, RBC reports that the kind of property crimes that were typical in Russia at the time of the 1998 default – stealing windows from cars and alcohol from stores – are way up (

            And on the other, experts with whom journalists spoke said that analysts should be focusing on the level of poverty and unemployment rather than the price of oil per se to understand what is likely to happen. That is because if people are thrown out of work, they will be more likely to support the opposition in upcoming elections (

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