Thursday, June 16, 2016

Russia has New Version of an Old Problem: a Revolutionary Situation without Revolutionary Leaders, Report Suggests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 15 – Marxists often say that there cannot be a revolutionary situation without revolutionary leaders, Aleksandr Kynyev says, noting that in Russia today, this has been updated to mean that despite rising anger in the population, there won’t be a serious protest movement there unless leaders emerge as a result of divisions within the elite.

            The Moscow political scientist is commenting on a new report of which he was a co-author that has been released by Aleksey Kudrin’s Civic Initiative Committee about protests and political life in Russia’s regions.  That report is available at Kynyev’s comments are at Other comments are to be found in “Vedomosti” (

            The report, which examines the level of socio-economic and political tensions in the federal subjects of Russia, finds that popular anger and readiness to protest are growing in many places but while that is a necessary precondition for political actions, it is insufficient unless leaders emerge who can direct and channel such inclinations.

            As Kynyev notes, the report focused on three areas: the level of socio-economic problems of each region, the quality of the administration in those territories, and the situation within the elite and whether it was united or divided for one reason or another.  And it concluded that problems in only one of these spheres are “insufficient” for the emergence of serious protests.

            “If one recalls Marxism,” he says, “one must have not only a revolutionary situation but also a revolutionary party. Rephrasing this for current Russian realities,” Kynyev suggests, “it is not enough to have a crisis in various spheres; one needs a player ready to exploit this crisis” who can give the protest attitudes shape.

            “The problem is that in the majority of regions, there is no counter-elite, and the opposition, even where it does exit, is typically deeply split, incapable of reaching agreement and in the immediate future is hardly likely to be capable” of changing itself and thus the situation it finds itself in.

            That means, the political analyst continues, that “as a rule,” what the growth of protest attitudes leads to is “information wars, scandals, criminal cases, and sometimes to local protests when people protest about very specific things.”  But it does not lead to greater challenges to the authorities or broader existing policies.

            “Something more global can occur [only] when this situation will have added to it what it is customary to call elite splits,” Kynyev continues.  Whether these emerge in one or another place depends on how much conflict there is in society, how stable the elites are in any particular place, and the quality of institutions which at present is typically very low.

            Low quality institutions do not matter all that much were there are no serious conflicts, he says the report found, “but when the situation gets worse, that constitutes an additional risk,” one that needs to be taken into account in assessing prospects for protests and for the emergence of splits within the elite.

            But conflicts within the elite, he says, emerge when the elite is caught between the rock of declining resources available to its members and the hard place of popular demands. On the one hand, such elites cannot ignore the population but “on the other there are rules coming from above which you cannot meet.”

            “And the stronger the dissonance between the two, the greater the level of their concentration, the more difficult” the position of the elites and the risks of splits increase.

            Another of the report’s co-authors, Nikolay Petrov, gives “Vedomosti” a somewhat more optimistic assessment. He observes that “the political system was set up in a different socio-economic situation and it doesn’t correspond to current challenges.” That is leading to problems but, he suggests, the elections are giving regional elites an opportunity to adjust their positions.

            The ruling United Russia party, he argues, has been driven in that direction by the need to achieve “good results,” bringing in new people and new ideas in the hopes of winning support. But others, such as commentator Konstantin Kalachev express skepticism about this entire project.

            He tells “Vedomosti” that he suspects that the authors of the report reached their conclusions about this or that region first and then looked for evidence that they were right, something that undercuts the study’s value. Others like analyst Mikhail Vinogradov say that the report was of limited value because it didn’t offer conclusions for the country as a whole.

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