Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Share of Russians Willing to Protest. Never Large, has Fallen Since 2014, Levada Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – The share of Russians willing to protest or take part in any political activity at all, never large in the best of times, has fallen significantly since Vladimir Putin began tightening the screws in 2014.  Instead, ever more Russians are showing their willingness and ability to adapt to the new situation.

            In an interview taken by Roza Tsvetkova of “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Natalya Zorkaya, head of social-political research at the Levada Center, says that not only do fewer Russians now take part in anything remotely political but they are increasingly hostile to those who do, viewing them as “marginal figures” or worse (ng.ru/ng_politics/2017-01-17/9_6904_zorkaya.html).

            That constitutes a major change since 2011-2012 when not all that many Russians took part in protests against election fraud but when “about 40 percent of Russians” supported at least “in a declarative form” to sociologists that they supported those who did. Now, that figure is much, much smaller as a result of repressive laws and government propaganda.

            What is striking, Zorkaya says, is that repressive legislation is supported by a majority of the population, some 55 to 56 percent. While that is not overwhelming, it is one that promotes passivity not only among those who support these government actions but also among those who might be more inclined to challenge them if they felt they would be supported.

            This attitude does not mean that Russians think that “the authorities know better” than the citizens. Rather it represents “a flight from responsibility, a refusal to act and of solidarity with those who could and want to represent public interests and the interests of particular groups. It is,” she says, “a form of self-preservation, of the defense of one’s own little world.”

            According to Zorkaya, “rabid supporters of repressive measures … are a small minority. The main part of the population simply has subordinated and adapted itself to institutional force in order to survive.” Most see now hope for the future or for making a difference in political life and so they simply pull back into their circle of family and friends.

            At the end of 2015, she notes, there was a sharp uptick in panic about the crisis and what would happen next, “but now we see how passions have somewhat subsided.” But neither the one nor the other has led to demonstrations and protests because there is as yet little sense of a corporate identity among Russians as a society apart from the state.

            For that to happen, there needs to be more than simply a growth in the standard of living; there have to be “essential changes” in the nature of the world in which Russians live their lives, Zorkaya says.  That happened among a small group of the more entrepreneurial of the urban population, but it has yet to occur more broadly. Indeed, things are now moving backward.

            “At the very start of the transformation” in Russia, the idea of the inevitability of transit, of economic reforms and the rooting of new democratic values and the construction of civil society was very strong … but a large portion of people who had grown up in Soviet times however much they valued this Western life did not understand” how hard it would be to reach it, a lack of appreciation that affected the elites as much as the masses.

            Not surprisingly when the process turned out to be hard and to require more from Russians than they had expected, they became disappointed in the political process and turned away from it to their own narrow circle, the sociologist argues.

            “The share of people who took an active part in social and political life has remained almost unchanged since the beginning of the 1990s and forms three to four percent of the entire population, while at the same time, such activity in developed European countries is an order higher.” Over the last three years, this Russian figure has fallen.

             Russia suffers from “a horrific deficit of elites for whom the development and modernization of the country in the broad sense of this term is valued and important … the current elite is focused only on holding power and building  up resources” and doing so by tightening control.

            That approach “works now,” Zorkaya says, “because the overwhelming majority of people have subordinated themselves to the situation and want only that things won’t get worse and that they won’t be touched by anything.” As a result, the people lack any “positive basis for self-expression and self-assessment” and remain an “amorphous” mass.

            Appended to her interview are some Levada Center statistics that support her conclusion. Among the many interesting ones, these stand out:

·         The share of Russians who feel responsible for what happens in the country and believe they can influence the direction it takes is less than a quarter of the population.

·         The percentage who have taken part in any political action in the last year has fallen from four percent to three percent since 2014.

·         The share who have discussed politics with family and friends has fallen from 21 percent in 2012 to 15 percent last year, and the share of those saying they have done nothing at all political has risen from 34 percent in 1996 to 49 percent in 2016.


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