Friday, September 28, 2018

Pension Reform Program Seen Leading to Rebirth of ‘Red Belt’ and Even Regional Separatism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 27 – The government’s pension program, now approved by the Duma, may prove to be “a Pyrrhic victory for United Russia,” Aleksey Verhoyantsev says, because while it has not sparked the mass protests many had hoped for, it is leading to “the rebirth of ‘the red belt’ of regions in 2019.

            That term, of course, refers to the regions with decaying industrial infrastructure whose populations reliably voted for communist candidates in the 1990s and could do so again, even to the point, the Svobodnaya pressa commentator suggest, of provoking “an upsurge of separatism” in those regions (

                “The authorities relaxed too much when they saw that the anger of the population over pension reform did not lead to mass protests,” Leonty Byzov, a scholar at the Moscow Institute of Sociology, tells the journalist.  They assumed that that meant the whole issue would soon be behind them.  But there are compelling reasons to think that will not be the case. 

                No one should have expected mass demonstrations, the sociologist says. “The people of pre-pension age who are the most directly affected by the reform are not inclined to show their anger by taking part in meetings.” Russians in general “do not see much sense in meetings, especially people who are already not young.

            Such people “have seen a lot in their time and understand that decisions are taken without them and that going into the streets won’t change anything,” Byzov says. But what we are seeing now, he says, is the rise of protest voting, “and this has happened even more quickly than might have been predicted.”

            The situation in the Far East and Siberia has “long been tense and unstable,” he continues. “The system of power is failing, and people see that the federal center either cannot solve their problems or devotes little attention to them.” They want someone to do something, and they may turn to regional elites.

            “From this,” Byzov continues, “it is only one step to regional separatism when not ethnic borderlands but Russian ones will oppose themselves to the federal center. In the best case, if the Kremlin doesn’t draw conclusions, this can end with demands for some kind of special rights” for this or that region.

            According to the sociologist, “the regions had cause for dissatisfaction with the federal center earlier, but the pension reform poured oil into the fire because it hit the very core of the Putin electorate, people over 60 who had always supported the authorities” in the past but now feel cheated.

             Their votes in the recent elections “can lead to a chain reaction, one in which failures for the authorities in one place will become a model for voters in others. That is, people are beginning to understand that the system is ‘’a paper tiger,’ with which one can fight and achieve something.” Unless Moscow recognizes this and makes changes, things can end badly.

            Moreover, and in addition to this, “a regional elite coming to power against the will of the Kremlin will begin to claim that the people are for it and that it has a right to a certain independence. In political science this is called a split of elites” and it has real consequences for rule.

            Regional elites or at least portions of them “always can use popular dissatisfaction in their interests against another part.  As a result, regional groups will present the center with extremely serious demands” because one is speaking “not only about regional business elites but also part of the regional siloviki who may join them.  And this is already serious.”

            Another expert with whom Verkhoyantsev spoke is skeptical that this change will occur in the radical form Byzov suggest. “I do not think,” Sergey Vasiltsov, a former KPRF Duma deputy who now heads the Moscow Center for Research on Political Culture, that the Russians will take cross this line. They haven’t earlier and are unlikely to do so now.

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