Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Pandemic Transforming Russians from Obedient Subjects to Questioning Citizens, Vinogradov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 4 – In response to the challenges the pandemic presents and the actions officials have called for or allowed, “a significant part” of Russian society is undergoing a transformation with its members no longer acting as obedient subjects who always do what they’re told to citizens who question what the powers are doing, Aleksandr Vinogradov says.

            Instead of accepting what Vladimir Putin or other officials are doing, Russians are asking questions, Kazan’s Business Gazeta commentator says. They want to know what laws are the basis for the actions of the powers and why their rights are being limited without any explanation (business-gazeta.ru/article/463930).

            A few have even gone to court, suing officials and demanding explanations, a development that in and of itself is changing the country’s “administrative landscape” by highlighting “cracks” in the administrative vertical and the ideological “mythology” on which it is based.

            It seems likely, Vinogradov says, that “this tendency in the coming weeks of ‘self-isolation’ will intensify further, especially in southern regions of Russia where the growing season is quietly beginning and when work on the land is required for people to earn money.” Those blocked from doing so are going to add their voices to the chorus of questioners.

            This trend has been exacerbated further by the fact that the myth that “Russia doesn’t throw over its own.” In fact, the commentator says, it has shut the border to thousands of Russians who found themselves abroad. “Does that add to the honor and respect people have for ‘the power vertical’? The question is rhetorical; the answer is negative.”

            Moreover, Moscow’s response to the pandemic has placed enough burdens on small and mid-sized business without much hope of compensation. While such enterprises form only about a fifth to a quarter of the Russian GDP, they perform “a most important social function” by providing jobs and focus to millions of Russians.

            By ignoring their needs, Moscow is ignoring the needs of their employees and the employees’ families – and all three can see that with ever greater clarity.

            And Moscow has also put the regions and municipalities in difficulty by making them responsible for the response to the pandemic but not giving them the resources to do to effectively. Not surprisingly, these levels of governance are shocked and confused and trying to figure out what to do not on Moscow’s orders but in terms of their own needs.

            Some of their actions have been ill-considered perhaps, like Ivanovo which called on residents not to rent rooms to Muscovites fleeing the city or Chechnya which has shut itself off from the rest of the Russian Federation.  But that is no surprise in the absence of guidance and in the absence of laws that govern the situation. When some are arbitrary, others will become so.

            As a result of all this, Vinogradov says, it is very likely that when the pandemic ends, “the regional authorities with the complete support of their people will begin to pose to Moscow uncomfortable questions and what is more fight tooth and nail to hold on to the broader powers they have acquired de facto.”

            This will be a long way from real federalism, of course, he continues. But it will represent a reordering of the political system and a transformation of its people.

            As evidence of what this process is likely to look like at the regional level, Vinogradov points to what is happening even further down the political pyramid at the municipal level. In the Irkutsk city of Sayansk, its mayor overruled Moscow and told businesses to continue to work into April.

            Moscow moved in and got this order modified, but what is important, Vinogradov says, is this: Borovsky, in response pointed out that he “comes from the milieu of entrepreneurs and know on my own skin all the difficulties of this sphere … Therefore, I take on myself full responsibility.”

            The kind of responsibility that those above him haven’t been willing to shoulder but precisely the kind that citizens rather than subjects are likely to respect in the future.

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