Staunton, June 21 – Protests and conflicts within the elite get more attention, Dmitry Zhuravlyev says; but growing apathy among Russians represents a greater threat to the Putin regime as a whole because it leaves the Kremlin without the foundation it will need if conditions deteriorate and the authorities seek to mobilize the population.
As the July 1 vote on the constitutional amendments shows, the attitude of the population is more “reactive” than real, the director of the Moscow Institute of Regional Problems says. It is based on the notion held by most Russians that “you politicians know what you are doing … and we will support you” (realtribune.ru/news/authority/4697).
“But such support easily shifts to indifference and even to hostile indifference when the social situation worsens and the political system shows people that little depends on their will.” Then people begin to look for solutions on their own and “the political system remains without real external support and any internal crisis may destroy it.”
That was what happened in the USSR in its last years. “I call this ‘political AIDS,’” Zhuravlyev says. “Everything functions normally but any cold can kill.” As a result, both then and now, “demonstrations and protests aren’t as terrible as mass indifference” because they leave the political system defenseless.
“Today, ‘the protest opposition is very weak; it cannot win. But if the powers begin to react too seriously to ‘protest activity’ of the opposition, they will thus show to society their own weakness and the strength of the opposition and this will lead to a strengthening of opposition activity,” the regional specialist says.
The worst thing the authorities could do would be to include protesters in the government because that would show “the weakness not only of the powers but of the political system as a whole” by suggesting that people can enter it not just “via elections but through the streets,” something that would negate voting and thus the entire system.
But there are two other dangers the regime must avoid, Zhuravlyev says. On the one hand, it must not apply too much force not only because that could spread protests rather than suppress them but because doing so would be yet another sign of weakness and give the opposition room to expand.
And on the other, the regime must avoid taking unpopular decisions like the re-denomination of the currency or raising the pension age because the population would view them as a threat to their standard of living and turn away from the powers that be to anyone who promised a different approach.
Today, the Far East is the region most given to protest, he continues, not because of Furgal’s arrest but because people there are accustomed to thinking that they have to take care of themselves and can as long as Moscow doesn’t interfere. They don’t expect or even really want help but they especially don’t want the center to become too involved with them.
What is true of the Far Easterners, Zhuravlyev argues, is also true of the middle class and young people; and consequently, it is very easy to imagine that the Khabarovsk protests could spread to the country’s largest cities where such people are concentrated if the powers that be make mistakes like those they have made in the Furgal case.