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Elite Ideology, Mass Protests, and Russia’s Democratic Prospects

The mass protests in 2011 and 2012 have caused heated debates about the trajectory of Russian politics. Some experts believe that this political awakening portends an early end to Putin’s rule, while others predict a crackdown on the opposition and perhaps even mass repressions. How will the ruling elite respond to this challenge?

The mass protests in 2011 and 2012 have caused heated debates about the trajectory of Russian politics. Some experts believe that this political awakening portends an early end to Putin’s rule, while others predict a crackdown on the opposition and perhaps even mass repressions.

In the aftermath of the protests, events seemed to validate the reactionary forecasts. The next year was marked by the passage of several laws that clamped down on political activity and political freedoms. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the protesters’ demands have emerged as an important component of the Russian political agenda. There is now a sufficiently broad stratum of society that is ready to fight for their rights even in the face of repressions. As such, this will continue to be an important dimension of domestic politics in the years to come.

How will the ruling elite respond to this challenge? This depends in part on how close-knit they are. If some members of the elite share the protesters’ demands and values, the conflict (so far perceived as a confrontation between the public – or, more precisely, a portion of the public – and the authorities) is likely to take on a horizontal dimension in addition to the vertical, bottom-up dimension. This, in turn, may lead to a radical change in the entire political landscape.

To gauge how ideologically cohesive the Russian authorities are we have studied how their ideological attitudes evolved over time on the basis of six waves of polls conducted among the Russian elite from 1993 to 2012. Respondents holding key political, economic, military and cultural positions were asked whether they agree, or disagree, with a number of ideological statements regarding the importance of economic and political competition, the balance of freedom and order in society, the acceptability of dissent, attitudes toward Stalin, and others [1].

The poll results clearly show that elites have become progressively less liberal. The statements in the poll can be divided into two groups: liberal and anti-liberal. In the 1990s, the level of agreement with the liberal statements was rather high (>= 4 on a five-point scale), while the anti-liberal views enjoyed much less support. That changed in the 2000s: support for anti-liberal views generally remained at the same level, while support for the majority of liberal statements plummeted. However, it should be noted that this trend applies more to politically liberal positions than economically liberal positions. For example, in 2012 the majority of respondents agreed that business competition benefits the country and that using hired labor for profit is acceptable.

Russian elites are also becoming more ideologically polarized, particularly with respect to political beliefs. This is the result of the aforementioned increase in the number of elites holding authoritarian values. Interestingly, the greatest rise in polarization is seen between 2008 and 2012, when two distinct, ideologically opposed groups – “liberals” and “authoritarians” – emerged within the elite. The latter group is larger and will be reinforced by members of the elite with weak ideological preferences. How might this cleavage influence the relationship between the authorities and the public in the light of recent protests?

In our view, the rising support for non-liberal values is a reflection of elites’ fears that the status quo might be upended. In the event of regime change, a member of the upper echelons stands to lose incomparably more than an ordinary citizen and thus has a vested interest in fighting to preserve the status quo. Inevitably, elites will have to make a choice, and sacrificing their convictions to remain in power doesn’t seem too high a price to pay. Liberal protests in favor of rapid democratization have resulted in a growing feeling of insecurity among elites. In this situation, even liberally-minded elite members prefer to trample their own beliefs and support policies that rely on authoritarian methods of governance (or at least not openly object to them).

A different scenario is also possible, of course. Certain groups within the elite may leverage the popular disaffection with the current regime in their struggle for power and openly side with the opposition. But such an about-face seems unlikely. The state’s repressive power is too great, and the protest movement is petering out. As such, even the most liberal members of the elite do not have sufficient incentives to oppose the Kremlin line.

This state of affairs is likely to persist throughout the next decade, provided there is continued economic growth. A growing economy will enable the authorities to secure the loyalty of the majority that vote with their stomach rather than their heart. At the same time, economic development, as social theory predicts, will spur greater liberalization of public sentiment and demand for democratization. And while the authoritarian elite will continue restricting political rights and freedoms in this scenario, the ruling groups’ preference for a capitalist economy means that the liberal wing of the elite will not be entirely excluded from politics, even if its influence over state policy will be considerably hemmed in.

Thus, the liberal wing is set to be in the minority for the next few years, and will face the difficult choice of either joining the opposition without any hope of success or remaining loyal to the regime and enjoying a modest share of power and rent. It is only grave economic and social problems that could tip the balance in favor of democratic-minded elites. Accordingly, we should not expect any top-down attempts to democratize the system during the next decade. More likely than not, the ruling elite will work together to perpetuate the existing political system.

[1] The full list includes the following statements: “In any society, it will always be necessary to ban the public expression of dangerous ideas”; “Human rights must be protected even if guilty people will occasionally go free”; “The public interest must be protected even if innocent people will be occasionally imprisoned”; “Of all the philosophies existing in the world, only one is undoubtedly true”; “Stalin is accused of things he didn’t do”; “Competition between different political parties will strengthen our system”; “Competition between businesses, firms and organizations will benefit our society”; “It is normal for the owner of a prosperous business that uses hired labor to become richer than other people”; “It doesn’t make sense to start a new business because it may fail”; “All heavy industry should be state-owned, not privately owned.” Respondents were asked to rate their agreement with the statements from 1 (“completely disagree”) to 5 (“completely agree”).

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.