No One Understands the Political Situation in Russia

The situation is very complex and is developing very rapidly. Putin has only recently emerged from the highly complicated presidential elections, which represented a powerful political pressure on him. And now the situation is being compounded by the protest rallies in Moscow, which have entered a violent stage, and the global economic crisis.

A report by the Center for Strategic Research (CSR) entitled “Society and Government During Political Crisis” was presented on May 24. The authors of the report, which was written for the Civil Initiatives Committee, analyzed the current socio-political situation in Russia and suggested four possible development scenarios: political reaction, accelerated modernization, radical transformation and sluggish development. interview with CSR President Mikhail Dmitriev.

Can the Civil Initiatives Committee become an institution that will influence the political situation in Russia in the near future?

We would certainly like this. However, the goal of the committee is not to divide political forces, but to bring together all possible civil initiatives aimed at promoting the country’s development. As it is, there are very many forces, including political parties, which are splitting society. We would like to contribute to the development of a force that would maximally facilitate unification. Unification trends are currently much more important than those for dividing people into friends and foes.

What should the authorities do to ensure this?

The main task for the authorities is to start a dialogue with the protest movement. There are more things uniting the protesters and the authorities than dividing them. The goal of both sides is modernization and democracy. Both the authorities and the opposition want to accelerate this process.

From the report:

“Historical precedents show that the Accelerated Modernization scenario is possible only if protests remain peaceful and a political dialogue is launched between advocates of modernization in the government and among protesters. Achieving a compromise on a small number of political issues that provoke acute differences between the sides would allow co-opting representatives of the opposition into the system of government and creating an extended coalition of advocates of active modernization. A successful dialogue and co-optation would strengthen the influence of advocates of consistent modernization in the government and among protesters, and would also weaken the opponents of modernization.”

According to the authors of the report, failure to launch a dialogue would push the conflict towards violence and the Political Reaction scenario.

“The Political Reaction scenario can be triggered by the transformation of confrontation between the protesters and the government into a violent conflict. This would strengthen the government’s dependence on law enforcement agencies, which are heavily influenced by opponents of modernization. The advocates of political violence, most of whom reject modernization, would take the leading role in the protest movement. The numerous supporters of modernization among the protesters would be pushed back because they are less prone to violence. […] At this stage, we assess the possibility of the crisis taking this turn as high, because the escalation of political violence has already begun.”

Is the government assessing the situation correctly?

I don't believe that anyone is able to assess it correctly now. The situation is very complex and is developing very rapidly. Putin has only recently emerged from the highly complicated presidential elections, which represented a powerful political pressure on him. And now the situation is being compounded by the protest rallies in Moscow, which have entered a violent stage, and the global economic crisis. Everyone is suffering from powerful psychological stress. Finding one’s bearings is extremely difficult in such conditions. It is very difficult to make balanced decisions, not to mention making strategic plans. This is Putin’s main problem today.

From the report:

“The second wave of the global economic crisis can trigger the Radical Transformation scenario. The economic crisis could resume due to the partial dissolution of the euro zone, with a rapid decline in growth worldwide, falling prices of raw materials and the accelerated flight of capital from emerging economies. Russia, with over 50% of its foreign trade and about 80% of capital connected with Europe, will find itself in the epicenter of the new crisis. Nascent economic crisis amid an ongoing political crisis will likely spread the protest mood to large groups of people outside Moscow. A combination of an economic and political crisis would most probably result in a quick loss of political control and a chaotic, non-radical transformation of the system of power.”

“The Sluggish Development scenario is based on the assumption that political protests will subside. A decline in the protest movement at this stage would not end the political crisis, but it would definitely slow it down, because medium and long term development factors will come to the fore.”

In Europe, mass protests are usually held for practical reasons, such as an increase of the retirement age, the growing cost of university education, or wage cuts. But the reason in Russia is more global: protesters demand a change of government. Would they achieve more if they were to scale down their demands?

There are two types of protests. In Moscow people protest against [unfair] elections and an outdated system. But only 150,000 people have taken part in these protests. The rest protest against the things you mentioned. When we polled people about the reasons for protest, they mentioned practical issues of local or personal interest, for example, plans to cut down a park, or sewage water running in the street, or growing gasoline prices, or skyrocketing rent and utilities. People also protest against delayed wages or the closure of a company that is their town’s biggest employer. The majority of people say these are the main reasons for protest.

From the report:

“There is a sustainable public demand for reform. It brings together nearly all groups of urban populations in all of the monitored regions… We have seen few focus groups where the majority did not want serious reforms. Most significantly, the list of the key reasons associated with the need for change is short and varies only slightly depending on age, sex, social standing and the region. It includes above all healthcare issues, education, housing and utilities, personal safety and effective courts.”

But people are not yet ready to attend rallies to protest healthcare and education issues. Most respondents said that major improvements are long overdue in these areas, but they would not hold rallies to demand them. They are only ready to protest if fundamental conditions of life are at stake. This is much more important to them than healthcare and education.

Why? Is it because our civil society is underdeveloped?

I don’t know. It is a fact we have registered but cannot explain so far. We are studying this issue.

Still, different interest groups, assemblies are developing within the Occupy Abai movement. Would it help promote dialogue if they tried to tell the government what they really want?

Yes, but I believe that 40% to 50% of success in such a dialogue depends on people’s self-organization. The key element is to prevent their encampment from being seen as a minor get-together, so that the masses – the 150,000 protesters – would be associated with these working groups. Modern communication technologies allow for doing this; we don’t see any major problem in this sense. It’s a pity it has not started sooner.

Download report in Russian

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