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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rumbling Stomachs in the Russian Countryside

Jonas Bernstein, writing for Eurasia Daily Monitor:

It is often said in Russia that dissatisfaction with the country’s existing political system is greater among those living in the cities than those living in the countryside. Yet according to one observer who recently traveled through central Russia, dissatisfaction with the status quo is also rising in the countryside but is not being picked up by the country’s pollsters.

Recent polling by the independent Levada Center among the “elite” of the Russian middle class--those aged 24 to 35 and living in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg--found a high degree of uncertainty about the future and a strong feeling that their well-being was precarious, with half of those polled indicating that they would like to leave Russia temporarily or for good. Only 13 percent of those polled by the Levada Center agreed with the statement that Russia had entered a period of protracted stability, while 59 percent said the situation could change for the worse at any moment (see EDM, June 30).

Pavel Voshchanov, the prominent political analyst who served as Boris Yeltsin’s press secretary in the early 1990s, recently traveled through a dozen or so small cities in central Russia, including Dzerzhinsk, Balakhna and Gordoets in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast; Murom in Vladimir Oblast; Kashina in Smolensk Oblast; and Kalyazin in Tver Oblast. He found that contrary to the conventional wisdom, dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo is rising in Russia’s heartland. Voshchanov paints a grim picture of the economic situation in the cities he visited, one that contrasts sharply with the booming economies of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large Russian cities (Novaya gazeta, July 17).

“The Russian province, if you are guided by what it had during the Soviet period, has lost a considerable number of work places. Many of the old ones are closed, and nothing new has been built,” Voshchanov wrote. “The only things new are market stalls and drinking establishments with a scanty assortment of cheap products. There are few fancier novelties because there is no demand for them; no one can afford them. The only people buying [such things] are young people ‘doing management away from home’ (an expression heard from a Kalyazin resident whose son is working as the manager of a large store in Ivanovo). Is it possible to assert that people in the provinces are satisfied with their current situation? No. Prices are moving upward, and on all types of products, but salaries at non-governmental enterprises remain as they were two or three years ago. Two-thirds (and maybe more) of the provincials live off of [their] vegetable gardens. And it is also necessary to get to those [vegetable gardens]--but how, if prices for gasoline in the remote areas are now higher than in Moscow?”

According to Voshchanov, economic dissatisfaction in the Russian heartland is becoming political, although the political dissatisfaction thus far remains inchoate. Still, according to Voshchanov, negative feelings about the country’s leaders, particularly Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister, are growing.

“It is a bit too early to judge President Medvedev; they shrug their shoulders,” Voshchanov wrote. “As a young guy from Kashina put it: ‘We don’t know him.’ But for Putin, the situation is changing for the worse, albeit slowly. It looks as if he, without wanting to, has stepped onto the minefield of Russian hostility and could easily become the target which, after a time, could be taking all the shots. This has already happened in Russia, and more than once: universal adoration (all the more so if it is produced … by pretty television pictures) quickly turns into universal hostility. The countryside voted for Putin largely because it remembered the soul chilling lack of money of the Yeltsin years, and with his [Putin’s] arrival in the Kremlin at least something returned to life, at least pensioners began to receive their crumbs … on time. But the pocketbook always dictates to the head. And what is it dictating this summer? It is not difficult to figure out.”

According to Voshchanov, the utilities bill for average Russians, which now accounts for a significant chunk of their monthly expenses, could end up playing a much larger role in Russian politics than “the packets of shares with multi-million [dollar] face values that casually end up in the hands of those who are currently close to the authorities or the authorities themselves.”

Voshchanov concludes that it is hard to believe polling data suggesting that those in the heartland are more satisfied with their situation than those in the cities. “Probably, behind the statistical calculation, the precision of which I am not disputing, is hidden something impossible to describe quantitatively,” he wrote. “For example, an unwillingness to speak openly to strangers about such delicate subjects. People in the provinces are distrustful, because it’s a stone’s throw from them to the boss, who is below only Putin and God, and they know first-hand how his revenge might be expressed. Assurances that everything will be anonymous and that they don’t have to sign anything don’t help. Anyone who thinks that this is the result of being downtrodden is mistaken. It is an intuitive lack of faith in justice, expressed in the formulation: ‘You leave, but we live here’” (Novaya gazeta, July 17).

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