Thursday, May 25, 2017

A New Threat to the Kremlin: Russians’ Incomes Not Keeping Pace with Their Expectations



Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – In every federal district except the Far East, Russians say they need more money for “a normal life” than their current incomes, a situation that reflects stagnating wages and salaries and rising prices and one, the editors of Nezavisimaya gazeta say, that represents an increasingly serious political threat to the Kremlin.

            According to a new Romir survey, the editors says, Russians estimate that a family of three needs a monthly income of 83,600 rubles (1700 US dollars), 10,900 rubles (200 US dollars) more than a year ago and greater than the incomes of such families everywhere but in the Far Eastern FD (ng.ru/editorial/2017-05-25/2_6995_red.html).

            Russians have had to get accustomed to “’a new normal,’” the editors say, “but the  not yet forgotten life of the recent past remains the guide” to their judgments about what they in fact need.  In most countries, the emergence of a gap between the two leads to demands for reform, a change in government policy or even the replacement of those in power.

            But while the Russian authorities were only too happy to promote a rising standard of living in the first decade of this century, they “have not created or preserved conditions in which the political realization of dissatisfaction is possible and legal.”  And that means the powers that be now face a problem that to a certain extent is of their own making.

            Many speak about a contract between the population and the powers that be in the early 2000s, one in which the ruling elite guaranteed a rising standard of living in exchange for being free to pursue its own goals. “There wasn’t any such contract, of course,” the editors point out. But the general pattern was clear. It no longer holds on either side.

            “It is possible to call the privatization of institutions and the restriction of the political field instinctual behavior” on the part of elites, the editors say.  Any elite wants to extend its rule and weaken those who oppose it. Thus, “the logic of this process is universal and doesn’t affect only Russia.”

            But other elites recognize more than Russian ones do that “any economic success of any policy is a stick with two ends: it creates a group of beneficiaries of the policy of the ruling elite, the quality of life of which has been improved by the reforms.” And such beneficiaries may be on the left or right.

            Then, however, “a crisis arises. The powers that be can’t spend more, and yet the growth in prices, inflation, and the increasing cost of living require this. Or the powers can’t after one successful round of reforms agree on a second and thus purchase social trust again.”  And those who benefitted earlier are now suffering.

            “The special feature of the Russian situation,” the editors of the Moscow paper say, is that no political force wins points on the basis of the gap between possibilities and needs.” And that is why the powers that be prefer to talk about “Trump, Ukraine, pensions or suicide groups on the Internet.”

            How long that can work remains very much an open question. 

Almost Half of Muscovites Say Nationality Affects Life Chances, Drobizheva Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – In the course of a wide-ranging interview with Realnovremya, Leokadiya Drobizheva, director of the Center for Research on Inter-Ethnic Relations at the Moscow Institute of Sociology, says that roughly 40 percent of Muscovites feel that their life chances and those of others depend on nationality.

            That widespread feeling reflects the influx of migrants that has made the Russian capital far more multi-ethnic than it was, the ethno-sociologist says, but it is far greater than the five percent who say they personally have experienced either favoritism or discrimination (realnoevremya.ru/articles/65566-intervyu-s-etnosociologom-leokadiey-drobizhevoy).

            Among the many points Drobizheva, who has been studying inter-ethnic relation since the 1970s, makes, the following are perhaps the most important:

·         The Federal Agency for Nationalities is underfunded and understaffed, but its head, Igor Barinov, is experienced and quite ready to listen, despite the suspicions some have about him because of his background in the security services.

·         One Russian in five for the country as a whole -- and more in large cities -- is hostile to members of other ethnic groups.

·         Kazakhstan is fully within its rights to choose to go over to the Latin script. The situation in Tatarstan is different because Tatarstan is part of the Russian Federation. But if the Tatars want to make a change, that is “an issue for lengthy dialogue.”

·         The populist nationalist wave that has spread through Europe could come to Russia and for the same reason – the influx of people who are radically different in culture. Indeed, Drobizheva says, Vladimir Zhirinovsky says he and his LDPR party reflect that trend already.

·         Because Tatarstan did not take part in the referendum on the 1993 Russian Constitution. Its relations with Moscow are special. That has resulted in the need for a power-sharing agreement between Moscow and Kazan.  Its extension or modification should be the result of negotiations between the two. Tatarstan should be able to decide on its own whether to have a president.

·         Some Tatars would like Tatarstan to absorb the Tatar portion of Bashkkortostan. That is a problem for the latter republic because the titular nationality is a minority.  In any case, such a transfer would be possible only if there was agreement not only between Kazan and Ufa but also with Moscow as well. Any such agreement is unlikely.

·         Ethnically mixed marriages can be a good thing and not a threat. There are quite a few in Tatarstan: indeed, almost a third of all marriages in the republic’s cities are mixed.  That is “a good indicator” that interethnic relations are solid.  Children will tend to take the nationality that enjoys the higher social status.

·         In Soviet times in Latvia, which Drobizheva studied before 1991, “when the situation was favorable, most in mixed marriages took Russian nationality. When conflicts began, they began to take Latvian.” 

·         The Russian problem really exists in post-Soviet states because it is “connected with the change of status of Russians,” who have “lost their status as elder brothers” and “are not ready to accept the position of minorities,” although international law and practice give them many advantages when they do.

·         A major reason Russians have not left the Baltic countries but have left the Central Asian ones is that Russians view Latvians and Estonians as people having “business qualities” that make them “an equal partner” to the Russians while in Central Asia, the Russians resent being reduced to a minority by people they do not have the same respect for.

Bleak Future for Belarus Seen If Europe Follows US and Ends Backing for Opposition



Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – US President Donald Trump has proposed cutting all assistance to the democratic opposition in Belarus, a move that if copied by European countries which currently provide far more aid, could make the future of Belarus ever bleaker, according to a Russian analyst.

            Denis Lavnikevich argues on the Rosbalt news agency today that such a cutoff in assistance would lead to the end of many opposition groups without strengthening the authoritarian regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka given that the population is prepared to rise against him as it did earlier this year (rosbalt.ru/world/2017/05/25/1617820.html).

            He cites the observation of Alyona Anisim, one of two independent deputies in the Belarusian parliament, that the opposition “over the course of many years has taken principled positions by directing all its efforts and rhetoric at criticism of the powers that be.” But with few exceptions, the latter have been unwilling to engage in “sincere” negotiations.

            Yury Zyankovich, a Belarusian opposition figure now living in the emigration, notes that “the opposition has lost its authority” over the population, a situation that would only worsen if outside funding and support is cut off.  That makes mass protests more likely and the result of them “will be not even an invasion by Russian tanks,” but something “much worse.”

            In that event, the emigre activist says, the Belarusian state will simply collapse because “the authorities won’t be able to hold power … and the opposition will not be able to take over” because its organizations will have collapsed.

            “In reality,” the Rosbalt commentator adds, “the mass protests of the spring of 2017 in Belarus were largely spontaneous. The local opposition had to play “catch up” and then tried” to exploit the popular anger.  But if the opposition disintegrates as it might without outside support, there would be no one to channel popular anger.

            Lavnikevich adds: “a sharp reduction of foreign financing [would] force the Bealrusian opposition to begin its own reformation. Today the opposition is studying the problems of people and seeking sensitive social issues for their further politicization.” But soon Belarus may be a place where an angry but unorganized people confronts a frightened and shaky regime.