Russia avoids revolution again

Konstantin Maler
Naysayers are keen to predict Russia’s demise, but despite a difficult year politically and economically, the country has failed to fall apart.

Drawing by Konstantin Maler. Click to enlarge

For at least the past decade, every year some expert inside or outside of Russia has predicted that the country will erupt in revolution, or at least that it is ripe for “regime change.” Numerous books and articles are published annually specializing in forecasts of imminent doom for the Kremlin.

Starting in 2014 analysts began to look for signs of this revolution in the country’s economic troubles. Last year, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke of “turn(ing) the ratchet” on Vladimir Putin and suggested that Western sanctions would “permanently” damage Russia’s financial health.

This trend only continued in 2015. In January, U.S. President Barack Obama declared the Russian economy “in tatters” and in September, CNN reported that Russia’s economy was “failing.” Just this month, opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky warned that a revolution is “inevitable” in Russia.

However, despite the warnings, the country somehow manages to go on.

What revolution?

In 2015, there were numerous potential triggers for a political breakdown. The murder of prominent opposition voice Boris Nemtsov in central Moscow in February was one. It produced prevailing sadness at the horrible end of this public figure, but little else.

Another flashpoint could have been this winter’s protests by long-haul truckers, which have threatened to block major roads across the country. But so far their displeasure has remained confined to a small disruption of traffic on Moscow’s ring road and a very calm meeting with police.

The blackout of Crimea might have sparked restlessness on the peninsula, which Russia absorbed last year, but there was hardly a peep of vitriol against Moscow.

The publication of documents by newspaper Novaya Gazeta and opposition activist Alexei Navalny accusing Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika’s family of being involved in deep-seated corruption could have caused some rage. Chaika’s son has been linked to the mafia and reportedly owns expensive homes in Switzerland and Greece. The general public, however, seems to accept official reassurances that Chaika himself is not involved in any illegal acts and the investigation is the product of dirty political intrigues.

Then there is the currency crisis. Last year, a dollar was worth around 35 rubles; now it’s around 70. Many Russians have lost much of their savings. Opportunities to travel abroad have been snatched away and imported goods have more or less doubled in price. Inflation stands at around 19 percent and 6 million people are expected to fall out of the middle class, which has been the mainstay of Putin’s personal popularity; the number of Russians living below the poverty line has risen to 14 percent.

A different reality

And yet none of these issues has provoked comprehensive protests or popular resistance to the government. Instead, recent opinon poll data from the analytical Levada Center shows that, rather than hurtling into disarray, Russia is actually pretty stable. More than 80 percent of Russians believe that Russian citizenship is preferable to any other, and two-thirds consider themselves “free’.” Fifty-seven percent hope to see Putin re-elected to another presidential term in 2018.

The reasons for such calm are pretty elementary. Firstly, the mixed results of Ukraine’s revolution and the dramatic collapse in living standards there has spooked Russians. They genuinely fear that violent upheaval could lead to a repeat of the chaos of the 1990s.

Another problem is the weakness of the liberal opposition. Sure, the Kremlin makes life tough for its opponents. State TV doesn’t acknowledge them to a great extent and official newspapers largely ignore them. However, the Internet is open, and liberal Dozhd TV and Ekho Moskvy radio allows opposition figures to express their views. But the main obstacle is their lack of unity and the deep fractures in the liberal movement, in addition to a lack of a clear leader and a specific policy platform.

Instead, the opposition offers hopes and dreams with no tangible explanations of how they might actually work and who would direct the policies. Furthermore, leading personalities, with the exception of Navalny and a few others, seem to spend more time courting foreign attention than domestic audiences.

Then there is Putin’s genuine personal popularity and a belief that, no matter how bad things are presently, Russia has improved immensely during the 15 years that he has been in power.

Many Russians who spend time abroad speak of almost entering a parallel universe when they compare Western media coverage of Russia and their own practical experiences at home. Most Russians would never claim their country is perfect by any measure, but they do largely believe that foreign impressions of Russia are far too negative. Without question, these are challenging times in Russia, but the people are already accustomed to upheaval and don’t seem to be panicking. The revolution has been postponed. Again.

Bryan MacDonald is a Moscow-based commentator.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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