Objectively, Russia’s current economic problems are nothing like the crisis of 2008. But politically, what matters are not the facts but the feelings, and subjectively Russians are feeling distinctly pessimistic. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s recent and incautious admission that “there is no money” was not necessarily accurate (there appears to be enough for continued military modernisation and a bridge to Crimea), but it put him in the uncharacteristic and, for him, uncomfortable position of one speaking for the Russian people.
Quite how to assess the political implications, though, is rather harder. For one thing, although the assumption is generally that misery means militancy, in practice this is less clear-cut. It tends to lead to labour unrest and the like, to be sure, but outright political upheavals tend rather to be the product of thwarted expectations – a people who thought that they were heading to sunlit uplands but resent being led into yet another gloomy mine.
Of course, the alternative is that the state itself forces the issue, and Russian history offers ample examples. The crash industrialisation of the late 19th century saw terrible conditions for the urban working poor. Many of the factories were owned by the state or state functionaries, though, and when the workers protested, they were often regarded not as simply seeking better conditions but as outright traitors. The consequent repressions helped ensure the emerging working class considered the state its enemy. Most dramatically, 1905’s “Bloody Sunday”, when soldiers fired on a peaceful march hoping to present a loyal petition to the tsar, triggered the “1905 Revolution” – a nationwide wave of violent local unrest, and arguably a precursor to the tsarist collapse in 1917.
Two key questions thus arise: do Russians feels sufficiently “robbed” that their current hardships can generate political discontent? And is the Kremlin likely to do anything to precipitate that process?
Times are bad for most Russians. Real incomes fell by 7.1% in April, according to Rosstat, the worst drop for almost a year. In the monocities dominated by a single enterprise and its ancillaries, unemployment is rising, and even where jobs seem safe, payments are increasingly often in arrears. For the first time since 2008, the proportion of incomes going on food has exceeded 50%. (Though not everyone is feeling the pinch: RBC looked at executive incomes in 15 major companies and found they had risen on average 10-13% since 2013.)
People are unsurprisingly dismayed, depressed. According to the pollster Levada Center, 82% of Russians see Russia as in crisis, however much the government promises improvement just over the horizon. Competing reform plans being laid before the throne may offer some prospect of improvement, but in the short term offer little to ordinary Russians, for that matter. Besides, it is not just that incomes are falling, but that cuts in public services made a year ago are really beginning to bite, and predatory, petty corruption of the sort that had been in decline (in contrast with the enthusiastic embezzlement of the kleptocratic elite) is back.
As a result, labour protests were up 40% in 2015, and provisional figures from the first quarter of 2016 suggest an even greater rise this year. However, this is at present little more than grit in the cogs of the Russian machine, and offers little prospect of being mobilised for systemic, anti-regime reasons.
First of all, in many case the protesters – much like the those marching in 1905 – see the monarch as the solution rather than the problem. They are hoping Putin, or one of his vicars on earth, will step in to remonstrate with corrupt officials, force selfish bosses to pay up, or push money or contracts their way. This is not just a traditional position, it is one Putin himself has assiduously encouraged, and even if he is less prone to travel around his lands these days and has less largesse to distribute, there is still enough to settle many of the more serious protests.
Furthermore, there is a marked lack of any of the agencies which might unite and mobilise what are essentially scattered, ad hoc and self-interested efforts to address specific issues. There is no meaningful, independent trade union movement. Although there are some intriguing signs of life at the base of the Communist Party, in the main it has accepted its role as fake opposition. The kinds of political oppositionists who did manage to tap into labour discontent in the last years of the Soviet Union would quickly be identified, isolated and if need be incarcerated. The FSB and the Interior Ministry’s E Sections (E for Extremism) are ready and waiting for any wannabe Walesas.
In short, there seems from the regime’s point of view at present to be the right mix of pessimism about the future, but cautious optimism that playing the game might induce the Kremlin to respond to your problems, even at the expense of everyone else’s.
Barring some dramatic worsening of the situation, the real risk is that the state does something to turn the scattered unhappiness into outright opposition. So far, it has been relatively deft in most cases, buying off what they could not outwait. However, the September Duma elections and 2018 presidential contest necessarily require a degree of mobilisation. The outcomes of neither are in doubt, but as they are primarily rituals of legitimation, Putin needs not just to win, but to win with a large turnout. Thus, just at the time pragmatism might indicate the value of a hopeless and apathetic population, politics demands mobilisation – and all mobilisations carry with them the potential for a loss of control.
The creation of the National Guard implies also that a degree of worry, even paranoia is being experienced in the Kremlin, disproportionate with the situation on the ground. Even if this does not lead to any heavy-handed overreactions, one aspect of the new Natsgvardiya that has been overlooked by many is its local reach. The core of the force are the former Interior Troops of the Interior Ministry, but by adding to them the OMON riot police and SOBR armed response teams, the Kremlin has ensured that it has a presence in many towns which do not in themselves merit an Interior Troop garrison. They now no longer report to the local chief of police (who typically has an incentive in working with the town government and population), but to Moscow.
A local commander, working perhaps on what he thinks the Kremlin would want to see rather than specific orders, might take matters into his own hands, with potentially devastating implications.
Here, then, is the irony: the Russian people are pessimistic, but apparently too pessimistic to think positive change is, at least for the moment, possible; while at the same time not so pessimistic as to think they have no option but to protest and resist. It may be that the real problem is a pessimism within the Kremlin and its defenders, who as a result will over-estimate the risks they face and as a result be tempted into dangerously counterproductive over-reaction. 1905 was, after all, rooted in timeless human stupidities rather than anything else, and devastatingly quickly turned cautious optimism into reckless anger.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and a Visiting Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/) and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.