An Interview with Jadwiga Rogoża, analyst and Russian expert at the Centre for Eastern Studies, Warsaw. Interviewer: Zbigniew Rokita
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: Who are the people now protesting on the streets of Russia?
JADWIGA ROGOŻA: This movement is quite varied with a true melange of all political worldviews. One can come across the radical left, communists, as well as nationalists. However, the mainstream are the people with liberal-democratic views who have either been supporting those in power or who haven’t had any previous involvement in any political initiatives. They are the back bone of today’s protest movement. What unites them is not their political views, but rather their sense of belonging to the same social group: the middle-class. These people are educated, well-off and enterprising, and they are interested in changing the system. Their interests contradict the interests of the ruling political elite – they feel they have achieved considerable success under Putin, but now they want further development, and feel that the state is an excessive regulator of economic, political and social spheres. One example of this is running a business in Russia, which is an extremely hard task with bureaucracy, systemic corruption and excessive control getting in the way. The middle class is interested in restricting the role of the state especially in the sphere of the economy, and their protests are not a matter of a temporary euphoria or an indignant reaction to statements by Vladimir Putin. There is a deeper conviction is behind them; something that has been evolving over the last few years. This is why the protests are likely to continue.
The second reason for the social unrest is the moral and aesthetic aspect which complements the economic one. The middle class has started to perceive the current government as anachronistic, outdated and unfashionable. Moreover, people feel irritated with the arrogant style of rule, as the leading politicians don’t even keep up the appearance that key decisions should be consulted with the public. So, for years, Putin’s support was the done thing. Society opted for a strong government embodied by a strong man. This trend is fading.
So is Putin no longer cool?
No he’s not, and his actions often ill-timed. For those who are young, active and ambitious, he is a man of yesterday. He has outplayed his role, although most of the protesters admit, that in the 2000s, Putin handled many of the challenges pretty well: separatism, terrorism, and the difficult economic situation. That being said, what helped him was the economic boom which enabled Putin to materialize his plans and finance political and social stability. However, a considerable part of society today believes that Russia faces new challenges. Ones Putin is unable to tackle.
A sixty-year old tiger hunter…?
Yes, the things which were convincing ten years ago, may only be well received now by a part of society. Russians are increasingly making fun of the so far unquestioned leader, with his macho tricks and his alleged plastic surgery. Putin’s face which is changing physically, is a symbol of him trying to stop the passing time.
And what about the part of society which didn’t take to the streets: Is there a conflict of interest between the state employees and those in power?
The interests of public sector workers – doctors, teachers, employees of the institutions of force and the large state enterprises – and the interests of those in power largely coincide. These people rely on the public budget and mainly count on the government which is expected to increase their pay and social benefits, as well as protecting their organizations from bankruptcy. The government does this to maintain social stability, which is why public sector employees are the government’s most loyal support base.
Do they still trust the government?
To a certain degree they do, and even those who have stopped trusting the government will not get involved in active protest because they owe too much to those in power, or are actually dependent on them. You may no longer trust somebody, but if you are financially dependent on them, it leaves you little room for manoeuvre.
And what about the wealthiest?
The wealthiest Russians have a lot to lose and are also dependent on those in power. They might support the protesters in a covert way, and have to wait until the moment is right, i.e. when the erosion of Putin’s system deepens even further and the discontented have more chance to succeed. However, apart from the “actively discontented”, there are many “undecided ones”: the official opposition (Communists, A Just Russia), part of the nomenclature, businessmen, and the regional elites. These groups will be loyal to those in power as long as the government is strong. Should the government become even more unstable, they can quickly change sides.
Today, those who are out on the streets are those who are no longer afraid and want to publicly demonstrate their discontent. It is not the majority of society, but it is its most active and ambitious part. We have to bear in mind that these protests are unusually large for Russia as they have taken place in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other cities across Russia. It is also important to emphasize that it takes much more courage to protest on the streets of, say, Vladivostok, than it does in Moscow. In the capital people are more anonymous, while in Vladivostok, the local government keeps an eye on almost every demonstrator.
In that case, what should happen for this movement to be able to go nationwide?
You are probably expecting too much. This movement will not go national. Russian society is split into several camps. Those who want change and whose interests are in conflict with the system, will go on protesting. A large part of society, including the employees of the public sector and the pensioners, are interested in stability and the preservation of the current system. There is also a considerable part of society, people living on the brink of poverty in the countryside and small towns who have no idea what is going on in politics, and no interest in it.
It is important to have realistic expectations about Russia. There will be no Arab Spring-style revolution or anything like the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. The situation in Russia is different, and these different problems have brought Russians out to protest. The middle class will not be camping out in tents outside the Kremlin nor will they loot shops or attack government offices. Russia is a huge country, and this in itself is a serious hindrance to mass protest.
However, Moscow alone still remains a sufficiently important centre to initiate political change. 100,000 people on the squares of the capital is enough to upset the government and further mobilize the discontented. However, let’s not expect that the protesters will dismantle the whole regime immediately and put democratization into practice. It will be a long process, and its outcome remains unclear. After the elections, which Vladimir Putin will most likely win in the first round, the protest movement may lose momentum. To see serious change we may have to wait several years.
Does this mean that despite the declarations made by Dmitry Medvedev, we should not expect the simplification of party registration that would lead to increased political pluralism?
If we talk about concrete legal amendments, the simplification of the party registration process is possible. However, the government may implement it in a way that will not change the whole system. The law which the incumbent president has already submitted to the Duma will probably be passed, albeit in a changed form. The result the government may be counting on is for many competing opposition parties to be able to register, which will make it hard for them to reach any understanding and develop a common strategy. This will discredit them in the eyes of the electorate.
Indeed it is a part of the government’s electoral strategy: the pro-government media are currently trying to remind society about the political chaos of the 1990s, and are presenting the opposition as a fragmented and internally divided group, allegedly acting with inspirations from the West and seeking to destabilize Russia. The ruling elite is also trying to drive a wedge between the opposition activists by publishing wiretaps of their conversations with unflattering comments about their companions. And through such means, the government is trying to show that only Vladimir Putin can offer Russians a viable agenda for the next few years, guaranteeing stability and further development. Finally, rallies in support of Putin are being organized to counterbalance the opposition protests.
Are participating in these pro-Putin rallies coming to them voluntarily?
There are indications that these people are being bussed in. Some receive payment for their participation while others come out of fear of losing their jobs. Many participants are workers of state-run companies or institutions (for example the postal service, schools, or companies like Rosneft). These rallies are often manned by entire work crews. And structures associated with the government handle the organisation.
For example the All-Russian National Front…?
Yes. There is a top-down flowchart seen in many similar initiatives: from the organization of these rallies, to the formation of Putin’s National Front which incorporates entire state-owned enterprises, up to the creation of the United Russia party with the state bureaucracy enrolling on a mass scale; something which allowed the party to get one million members at a time when Russia was suffering from mass political passivity.
Does Putin still have something to offer? Does he have any new ideas for Russia? Or is he politically bankrupt?
Putin does have a generous offer for his most faithful electorate. Each week of the last few weeks, the incumbent prime minister has published articles presenting his agenda in different spheres and his vision for Russia in the coming years. However, he is offering his supporters a vision of a strong welfare state: thus he is trying to convince the already convinced. He hasn’t proposed anything to the “discontented” middle class. Fulfilling their demands, such as relaxing control of the state over the economy and the social sphere, would inevitably accelerate the erosion of his power.
Jadwiga Rogoża is a Russian expert for the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies.
Translated by Adam Reichardt