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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Avoiding A Social Explosion

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The new International Monetary Fund loans may help the Russian government to cope with its structural economic problems. But this assistance will not by itself solve or even necessarily force Moscow to address increasing popular dissatisfaction.

Indeed, if the new funds are used primarily to defend exchange rates and market values and to stabilize the existing economic oligarchy in Russia, the latest loan could have the effect of exacerbating the situation.

And because of this danger, both the Russian government and international lending agencies are going to have to monitor the way in which these loans are used far more carefully than has been the case up to now.

Prior to the decision to grant additional funds to the Russian government, most Russian and Western attention focused on the immediate economic situation and the need to take action lest a collapse of the ruble or of the financial markets trigger social disorder sometime in the future.

Except for Russian President Boris Yeltsin's suggestion on Friday that his government now has "enough force to cut short any extremist plans to seize power," much less attention has been given to Russia's current social problems and the way in which they might play out in the absence of a loan.

But a new poll about how Russians view the situation in their country and the ways in which they believe people should respond to it suggests that these problems deserve far more attention from both Moscow and the West.

Conducted by the Moscow Center for Social Forecasting and Marketing, the poll found that some 89.6 percent of Russians now view the situation in their country as "critical" or "disastrous" and that large numbers of them are prepared to support more active forms of public protest than in the past.

The Center's director, Frants Sheregi, told "Komsomolskaya pravda" last week that both these figures were far higher than a year ago and rivaled the figures for 1993, the year of the armed confrontation between Yeltsin and the Russian Supreme Soviet.

Even more disturbing, Sheregi said, were findings that ever more students are now interested in taking part in protest actions. Three years ago, only a little more than two percent said they would take part in protests. Now almost half declare their willingness to do so.

And in addition, more than half of all those polled said that they supported the blockade of the Trans-Siberian railroad in May, and some 41.5 percent said they would join strikes by the miners.

Sheregi concluded that his poll, taken in 64 places across the Russian Federation, showed that "Russians do not trust their state" because they believe that it "cannot protect them from economic tyranny and burgeoning crime." As a result, they are increasingly willing to participate in various protest actions.

But Sheregi also indicated that Russians now distrust other institutions, including the existing political parties and labor unions, even more than they trust the state. And he argued that any social "explosion" will be "spontaneous" and disorganized.

That suggests that the current Russian regime may have more time to sort out its current difficulties than might otherwise be the case. But it also suggests that one or another political force could emerge as Moscow tries to stabilize the situation using the new international loans.

On the one hand, if these new loans do little to improve the standard of living of ordinary Russians, many of the latter may become ever more interested in listening to those who seek to appeal to class interests.

That will be especially true if some of the current economic leadership appears to have benefited in any significant way.

And on the other hand, if the IMF and other international lenders appear to be too interventionist in their advice, ever more Russians may also become more responsive to those politicians who seek to appeal to nationalist interests against the West.

Either of these developments could derail any progress that the new loans may make possible, and consequently, both Moscow and the West will have to keep these social dangers in mind as they design their economic programs.

Failure to do so by either could lead to the explosion that neither wants and thus undercut the very help that the international community has extended to the Russian government.