Accessibility links

Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Consequences Of Depoliticization

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The failure of Russian Communists on Wednesday to mobilize the large number of demonstrators party leaders had predicted and Russian officials had feared appears to reflect a fundamental shift in popular attitudes on the role of the state, rather than support for or opposition to any particular program or policy.

According to a survey released this week by the Moscow Center for International Sociological Studies, only 12 percent of the Russians surveyed said that they counted on the state to take care of them. In contrast, some 61 percent said that they now rely only on themselves.

Polls taken earlier suggest that this represents a major shift away from the attitudes toward the state that Russians and others living under Communism often displayed in the past.

But while this depoliticization of the population is both a necessary precondition for and a reflection of the emergence of a civic space between state institutions and individual citizens, it also has three consequences, not only for the Russian Federation but also for other post-Communist countries as well that may present problems for both the state and its citizens.

First, as people turn away from the state as the source of support, they inevitably care less about what the state does and are less willing to act on their opinions. That means that neither the state nor the opposition can mobilize them to take action for or against anything.

As a result, the opposition cannot easily get large numbers of people to demonstrate, even if the opposition is taking positions that polls suggest most people agree with. And the government cannot draw on popular support even when it may be doing things that the people have said they want.

And that means that the size of demonstrations for or against anything or anyone are an increasingly poor indicator of what the people want or don't want the state to do.

Second, precisely because people are focusing on their private lives and taking responsibility for them, they are likely to become increasingly upset when the state attempts to intervene in their lives even for the most benign purposes, particularly if it does so in an ineffective manner.

Such attitudes, widespread in many countries and important in limiting the power of state institutions, nonetheless pose a particular danger to countries making the transition from communism to democracy.

While they do help promote the dismantling of the old state, they also virtually preclude the emergence of a new and efficient one. In that case, these countries are likely to find themselves often without the effective state institutions that modern societies and economies require if they are to be well regulated.

And third, countries with depoliticized populations are especially at risk when they face a crisis. The governments cannot count on support because people no longer expect the governments to be able to deliver, and the opposition cannot generate support because people no longer think that the opposition can do anything either.

That danger is especially strong in countries where the governments cannot draw on strong national sentiments. In the Baltic states, for example, the governments have been able to keep depoliticization in check because of the importance of national rebirth to most people living there.

But in other countries, and Russia is the classical example, neither the government nor the opposition is in a position to draw on national sentiments. Not only do many Russians blame the current political system for their problems, but both they and the government are aware that an openly nationalist course would cause alarm bells to ring in many places.

As a result, the depoliticization of the population in the Russian Federation is very much a two-edged sword. It has helped to open the psychological space necessary for the emergence of a vibrant civil society capable of regulating itself on many issues.

But it has also hobbled the regime in a way that means that the Russian government is likely to have a harder time in coping with crises -- and also that the Russian opposition is likely to have an equally difficult time in responding to whatever the Russian government does.