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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Why Don't Russians Rebel?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's enormous economic and political difficulties over the past several years have prompted many there and elsewhere to ask -- why don't more Russians go on strike or engage in political demonstrations?

A new U.S. Information Agency report, "Who Protests in Russia," both reports how few Russians have taken part in such protests and provides at least part of the answer as to why.

Based on extensive polling in Russia over the last few years, the report says that only seven percent of Russians claim that they have taken part in any political rally or demonstration, and only four percent have gone on strike. The report further suggests that the number of Russians prepared to engage in such protests has been declining.

And it explains these figures by suggesting that overwhelming majorities of Russians do not take part in such protests because they do not believe that either economic actions or political demonstrations will in the end do them any good.

But the report's focus on those who do protest calls attention to three factors which could mean that this trend will be reversed, leading more Russians to take part in strikes and demonstrations over the next few years, and thus, to challenge existing power relations in Russian economic and political life.

First, as the report shows, those Russians who feel personally desperate, who have not been paid for extensive periods and who lack alternative sources of support are far more likely to protest than those who do not.

Up to now, many Russians have refrained from doing so either because they did not think protests would work, because they still felt they had something to lose, or because they could turn to family and friends for support.

But if conditions deteriorate, as now seems likely, and if people learn about strike actions or public protests, then ever more Russians will fall into this "personal desperation" and thus, may take to the streets.

Second, according to the USIA report, Russians who are members of a trade union or are active supporters of one or another political party are far more likely to participate in demonstrations than those who do not.

Over the last three years, the presence of a trade union in a workplace "more than doubles" the likelihood that those employed there will participate in strikes or other forms of protest.

And during the same period, those who report "a great deal" of interest in politics are almost eight times as likely to participate in strikes or protests than those who say they have "no interest at all."

On the one hand, this pattern suggests that strikes may become more likely as political parties try to use trade unions in order to reach more voters. So far that has not happened very often. Thus, the report notes that only six percent of employed Russians now say that a member of the Russian Communist Party member has asked them to join a protest.

And, on the other, it implies that as more Russians focus on politics during the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, an increasing number of them are likely to participate in public demonstrations.

That will be particularly likely, the USIA study suggests, if Russian political parties run campaigns that seek to identify who is to blame for Russia's current predicament. That is because Russians who think they know "who is to blame" are far more likely to protest than those who do not. Moreover, because of the overlap, the USIA polls found that between those who protest for economic reasons and those who do so for political ones, any increase in economic protests could spark an increase in political protests, and vice versa.

And third, as the USIA report notes, the roughly 7.5 million Russians who have participated in protests over the last several years may see their numbers grow if additional Russians working in jobs they consider strategically important are able to successfully challenge the authorities and win concessions or at least back pay.

Consequently, as the Russian government and Russian firms attempt to live up to their promises to pay back wages, workers who have not yet received them may seek to use strikes to catch up with those who have. And that in turn could lead to an explosive cycle that the authorities might find difficult to contain.

None of this is to say that Russia is about to face a tidal wave of strikes and political demonstrations. Rather it is to note that the passivity many Russians have displayed up to now is the product of specific experiences and calculations, just as much as it reflects some underlying national culture.

And thus, it is to suggest that as in the past, the quiescence the Russians now display could end more quickly and explosively than many observers now predict.