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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Unaffected By The Crisis?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ordinary Russians have been telling reporters that they do not believe the current political crises in Moscow will have much impact on their lives or that their views about the various players will have much of an impact on the outcome of political struggles within the country's elite.

Such attitudes almost certainly say more about both the current state and future prospects of the Russian Federation than do the more immediately dramatic events such as Boris Yeltsin's sacking of Yevgeny Primakov or the failure of the Duma to muster enough votes to impeach Boris Yeltsin.

On the one hand, they highlight the declining importance of the Moscow in the lives of most Russians, a decline that helps to explain why so many Russians seem to be able to cope with an ever-worsening political and economic situation and also one that provides some hope for the emergence of a psychological space that might allow for the emergence of a civil society independent of the state.

But on the other, these popular attitudes highlight a continuation of views about authority in the past, attitudes that are almost certain to make it more difficult for the political system to generate authority. If most Russians believe that they have no impact on the choices their political elites make, such a conviction is likely to make them less interested in participating in politics and hence prevent the emergence of a democratic society.

This disconnect between a crisis in the capital and the attitudes of the population in many ways recapitulates in the political sphere what happened in the economy after the devaluation of the ruble and the collapse of Russian equity markets in August 1998.

At that time, many outside observers assumed that Yeltsin's decisions would have an immediate economic impact on the Russian population and that impact in turn would quickly affect the political situation. But that did not happen precisely because the greatest impact of that crisis was on a relatively small part of the population. The overwhelming majority of Russians do not own stock and therefore were largely unaffected by the collapse of the stock markets. Few keep their savings in Russian banks or even in rubles, preferring to hold dollars or other Western currencies. And finally ever more Russians are living in a non-cash, barter economy, one in which they do not receive a paycheck but somehow manage to eke out an existence.

And while members of the economic elite suffered, the Russian people suffered through that event as they have suffered through so much, not becoming angry or organized enough to provide a base for a new political movement to challenge the existing order. Instead, polls suggest, much of their anger was directed at the West, many of whose leaders seemed to them more worried about Russian stock markets than the Russian people.

Now, after the dramatic events of the last week, the same thing is happening. Members of the Russian elite and many outside observers are talking about this or that development as being a "turning point" in the life of the Russian Federation, one that depending on who is talking will either lead Russia to a new and better future or an ever more frightening one.

Such observations may prove to be the case, but the comments of the Russian man and woman on the street suggest otherwise. Instead, these popular attitudes suggest that Russia has a very long way to go before any changes will reflect an organized and insistent public will.

And that in turn suggests something else: It indicates that calls by outsiders for Moscow to change course will either fall on deaf ears or more likely lead the Russian political elite to use authoritarian methods to reorder the economic and political situation. Given the disconnect between Moscow and the population, such an effort would likely fail as well. But such efforts to solve the current crisis could in fact generate a real one.

In this sense and this sense alone, the Russian people now have a voice in what their government is likely to be able to do if not yet one about what they would like it to try to do. That is a measure of both how much Russia has changed and how much further it has to change if it is to become a genuine democracy. And it is also an important yardstick for measuring the true dimensions of crises in the Russian Federation.

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