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The Middle Class: After Decades Of Disruptions, A Weak Force For Change

  • Charles Recknagel

Perhaps to maintain stability, Azerbaijan spends about twice as much per year on law enforcement as it does on social services. This year, police salaries again went up, while those of teachers went down.

Perhaps to maintain stability, Azerbaijan spends about twice as much per year on law enforcement as it does on social services. This year, police salaries again went up, while those of teachers went down.

There are many people from the Balkans to Russia to Afghanistan who define themselves as middle class, either by their income level or their educational level. But as a social force for change in their societies, this emerging middle class remains noticeably weak. We look at why in this second of our three-part series on the middle class.

The Western middle class has historically been a potent force for demanding a greater voice for citizens in how their countries are governed.

But professionals and small-business men across much of Eurasia have yet to become such a force or, often, even to agree on common goals.

There are a number of reasons why.

One is the apathy and cynicism that come from a long experience of living in precarious circumstances.

In the countries of the former Soviet Union, economic necessity forces many people with high social ideals to betray them in their own daily lives.

Moldova offers just one example. Many doctors and teachers who resent corruption in the government say they still have to supplement their own meager state salaries by accepting gifts and bribes.

"Low salaries cause many problems, of course. Corruption and bribery in the medical field is just half-true," says Valeriu Ursu, a doctor who left medicine to start his own business.

"Sometimes it's just genuine thanks from a patient for the doctors' efforts to cure his or her illness. Unfortunately, there are also cases when a patient is forced to spend some money," he adds. "This is a big shame and a big problem."

As a result, many professionals opt to leave the country. Some 16 to 27 percent of Moldova's total work force, not counting the breakaway region of Transdniester, now works abroad.

The kind of corruption that is so pervasive in Moldova can cripple efforts to mobilize the middle class as a force for civic or political action.

To fund activities, civic groups need to solicit financial contributions. But that requires the public to trust the organizers not to pocket the contributions themselves. When corruption is commonplace, such trust is hard to find.

Too Small To Make Change

But the problems can run deeper than that.

In many post-Soviet countries, middle-class organizers never even emerge because they are actively suppressed or co-opted by ruling elites.

In extreme cases, the mechanism for suppression is trumped-up criminal cases and imprisonment. But on a daily basis, it takes the much simpler form of rapacious taxes and fees targeting small businesses.

The taxes are so high that they keep small business from growing larger and generating the kind of income that could sustain civic movements.

The only escape from officials levying taxes or demanding payoffs is to leave the country or try to join the inner circle of the regime.

So, instead of trying to grow their business, small shop owners in Armenia, for example, try to stay low-profile enough to avoid the attention of officials. The result is that any serious activity in the country remains in the hands of the government and its loyalists.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) regularly criticizes this status quo.

"It's a long process to go from a centrally planned communist economy to a market economy, so already a lot of progress was made, there are a lot of market mechanisms that are now working in the economy," Nienke Oomes, the IMF's representative in Yerevan, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service in November.

"But there is a lot more to do, more competition is needed in a lot of sectors. A lot of sectors are dominated by one or two large companies that have a monopoly or an oligopoly."

Captured By Patronage

In energy-rich countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, ruling elites keep oil and natural gas firmly in their own hands as state monopolies. And this offers still more mechanisms for keeping any independent-minded middle class at bay.

In Azerbaijan, all patronage flows from President Ilham Aliyev.
In Azerbaijan, oil wealth funds a patronage system that radiates outward from the president to his immediate family, his distant relatives, and all those who can tie themselves to them through business dealings.

This creates a public-sector middle class that is entirely loyal to the system. At the same time, it puts at a disadvantage anyone who tries to succeed in business privately. Such independent-minded people are easily pushed aside by those with connections.

Perhaps to maintain stability, the Azerbaijani government spends about twice as much per year on law enforcement as it does on social services. This year, the salaries of law enforcement officers again went up, by 4 percent, while those of teachers went down by about 5 percent.

"It is unfair to divide national money like that. Teachers don't live in Azerbaijan, they just crawl," Arzu Huseynova, who teaches national literature in a Baku secondary school, tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.

"I can't afford too much with my salary, but they raise the policemen's salaries every year when they are already rich."

As Baku assures no middle class develops that might be a force for greater democracy, the torch for social change passes to other hands. Today, political opposition to the regime is led by Islamists, who use the power of religion as their organizing force.

Breaking With Tradition

In some other countries, the middle class is weak because it is divided. This is particularly true in Iran, where a modern middle class of urban professionals is at odds with a traditional middle class of shopkeepers, known as bazaaris.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 succeeded partly because of the strong partnership forged between the clergy and the bazaaris. Among their shared values is maintaining Iran's preindustrial traditions of bazaar capitalism, whereby rich merchants, not modern technocrats, set economic policies.

Iran's "new" middle class includes students, such as those protesting the reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
This year's postelection protests in Iran saw many Iranian professionals take the street in part because of the government's inability to solve chronic economic problems, including high inflation and unemployment.

Kazem Alamdari, a senior lecturer in sociology at California State University, says, that the clash between these two groups became "especially clear" after the election.

"The traditional middle class, which promotes the values of religion and the Islamic Revolution, is challenged by the [country's] new 'global' middle class, which has emerged especially over the past 30 years," Alamdari says.

"This new middle class has new and universal demands [for reforms] which are beyond the abilities of the tradition-bound government to deliver. The new middle class is composed mostly of students and professionals."

Leveling Of War

Elsewhere, particularly in countries recently or still engulfed by war, the middle class is so embattled that today it barely exists.

In the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, wars have sent the middle class fleeing to safer countries, taking their professional and entrepreneurial skills with them.

Even when peace comes, they may never return. And it can take years for a new homegrown middle class to replace them.

"If we are to consider the educated group as part of the middle class, I should say that this group has risen with the new social environment of the past few years," Saifuddin Saihoon, a professor at the economics faculty of Kabul University, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

"But unfortunately, we lack the kind of active middle class in Afghanistan that, in other countries such as India and Iran, is considered as an economic locomotive of the society. We have two classes in Afghanistan. The first one is the elite class of the society that consists of landlords, khans, and the rich. And the second one is the vulnerable and the poor."

When war comes, "the people from the bottom of society come up so fast," one former professional tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "Wartime black marketers now control the destiny of the country, they are today's rich."

Still, with time and commerce, middle classes tend to grow larger and more prosperous. As they do, they acquire the potential to play a wider role in their societies.

But will the emerging middle classes choose to push for greater democracy and freedoms? Or -- given the trauma of their recent experiences -- will they support authoritarian governments that promise stability above all else?

We will look at that question in the third of our three-part series on the middle class.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Radio Free Afghanistan, as well as the Moldovan, Azerbaijani, and Armenian services contributed to this report

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