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Season Of Discontent

A student in Chita enters the examination hall.
A student in Chita enters the examination hall.

If writing or speaking about the potential for unrest or discontent in Russia is a crime, then law enforcement officials must be pretty busy these days. It is hard to open up a newspaper or news website without finding pieces warning of potential social flashpoints.

On the most general level, the Levada research center has released a new poll showing that the percentage of Russians who feel the government can improve the situation in the county continues to fall. While 44 percent agreed with this statement last July, by August, it was 36 percent; in November, it was 31 percent; and the survey this month put the figure at 22 percent. Thirty-two percent said the government cannot improve things.

The same survey, however, found continued high approval ratings for President Dmitry Medvedev (75 percent satisfied; 22 percent dissatisfied) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (83 percent satisfied; 14 percent dissatisfied). Even the cabinet scored relatively well considering only 22 percent of the public thinks the government can improve things: 58 percent approve of Putin's government, while 38 percent think it (and he) could do better.

The striking results -- only one-fifth think the government can make improvements, while more than three-quarters back the president and prime minister -- may be explained in part by a Russian tendency toward pessimistic fatalism engendered by many decades of turmoil and catastrophe.

It may also, as I have argued elsewhere, reflect the Kremlin's success at totally marginalizing other political options and personalities besides Putin and Medvedev. In the minds of most Russians, the alternative to the current leadership is, at best, a blank space and, at worst, a rapid descent into chaos. In December, "The New York Times" published an account of how the Kremlin co-opted former opposition leader Nikita Belykh (who was installed as governor of poverty-stricken Kirov Oblast this week) that is full of telling quotes about how politics in Russia works. But the one that stuck in my mind comes at the very end when the reporter asks Belykh if he will support Putin (or Putin's candidate) in the next election: "Mr. Belykh, who typically talks very fast, paused and seemed to choose his words cautiously. 'Ah, tough question, yes?' he said. 'I don’t see any alternative. Given the political landscape, there is nobody else.'"

Whether this pessimism or fatalism mutates into desperation remains to be seen, but experts are increasingly pointing to developments that could nudge society in that direction. The business community -- the portion of it that doesn't owe its success to its insider-connections with the ruling elite -- is increasingly unhappy with the way the government is handling the financial crisis. On the one hand, government aid has been overwhelmingly targeted toward enterprises with strong connections within the Putin elite; on the other, prosecutors have warned businesses across the country that they will file charges against companies that try to "exploit" the crisis by laying off workers or withholding wages. Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika told Medvedev at the beginning of the year that prosecutors are monitoring firings around the country on a weekly basis.

At the same time, in December, a government commission headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov drew up a list of 295 "strategically important" companies that would be first in line for state anticrisis support.

"The list was based on favoritism and the interests of influence groups," Igor Yurgens, vice president of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP), told Ekho Moskvy at the time. "The government did not conduct a sufficient dialogue with society." (Interestingly, an article in "Novoye vremya" this week on the possibility of an emerging split between Medvedev and Putin noted that "according to insiders in the government, Putin doesn't show much interest in the recommendations of experts.").

Seemingly undaunted (or increasingly desperate?), the RSPP today unveiled an appeal to the government to vastly expand the list of lucky firms to include the top 15 enterprises (in terms of employees and turnover) in each of the country's 83 regions. The union intends to create its own shadow list of companies that should be supported and to monitor their situation month by month.

Another possible source of discontent looming on the horizon is being trumpeted by Russian Education Foundation and academician Sergei Komkov. Komkov is worried about the Unified State Examination that all secondary-school students must pass beginning this year in order to get into universities. Forecasting from the results of testing so far, Komkov is predicting that as many as 120,000 young Russians could leave school this fall without qualifications to continue their studies. In addition, he told a press conference on January 21 (see video here), about 80 percent of the technical-training institutes (PTUs) that once provided vocational training for such youths have been shut down over the last 15 years.

In short, an enormous number of youths will finish school without certification at a time when finding work will be extremely difficult without any realistic prospect of learning a trade. Komkov warned that Russia could face student uprisings on a par with those seen in France in 1968, which, he notes, brought down the government in Paris.

But the situation in Russia could be worse, Komkov says, because of ongoing reforms of the military that are expected to leave 300,000 officers out in the cold over the next three years. Komkov said the Prosecutor-General's Office has approached him for consultation on the situation.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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