Accessibility links

Breaking News

For The New Middle Class, Greater Democracy Or Authoritarian 'Stability?'

Russians listen to an address by then-President Vladimir Putin. Growing wealth in Russia has come at the expense of civil society and certain freedoms.
Russians listen to an address by then-President Vladimir Putin. Growing wealth in Russia has come at the expense of civil society and certain freedoms.
Decades of disruptions have hindered the middle class across much of Eurasia. But with time and the development of commerce, the middle class should get stronger. As it does, will it seek greater democracy? Or will it support authoritarian systems that promise stability? RFE/RL looks at the question in the last of a three-part series on the middle class.

Are time and economic progress the greatest friends of the middle class?

Across much of the globe, recent years seem to have shown that to be true.

In China, India, and the Southeast Asian “tigers,” in parts of South America and parts of the former Soviet Union, a new commercial class has risen.

It consists of people who, by local standards, have about a third of their income left for discretionary spending after providing for food and shelter.

In much of the world, members of this new middle class earn between $2 and $10 a day, according to John Parker, globalization correspondent for "The Economist" magazine. “They are 2.5 billion people; they are more than half of all emerging markets. They wouldn't be middle class by [Western] standards but I think they are the sort of the emerging market's own middle class,” he said.

Parker says this class has become the majority of the developing world’s population “in the past year or two.” It constituted just 33 percent in 1990.

Of course, the progress varies widely from country to country. While the new commercial class surges in China and India -- the workshops of the globalized economy -- it grows in fits and starts in places like Russia and Kazakhstan, where economies swing from boom to bust with the price of their energy exports.

Still, there is reason to hope the size of this new bourgeoisie will keep growing. And as it does the question becomes what kind of future will its members seek.

Will the new middle class be a force for greater democracy, as it historically has been in the West and more recently in some emerging economies? Or -- given the trauma of still-recent experiences -- will it support authoritarian systems that promise social stability above all else?

The Postcommunist Middle Class

Across a wide region of Eurasia, in countries that have the experience of decades of communism, or recent revolutions or wars, the question is particularly pertinent.

Many observers in the region note that their new commercial classes lack a significant trait of the Western middle class: altruism.

In the West, middle class altruism forms a basis for much civic action: from creating charities which help the disadvantaged to organizing Green parties which protect the environment.

But those who are between poor and rich in the developing world tend to put their first priority on gaining further financial security.

The Balkans offers a poignant example. Sarajevo, which once had a thriving cultural life, today only infrequently stages cultural events.

Halid Kuburovic, an event organizer in the Bosnian capital, explains that “if the middle class is made up of the intellectuals, educated people who've been through university, through art academies -- that could be considered the middle class -- these people can't afford more than three or four cultural events in one month. The main theatrical temple in Bosnia, the National Theatre, is often half-empty.”

Along with the concerts, plays and recitals, a whole forum for humanism and the appreciation of individual talent without regard for ethnic background has disappeared. And without those values, the West’s postwar peace-building efforts in the Balkans continue to founder on ethnic mistrust and fear.

WATCH: In Bosnia, the devastating war of the 1990s has had a lasting economic effect on the middle class.

Influence Of Putinism

In many post-Soviet countries, the tendency today is to again leave charitable efforts and social work to the state.

The trend is particularly noticeable in Russia. In 1996, a few years after the collapse of communism, there was a mushrooming of private charitable organizations. But many have closed with the resurgent Kremlin of Vladimir Putin, which regards private NGOs, particularly ones with ties to the West, with suspicion and has tightened state control over them.

Putin’s philosophy, referred to in Russia simply as Putinism, is that Russia is a strong state able to take care of its citizens. And there is no place or need for “concerned citizens” in that comforting but eerily Soviet message.

One result is the re-emergence of a Soviet-sized bureaucracy in Russia, Moscow political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

Boris Gryzlov, the chairman of Russia's Duma, “complained at the congress of the United Russia Party that our bureaucracy has grown by about 100,000 people per year over the past eight years,” Oreshkin said. “He said that during the past eight years we had 800,000 new additional bureaucrats and, as a result, we in Russia now have more bureaucrats than in the Soviet Union, which, of course, is a natural outcome of the construction of the ‘power vertical’ -- the strengthening of the hierarchy of bureaucracy.”

Putin’s strengthening of the government is not an anomaly. It is in line with a particular concept of free-market economics that has taken root in much of the post-communist world and is known as “authoritarian capitalism.”

Under authoritarian capitalism, the state maintains a monopoly over key economic resources and social services. Elections are limited to parties that do not challenge the status quo and citizens are best advised to focus on commerce, not politics.

Proponents of authoritarian capitalism say the system brings social stability and delivers economic development. And there are many who see that as the correct priority, particularly in times of uncertainty such as the recent global economic crisis.

Indeed, authoritarian capitalism has proved attractive enough that some historians, such as British writer and Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash, now see it as the greatest challenge to Western ideas of democracy and the free market since the collapse of communism.

“I actually think the larger picture is that, for the first time since 1989, democratic capitalism has a very serious competitor, and that is authoritarian capitalism in the Russian or the Chinese versions,” Garton Ash said. “That's not attractive to people in the West, but it is attractive to a lot of people in developing countries. So for the first time I would say in 20 years, we have a serious competitor.”

Conditions For Development

But there are still many people in the developing world who want democratic capitalism and are ready to work for it. They pin their hopes on carving out a greater space for classic middle class values within their societies and are confident others will join them.

One is Dorin Chirtoaca, the young mayor of Moldava’s capital city, Chisinau. He is a leading figure in the pro-Western coalition which came to power in 2009 after challenging vote fixing by the former communist-led government.

“To foster a middle class in the Republic of Moldova, it’s necessary to improve the material side,” Chirtoaca says. The middle class exists and always has existed in terms of values shared by intellectuals, by informed people and good citizens. Unfortunately, from the material point of view, they are poor people. Our goal is to create proper conditions for economic development.”

Chirtoaca acknowledges that will require a long struggle lasting well beyond the five years before the next election. But it’s a beginning -- and an important message for middle classes elsewhere, too.

For the middle class to advance, it must choose to engage in both politics and economics simultaneously. Progress in one helps create the conditions needed for progress in the other.

And it is through this cumulative process that people gain a permanent voice in how their society is governed and guarantee respect for their individual freedoms.

That system of social democracy, achieved by the middle class, today characterizes the world’s most free and prosperous societies.

It remains to be seen whether authoritarian capitalism -- which does not rest upon the middle class -- can produce any comparable level of wellbeing.

RFE/RL's Russian, Balkan and Moldovan Services contributed to this report

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.