The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
With their roving camps, human chains, and white ribbons, the antigovernment protesters who have filled Moscow's streets since Russia's disputed legislative elections last December have shaken the old certainties about politics in the Putin era. More than any other event since President Vladimir Putin's rise to power 12 years ago, the protests have put the Kremlin on the defensive.
Yet the urban activists who have appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world constitute at most a tiny fraction of the Russian population—a few hundred thousand people in a country of 143 million. The big question that will determine Russia's political future is how much support this politicized vanguard can hope for from the quiet majority that lives outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Few observers—either in Russia's metropolises or abroad—seem to understand this group very well. The stereotype of the provincial Russian is of a politically apathetic conformist who is resentful of pampered Muscovites, socially conservative, generally pro-Putin, suspicious of the West, and nostalgic for Soviet order.
Yet thanks to new data, a more nuanced picture of the Russian mainstream is starting to emerge. Between March and May, the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Research (CSR) conducted 62 focus groups with residents of 16 Russian regions, stretching from Kaliningrad, on the Polish border, to the town of Novotroitsk, about 1.5 miles from Kazakhstan. Focus groups were carried out in Moscow and one other large city, Yekaterinburg, in the Urals; in medium-sized cities, including Vladimir, Tolyatti, and Astrakhan; and in small towns, such as Chernogolovka, in the Moscow region. The standard size of the focus groups was ten individuals. For comparison, one focus group consisted of Muscovites who had taken part in recent protests. Discussion leaders asked the participants, who varied in age, gender, education, and social and economic status, about their political values, policy concerns, and assessments of current and potential leaders.
The answers were surprising. Yes, Russians outside Moscow and St. Petersburg have no appetite for the noisy street politics and abstract slogans of their big-city counterparts. But they are far from content with the current political system, which they see as hopelessly corrupt and inept at providing basic services. Their support for Putin grows thinner by the month, and a major economic crisis could quite easily provoke them into protests on a massive scale.
Although the concerns and cultures of Russia's metropolises and its provinces differ, there is no contradiction between the urban activists' dreams of greater freedom and democracy and mainstream Russians' desires for honest police officers and well-run health clinics. Indeed, a more accountable state would almost certainly be a more effective one. The ultimate challenge for Russia's liberal activists is to forge these two strands of dissatisfaction into a united coalition for change. And the top priority for the Kremlin is to prevent that from happening.
In some regards, the survey's findings confirm a sharp divide between the discontented metropolitan elites and the rest of the country. The focus-group participants (outside of those in the group put together for comparison) showed little empathy for the antigovernment protesters and even less desire to join them. The celebrity-studded Moscow demonstrations aroused not so much hostility as sheer incomprehension.
Whether or not the participants viewed last December's parliamentary elections and March's presidential vote as fair, they overwhelmingly accepted the results as final. At the same time, they were strongly averse to any kind of violent or revolutionary challenges to the regime. Their responses help explain why the protests against ballot stuffing and other electoral irregularities have not spread to the rest of the country.
All this is consistent with other recent polls. According to a survey conducted in March by the respected Levada Center, 52 percent of Russians opposed the demonstrations, compared with 32 percent that supported them. Only eight percent said that they were willing to march in one. Fifty-nine percent of the population surveyed accepted the results of the parliamentary elections, whereas only 21 percent wanted the government to annul them and call new elections.
Still, like the liberal activists, Russians from other parts of the social spectrum exhibit a powerful desire for change. But their focus is quite different. Whereas the Moscow crowds have rallied behind abstract concepts, such as fairness and democracy, much of the rest of the country is fiercely nonideological and cares far more about concrete, local issues. Across different regions and social classes, Russians are most concerned with the state's dwindling ability to provide essential services, such as health care, education, housing, personal security, and effective courts.
In a country with 39 million pensioners and 18 million war veterans, disabled people, and other recipients of state benefits, it should come as no surprise that the population demands a robust welfare state. What is striking—and new—is the depth of skepticism among ordinary Russians that national politicians can provide health care, education, and other services effectively, even by showering government agencies with money. Instead, those in the provinces concentrate what hope they still have on local initiatives. Even denunciations of corruption struck most of the focus-group participants as demagoguery if they were not linked to specific cases and practical actions. "In our country, the struggle against corruption is a scourge," lamented one 46-year-old male from Dzerzhinsk. "We need to get rid of all these corrupt networks right away. But what can one say about a global struggle when you can't drive because the road is full of potholes?"
Although averse to revolutionary shocks, most of the focus-group participants indicated that they would be more than glad to bid goodbye to the familiar faces that have ruled them for the last 12 years. "We need to change this team completely, down to the roots," insisted one 46-year-old male from Tolyatti. "You get tired of all these guys who just stay in the Duma for ten years, with no visible action," explained a 46-year-old male from Vladimir.
Indeed, the erosion of support for Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and their party, United Russia, is almost as significant among provincial Russians as among the big-city elites. And the discontent runs deeper than the slow decline in the president's approval rating—64 percent in June, down from an all-time high of 88 percent in 2008, according to the Levada Center—would indicate. This comes through most vividly in the changing adjectives that poll respondents use to describe the commander in chief. Asked by the Levada Center in April about Putin's "strong sides," only 39 percent characterized him as "businesslike, active, energetic," down from 62 percent in February 2008; 18 percent said he was "intelligent, cultured," down from 43 percent; and only seven percent considered him "honest, decent, uncorrupted," down from 24 percent. Answering another question, only 11 percent said they were confident that Putin had never abused his power.
The focus groups revealed the Putin brand to be exhausted nationwide. Although pockets of staunch supporters can still be found, they are increasingly marginal. Even those who said they voted for Putin in the last election most often explained their choice by pointing to the lack of other acceptable candidates. Putin and Medvedev now strike many Russians as atavistic. Putin, said one 43-year-old Moscow woman, represented "some sort of phase that has passed." Or as one 46-year-old man from the town of Chernogolovka summed it up, "People have a tendency to deteriorate, especially in high posts."
To explore what today's Russians are looking for in a leader, the CSR played participants short videos of several young politicians giving speeches. Again, the results suggested that Russians hunger for nonideological problem solvers. The ideal candidate, whether for president, governor, or local mayor, would be a man in his 40s with administrative experience, a record of concrete achievements, and a precise, feasible program that addressed the issues most important to voters. Extravagant or abstract rhetoric aroused only impatience.
Since the end of communist rule, Russian politics has been defined by the relationship between two Russias, the first made up of modernizing metropolises and resource-rich outposts, and the second comprising the lagging provinces. Economically, much of Russia remains dependent on government transfers. Nine of the country's 83 regions together produce more than half the country's GDP. The rest limp along. In 2010, 41 of the regions received more in federal aid than the combined net profits of all their local enterprises. After the outbreak of the global financial crisis, between 2007 and 2010, annual federal transfers to the regions and extrabudgetary funds, such as the pension and social insurance funds, leapt from 5.7 percent to 9.2 percent of GDP—an increase of $58 billion.
Redistribution—from rich to poor regions and from taxpayers to the recipients of public assistance—has been central to more than just the country's economy. Since 1991, it has also been crucial to winning elections. Western-style democrats and economic liberals, whose strength lies in the cities, cannot win without reaching out to those who do not share their views. Even in the relatively fair votes of the early 1990s, parties that favored economic and political reform never attracted more than 35 percent of the vote (and usually received far less). Calls for fiscal austerity and equal opportunity failed to resonate with those who saw few opportunities in their depressed neighborhoods.
To succeed, presidential candidates from the ranks of the urban elite have had to show that they understand the needs and fears of the provinces. Boris Yeltsin perfected this balancing act, simultaneously championing the idea of economic freedom and showering the regions with largess. His thick Urals accent and demeanor of a regional party chief played better with Siberian audiences than with the Moscow intelligentsia. Putin, even against the backdrop of an economic boom, also had to reconcile orthodox macroeconomics with fiscal handouts to the hinterlands. The so-called tandem of Medvedev and Putin was conceived in part to bridge the gap between the two Russias through a division of labor. Medvedev, iPhone in hand, was supposed to bond with the liberal modernizers. Putin, with his earthy aphorisms, jibes at the West, and macho stunts—driving across Siberia in a Lada, for instance, or riding horses bare-chested—aimed to tap into the culture of the provinces.
Yet the CSR focus groups suggest that something fundamental is changing. Russians, whether in the provinces or in the more prosperous cities, no longer seem impressed by promises to redistribute the country's oil wealth. In part, the pledges of smooth-talking politicians have lost their credibility. "We're already full of these promises," one 51-year-old Yaroslavl woman complained. "Now, they promise everything, but there's obviously no truth in this." At the same time, Russians realize that repairing the state will take more than just throwing money at problems and that giving more funds to corrupt and inefficient bureaucrats may even make things worse. "The money runs away into the sand," explained one 48-year-old Yekaterinburg male.
Nationalist rhetoric also failed to resonate with the focus groups, probably because it triggered anxiety about violence and instability. (The project did not include regions near the North Caucasus, where chauvinism might have proved stronger.) In Vladimir, some participants took umbrage at a video clip of the nationalist activist Konstantin Krylov. "There's a rather fine line in what he says between peaceful revolution and revolution with blood; sooner or later, someone will cross this border," said one 53-year-old woman. "It's past time that we understand that Russia is not just for [ethnic] Russians," a 39-year-old man insisted. Polarizing events, such as a terrorist attack blamed on Chechens or a local ethnic riot, could certainly provoke anti-immigrant or antiminority clashes. But ordinary Russians seem sensitive to the dangers.
To be sure, Russians have hardly forsworn populism for good, and the participants did tend to favor increases in military spending to restore the army's strength. Suspicion of the West was one area in which Putin's rhetoric struck a chord with the focus groups. Still, their impatience with nationalist and leftist slogans is consonant with other signs that a shift in values is under way in Russia, and not just among the metropolitan elite.
As the political analyst Kirill Rogov notes, such a value shift would be Russia's third since 1991. First came the burst of enthusiasm for Western-style democracy and markets after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then, reacting to the chaotic change of the 1990s, Russians began to show a preference for centralization, hierarchy, and state control. Disappointment with Putin's ineffective and corrupt top-down governance is now pushing Russia back toward a desire for more open and less intrusive leadership.
Although still less than universal, this new sensibility comes through in Levada Center opinion polls. Since 2000, the percentage of respondents who said that a political opposition is necessary in Russia has risen from 47 percent to 72 percent. Asked last March whether the president and the government should "more tightly control the economy and political life" or "give people freedom to go about their business so long as they do not violate the law," 48 percent of respondents chose the second option, up from 33 percent in 2001. The proportion favoring tighter control dipped from 53 percent to 35 percent.
This shift in public opinion tracks with Russia's recent economic modernization. In the decade before the global financial crisis, real household incomes rose by 140 percent. The average monthly wage, adjusted for purchasing power parity, already exceeds $1,000. This improvement has spread broadly throughout the population. The proportion of Russians living in poverty, currently defined as having a per-person income of under $10.80 a day, fell from 29 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2011. By the World Bank's definition—an income of less than $2 a day—the number qualifying as poor would be much lower.
A technological revolution has also occurred in recent years. The share of the population in Russia with cell phones already far surpasses those in France, Japan, and the United States. Today, 60 percent of households, including 46 percent in the countryside, have personal computers, up from 25 percent just six years ago. Finance has also penetrated Russian life: Individuals enjoy unprecedented access to debit cards and automated teller machines. Twenty-two percent of household consumption is now financed by loans from banks, compared with only 15 percent a year ago.
With the rise in incomes, Russia has become a genuine consumer society, and not just in the metropolises. For roughly the first 15 years after the end of communism, the country's consumer markets were highly fragmented. Local producers dominated in each of the regions, limiting access to the national market. But the recent boom in Russia's retail trade has brought chain stores even to small cities in remote regions. The global entertainment industry is also breaking down barriers. In Novotroitsk, a one-company town built around a steel mill and close to the border with Kazakhstan, the visiting CSR sociologists were surprised to find a 3-D movie theater playing Wrath of the Titans in the week of its global premiere.
In other countries, such dramatic spurts of modernization have generally been accompanied by a shift in the public's concerns from economic survival to what the political scientist Ronald Inglehart calls "self-expression values." No longer solely preoccupied by the need to feed and clothe their families, individuals start to care more about such issues as environmental protection, gender equality, freedom of expression, and, ultimately, political participation. Russia's big-city liberals are walking illustrations of this trend.
Most provincial Russians, and also many in the cities, have not yet reached this point. They remain more traditional in their social values and lifestyle preferences. But at the same time, they have clearly moved beyond the daily struggle for existence in which all that matters is the monthly paycheck and political support can be bought quite easily. Russians outside the elite do not yet clamor to participate in the state, but they want a state that works.
If this value shift is indeed what is occurring in Russia, it might explain a recent puzzling change in the drivers of Russian public opinion. For much of the previous two decades, the president's approval rating rose and fell in line with the public's perception of the country's economic performance. Since January 2011, however, the two have become delinked: economic sentiment has been more or less flat, but support for Putin and Medvedev has fallen substantially.
In combating the sudden surge of protests, the Kremlin has sought to build a firewall between the metropolitan activists and their provincial compatriots. The Putin team has already lost the urban middle class, and Medvedev's demotion from president suggests that Putin recognizes this fact. Now, Putin is determined to stop the erosion of confidence in his rule from spreading.
To do this, the president has turned to two familiar tactics. For starters, he has stepped up patronage; despite the lack of any real competition in the presidential election, Putin made pledges in the run-up to the vote that have been priced at $160 billion. He committed to raise pensions and wages for doctors and teachers and to provide bonuses for mothers who give birth to a third child. In January, he doubled military salaries.
Putin's second tactic has been to exploit perceived cultural divisions between the big-city liberals and the more traditional, blue-collar provinces. During Putin's annual televised call-in show last December, a foreman from a tank factory in the Urals, Igor Kholmanskikh, offered to bring a gang of assembly-line workers to Moscow to straighten out the protesters. Putin had the worker flown around the country in a business jet to appear at campaign events and, after the election, appointed him as the Kremlin's envoy to the Urals Federal District, despite his total lack of administrative experience.
Since the demonstrations began, Kremlin spokespeople have sought to portray them as an amusement for pampered Muscovites, disreputable celebrities, unpopular minority groups, and violent anarchists. They pounced with evident relish on the case of Pussy Riot, a feminist collective and punk-rock band whose members charged into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior last February wearing brightly colored masks, stormed the altar, and performed a wild dance. A video of the incident, set to the tune of a song beseeching the Virgin Mary to "chase Putin away," later spread on the Internet. Three of the group's members have been arrested and threatened with seven-year prison terms for hooliganism. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, denounced the action as "blasphemous" and fumed that "the Devil has laughed at all of us."
Had the Kremlin's spin doctors concocted a fake video to shock ordinary Russians and discredit the capital's youth, they could hardly have produced something more effective. In April, 47 percent of respondents to a Levada Center poll who had heard of Pussy Riot agreed that a seven-year jail term would be appropriate, compared with 42 percent who considered that excessive. Only ten percent opposed any sort of criminal punishment. Meanwhile, United Russia has also launched a well-publicized campaign against gay rights activists, promoting local laws around the country to punish "pro-homosexual propaganda." The barely concealed goal is to cast the antigovernment protesters as a cabal of feminist punks, church desecraters, and sexual deviants.
With United Russia's popularity sinking, efforts by Putin's team to push back against the protests have tended to backfire or simply fail. Attempts to co-opt moderates from the opposition or even more neutral circles have found few takers. To form a government of new faces last May, Putin had to dig deep into the ranks of ministerial deputies, and the lineup was widely panned for featuring so many familiar insiders and second-rank bureaucrats. Some whom Putin invited declined to serve. His appointment of Sergei Neverov, a Soviet-style operative, to the second-highest post in United Russia seemed almost deliberately perverse. Neverov proved to be one of the most unappealing potential leaders in the CSR focus groups.
In parallel, Putin has ordered a harsher response to the demonstrations themselves, arresting more people and increasing the fines for protesters. But these methods, too, seem as likely to enrage the opposition as to intimidate it. The sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya interviewed 112 participants at a recent Moscow protest and found that 90 percent said they would continue to take part in such actions even if the fines and punishments were dramatically increased. The CSR's focus group with Moscow demonstrators found that police violence also strengthened their resolve. As one 46-year-old college-educated Muscovite explained:
We were all very afraid of how the police would beat us. It turned out to be nothing terrible. A few black eyes, bruises, but everyone was still alive. In that moment, they killed the fear of the police in many tens of thousands of people. They moved the boundary of danger people feel in the presence of the security forces. I'll go again; it doesn't bother me now.
On June 11, police units searched the apartments of prominent opposition leaders, turning them upside down and confiscating numerous items. Apparently intended to intimidate, these actions had the opposite effect, resulting in an impressive turnout of about 50,000 people for a protest march held the next day, despite torrential rain and a long holiday weekend.
Of course, the most effective way for Putin's government to short-circuit rising discontent would be to make the state more responsive and efficient. To the millions of Russians angered by potholes in the roads or the bribes they must pay to get adequate medical care, the failures of the public sector are ever more glaring. Russia has twice as many doctors per capita and three times as many hospital beds per capita as the United States, but its infant mortality rate is 40 percent higher. Secondary schools in Russia have one teacher per eight pupils, compared with one per 14 in the United States, yet less than one-third of Russians, according to a Levada Center poll, think their children or grandchildren can get a good education. Half say they cannot.
The irony is that the Putin team understands the need for thorough reforms in the public sector. Before the presidential election, at the Kremlin's request, a team of economic experts from two top universities drafted a blueprint for modernizing health care, education, and other state services. But comprised of mostly second-rank technocrats and relying on a venal and obstructionist bureaucracy to implement any changes, the new government has neither the capacity nor the credibility to reform complex institutions that reach into the lives of Russians across nine time zones.
The focus groups revealed that political leaders can generate significant levels of trust only on the local level. If the Russian state is to be rebuilt in a more efficient, less corrupt form, the initiative will have to come from below, from the small set of mayors whose achievements have won them the support of local communities, working together with a burgeoning network of civic groups that has appeared in recent years. Despite numerous obstacles, these groups have organized to defend the rights of car owners, publicize environmental hazards, block unpopular development projects, and assist victims of state brutality.
To the surprise of scholars, who have long bemoaned the lack of a vibrant civil society in Russia, an impressive range of local quality-of-life initiatives have emerged over the last few years. These efforts have included volunteers coordinating on the Internet to fight forest fires, amateur preservationists picketing a proposed skyscraper project in St. Petersburg, and a campaign to block the construction of a superhighway through the wilderness in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.
A program of local reforms designed in partnership with the public is hard to imagine under the current leadership. But the discrediting of the top-down rule of Putin has opened the door for a radical decentralization after he leaves office. Indeed, given the pervasive skepticism that the focus groups revealed, it is hard to see how a future leader could build a national coalition except by appealing to grass-roots activists, respected local officials, and ordinary citizens. A program of returning power to local communities and embracing small-scale experiments in governance could energize a public, in both the cities and the provinces, that is alienated from the stage-managed politics it sees on television. It could also win broad appeal for Putin's successor.
For the moment, however, the volatile standoff continues. In Moscow, the postmodern protesters devise ever more inventive ways to dramatize their resistance, rallying in flash mobs and camping out around the city. With each passing week, the set of administration insiders becomes a little more socially isolated. When a police officer ushers a car with the flashing blue light of officialdom through the crush of traffic, other motorists pound on their horns with undisguised rage.
Outside the big cities, the irritation merely smolders. Serious economic deterioration, prompted perhaps by the collapse of the eurozone, could galvanize the other Russia into action. Clumsy moves by the authorities, such as an attempt to implement much-needed but unpopular economic reforms, might do the same. Demonstrations on a national scale would encourage prominent figures in business, the media, and even law enforcement to distance themselves from the Kremlin. These elites would come to see a change in leadership as their best hope for survival.
Barring an economic downturn or major mistakes, the decay is likely to be slower. But it will take all the current leaders' skill just to manage the day-to-day challenges. Although not yet on the side of the middle-class urbanites, the other Russia is today just barely content to tolerate the status quo.