Center for Economic and Political Reform: Protests on Rise in Russia

Analysts Claim Number of Protests Sharply on the Rise in Russia
Yevgenia Kuznetsova
RBC
July 10, 2017

The number of social and political protests in Russia has risen in the second quarter by 33% compared to the beginning of the year. Experts attribute the rise to seasonal activeness and the growth of social tension.

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Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC

Protest Factors
During the second quarter of 2017, the number of protests in Russia rose by a third compared to the start of the year. There were 284 protests in the first quarter of the year, while 378 protest events were recorded in the second quarter, the Center for Economic and Political Reform (CERP) reported in its paper “Russia in 2017: The Number of Protests Grows.” RBC has a copy of the paper.

The CERP’s analysts divide protests into political protests and social protests. The latter include protests over the violation of social rights, declines in living standards, loss of work, and nonpayment of back wages. Over the second quarter, the number of both types of protest grew. The paper’s authors recorded 148 political protests from April to July, compared to 96 in the first three months of the year, while the number of protests provoked by social injustices rose from 167 to 205. The analysts collected their information about protests from the media, social networks, regional analysts, and workforces, who recorded the protests on the ground.

The paper claims the level of protests was high both in 2016 and early 2017. Last year, however, the majority of protests touched on specific issues—wage arrears, the demands of defrauded investors and residential building stakeholders, increases in utility rates, the launch of the Plato system of road tolls for truckers, etc. The authorities did not solve these problems, and so protests have been politicized this year. People involved in them have taken to the streets with more general slogans, for example, anti-corruption slogans, the paper’s authors note. In their opinion, this is the cause of the increase in political protests. ​​

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Protests recorded in the 1st and 2nd quarters of 2017. [Green] Protests caused by socio-economic issues: 372. [Violet] Political protests: 244. [Light blue] Labor protests: 46. 1st quarter: 167 social protests, 96 political protests, 21 labor protests = 284 protests. 2nd quarter: 205 social protests, 148 political protests, 25 labor protests = 378 protests. Source: Center for Political and Economic Reform, “Russia in 2017: The Number of Protests Grow.” Copyright 2017, RBC

The growth of protests is explained by another factor: seasonality, CERP director Nikolay Mironov told RBC. People protest less at the start of the year than in the spring months. According to Mironov, the regime uses the seasonality of protests to decide when to schedule elections. In 2012, analysts at the Central Electoral Commission determined the populace was politically most active, including in terms of turnout, during two seasons: late March, April, and May, and late October, November, and December. Therefore, the regime moved the nationwide parliamentary and local legislative assemblies election day to September to lower the turnout while announcing the presidential election for March 2018 to raise the turnout

Other eventful factors in the second quarter of this year were the adoption of the law on residential housing renovation and the large-scale protests by Alexei Navalny’s supporters. But the main factor, according to Mironov, was the overall increase in tension due to the fact that the problems that have given rise to protests have not been solved or have been solved on a case-by-case basis.

“This is the Kremlin’s election strategy: solve problems on an ad hoc basis, because it is impossible to solve them as a whole. But you can go to a region and resolve a specific problem in a flashy way for the TV cameras,” Mironov explained.

Mironov argues that the federal authorities also expect that, after a public flogging during the president’s televised call-in show and his trips to the regions, local authorities will start solving problems on their own.

“But it doesn’t work. For example, after the televised call-in show, the workers in Nizhny Tagil got their back wages paid, but the strike by miners in Gukovo, in Rostov Region, was hushed up and will continue to be hushed up,” said Mironov.

The increase in the number of political protests partly has to do with how the media covers the protests, Mironov argues. According to him, journalists usually pay more attention to political protests than to social protests, and this has a dampening effect on protests. People about whom reporters don’t write are “a priori less protected.”

Localization
The CEPR’s conclusions about the growth of protests have been indirectly confirmed by research carried out by the Levada Center. According to one of its surveys, the number of people who agree that political protests are possible in their town has risen from 14% in February to 23% in June, Levada Center sociologist Stepan Goncharov told RBC. The number of people willing to take part in political protests has increased from eight to twelve percent. An even greater number of people predicted social protests would break out in their towns. When asked, “Are protests against decreased living standards possible in your town right now?” 28% of respondents in June said they were, as opposed to only 19% in February.

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Protests in the 1st quarter of 2017 by federal district. [Green] Social protests: 472. [Violet] Political protests: 244. [Light blue] Labor protests: 46. Volga Federal District: 160 protests. Central Federal District: 132 protests. Siberian Federal District: 86 protests. Northwest Federal District: 82 protests. Southern Federal District: 66 protests. Far Eastern Federal District: 47 protests. Ural Federal District: 62 protests. North Caucasus Federal District: 27 protests. Source: Center for Political and Economic Reform, “Russian in 2017: The Number of Protests Grow.” Copyright RBC, 2017

It would be wrong to say there have been considerably more social protests in recent months, argues Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Petersburg Politics Foundation, based on the results of his own research. According to Vinogradov, the number of political protests has increased mainly due to protests by Navalny’s supporters, but the number of social protests has remained at the same level. It would also be wrong to say the number of social protests depends directly on how the authorities resolve the issues that provoke them, says Vinogradov. According to him, the authorities do not have an overall algorithm. In some locales, they resolve issues immediately, fearing protests, while in other places they ignore problems or get bogged down in talking about them. The problem is that the authorities are not always able to determine the real cause of protests and react correctly to it.

Discontent is growing, but the majority of protests remain local for the time being, argues political scientist Konstantin Kalachev.

“The regime is fairly good at solving problems by nipping them in the bud,” argues Kalachev.

Although we cannot be sure social protests will not segue into political protests.

“For the time being it all comes down to demands to dismiss one governor or another, nothing more,” says Kalachev.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Priorities

“Not Gonna Get Us,” t-shirt in souvenir shop and news stand at Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, October 23, 2016. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Budget Expenditures on Security Forces to Grow to Two Trillion Rubles by 2019
Vladimir Dergachov and Elizaveta Antonova
RBC
October 23, 2016

The authorities have decided not to save money on the security forces, despite the difficult economic situation in the country. The draft budget shows that annual spending on national security will grow to 2 trillion rubles by 2019.

The government has inserted an increase in expenditures from 1.94 trillion rubles to 2 trillion rubles [approx. 30 billion euros] by 2019 under the line item “National Security and Law Enforcement.” These figures are contained in the draft budget for 2017-2019, as submitted by the Finance Ministry. (RBC has the relevant memorandum in its possession.) These expenditures also include the secret part of the budget, which this year grew to 22.3%.

Total budgetary provisions for national security are supposed to reach 1.943 trillion rubles in 2016. Over the next three years, a spending increase in this sector has been laid into the budget. In 2017, 1.967 trillion rubles will be spent on the security forces; in 2018, 1.994 trillion rubles; and in 2019, 2.006 trillion rubles. That is, spending on national security will increase by 63 billion rubles [approx. 933 million euros] over three years.

The “National Security and Law Enforcement” section of the budget has fourteen subsections, including prosecution and investigation authorities (the Prosecutor General’s Office and Russian Investigative Committee, the Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry, security, border guards, Interior Ministry Troops, drug police, and the penal system). The section also includes spending on emergency situations, migration policy, civil defense, and specialized applied research.

A government spokesperson forwarded RBC’s questions about spending on law enforcement to the law enforcement agencies.

RBC found out which ministries would benefit from the allocation of funds after the latest reforms in the law enforcement sector.

How Creation of the National Guard Impacted the Budget

In early April 2016, President Vladimir Putin abolished the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) and Federal Migration Service (FMS) as free-standing entities, incorporating them into the Interior Ministry. The Interior Ministry, in turn, lost part of its powers. Its internal troops and special forces units were turned into a new security agency, the National Guard of Russia. The National Guard acquired, in particular, the OMON (Special Purpose Militia Detachment or riot cops), the SOBR (Special Rapid Deployment Unit), the Licensing and Permit Center, and the Extra-Departmental Security Service.

As a result, the line item for spending on drug control agencies has been eliminated. (The subsection contains dashes after 2016, in which 27.3 billion rubles were allocated.)

The draft budget also incorporates a spending decrease in the line item entitled “Police Agencies,” from 683.4 billion rubles in 2016 to 625 billion rubles in 2019. (Hereinafter, expenditures are given for the period from 2016 to 2019.)

Spending on the line item “Internal Troops” will nearly double due to the formation of the National Guard: from 114.6 billion rubles to 206.6 billion rubles.

When asked about the growth in spending on this line item, National Guard spokesman Yevgeny Kubyshkin suggested that RBC readdress their question to the government officials who drafted the document.

Among other significant changes in spending due to agency and ministerial shake-ups is the more than tenfold reduction on “Migration Policy,” from 33.7 billion rubles to 285.5 million rubles. This line item incorporates spending on the Federal Migration Service, which has been merged with the Interior Ministry.

The Russian Interior Ministry’s press office confirmed to RBC that appropriations were reallocated when the budget for 2017-2019 was drafted. Monies were reallocated to pay for the Interior Ministry units transferred to the National Guard. Sources at the ministry also confirmed that spending on the abolished FMS and FSKN had been accounted for in the ministry’s budget.

“Thus, the parameters of the draft federal budget of the Russian Interior Ministry for 2017-2019, excluding pension funds, are 695.1 billion rubles in 2017; 691.9 billion rubles in 2018,; and 689.7 billion rubles in 2019. This testifies to the fact that federal financing of the Russian Interior Ministry will remain nearly at the levels of 2015-2016,” a source at the ministry told RBC.

Prosecutors Get More, Security Officers Less

The line item for “Prosecuting and Investigative Authorities” stands out among the expenditures, with an increase from 86 billion rubles to 94.8 billion rubles.

The growth of spending on prosecutors and investigators is due to the fact that, as of January 1, 2017, military investigators will be merged with the Investigative Committee and will be financed out of their budget, Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko explained to RBC. RBC is waiting for a response to its questions from the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Spending on the line item for the “Penal System” will be slashed from 196.3 billion rubles to 176.8 billion rubles. Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) spokeswoman Kristina Belousova declined to comment.

The subsection “Security Agencies” (which includes the FSB) will be also be cut, from 306.4 billion rubles to 292 billion rubles. RBC’s request for information from the FSB’s Public Relations Office went unanswered.

The line items for “Justice Authorities” and “Border Guards” have been marked for slight decreases in spending. Over the three years, spending on the Justice Ministry will decrease from 43.4 billion rubles to 42.6 million rubles, while the border guards’ budget will be reduced from 124.2 billion rubles to 119 billion rubles. The Justice Ministry promised it would answer RBC’s inquiries at a later date.

According to the government’s draft budget, spending on “Protecting the Populace from Emergency Situations” will be reduced from 81.2 billion rubles to 70.1 billion rubles. On the other hand, spending on “Fire Safety” will be increased from 109.9 billion rubles to 119.4 billion rubles. RBC has sent an inquiry to the Emergency Situations Ministry and is still waiting for a reply.

“Non-Transparent” Expenditures Grow by Two and a Half Times

However, expenditures on “Other National Security and Law Enforcement Issues” will grow by two and a half times, from 108.4 billion rubles in 2016 to 237 billion rubles in 2019. According to the budget classification codes, this subsection includes expenditures having to do with the “leadership, management, and provision of support for activities such as the development of overall policy, plans, programs, and budgets, as well as other undertakings in the field of national security and law enforcement not covered by other subsections in this section.”

The Russian budget already contains a voluminous secret section, and line items like “Other Expenses” make expenditures even less transparent, Vasily Zatsepin, head of the military economy lab at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, told RBC. According to Zatsepin, this subsection could contain anything whatsoever, for example, “financial assistance to certain districts in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions [of Ukraine].”

However, the subsection “Applied Research in the Field of National Security and Law Enforcement” will be slashed from 27.5 billion rubles to 22.3 billion rubles, respectively.

Security Priorities

The government memo makes clear that overall allocations for the entire national security section of the budget amount to 2.3% of GDP. Their share of total federal spending is 11.8%.

Although spending in this category in terms of GDP will drop from 2.3% to 2% by 2019, spending on national security in terms of overall spending will increase over the next three years, from 11.8% in 2016, to 12.2% in 2017, to 12.5% percent in 2018, and to 12.6% in 2019. This is more than combined spending on education, health care, culture, sports, media, and environmental protection.

The regime’s priority is to redistribute the budget toward foreign policy and the deep state, as well as social welfare payments to the populace to maintain stability, Nikolay Mironov, head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform told RBC.

“Everything else is overlooked, although education, health care, and the national economy, whose line items have been cut, are strategic areas. Investment in them does not pay off in the current year, but always pays off later,” argued Mironov.

Translated by the
Russian Reader

Supah Powah

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Chuvash Pensioner Receives Two Years Probation for Repost on VKontakte
Artyom Filipyonok
RBC
October 14, 2016

A court in Chuvashia has sentenced a local pensioner to a two-year suspended sentence for reposting printed matterR earlier ruled extremist. In May of this year, Andrei Bubeyev, a mechanical engineer from Tver, was convicted of reposting an article by Boris Stomakhin.

Tsivilsk District Court in Chuvashia has sentenced 62-year-old pensioner Nikolai Yegorov, who works as a security guard at a cement factory, to a two-year suspended sentence. He was found guilty of inciting ethnic hatred (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 282.1), reports Interfax.

Police investigators claimed that, on May 8, 2014, Yegorov posted an open letter by journalist Boris Stomakhin, which had been ruled extremist, on his page on the VKontakte social network. Lawyer Yevgeny Gubin had previously reported that prosecutors had asked the pensioner be sentenced to 360 hours of compulsory labor.

Yegorov himself claimed he had not posted anything. According to his lawyer, his client’s personal page was accessible to anyone “due to his poor knowledge of the specific features of the Internet.”

Journalist Boris Stomakhin, who supported Chechen separatists, has been convicted of inciting hatred and publicly calling for extremism on three occasions. He is currently serving a sentence for justifying terrorism. In April 2014, he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison.

In May of this year, Andrei Bubeyev, a mechanical engineer from Tver, was convicted for reposting an article by Stomakhin. The sentence was harsher: Bubeyev was sentenced to two years and three months in a work-release prison colony. The Tver man was convicted of publicly calling for extremism (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 280.2) and publicly calling for actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (Russian Federal Criminal Code 280.1.2).

In 2002, the law “On Combating Extremism” beefed up the definition of extremism. Extremism includes such acts as “violent change of the constitutional system and violation of the Russian Federation’s integrity,” “public justification of terrorism and other terrorist activity,” and “incitement of social, racial, ethnic or religious enmity.” Nikolay Mironov, director of the Center for Economic and Political Reform told RBC that over half of extremism convictions have to do with publications in the Internet and, in particular, on social networks.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of supahpowah.tumbler.com

Making the Same Mistake Thrice

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The 2016 Elections: Making the Same Mistake Is Fate
Nikolay Mironov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
September 19, 2016

It is apparent to almost everyone the country has fallen into a deep pit. (That is the most decent word for describing the situation.) Economic stability (and, along with it, the stability in our lives) is irreversibly over, and it is clear a new (moreover, radically new) economic policy is needed to bring it back. The current, extractive economic policy has run out of steam. Both the regime and society are aware that a crisis has ensued, but for the time being no one is doing anything about it. Meanwhile, the time for reform is running out.

Now, after the elections to the State Duma, as new and old MPs take their seats, 2018 moves into the foreground of the political agenda. In fact, the main issue is not whether Vladimir Putin will seek a fourth term. The main suspense revolves around whether in the near future we can expect a change in the country’s economic and political model. Which transition scenarios are the most likely? The future president’s name is interesting only from this viewpoint. Whether the president is young, mature or elderly, what matters is whether he or she will be able to implement reforms and how they will implement them.

The country’s reserves are running out, and the system acutely, critically needs a reboot. However, launching reforms becomes more complicated with every passing year. The situation has now almost been brought to an extreme. The government obviously is now no longer coping with its obligations to society: the population is rapidly plunging into poverty. The political structure is held together only by the president’s word of honor and good health.

At a critical time for the country’s future, however, the regime has preferred to act tactically rather than strategically.  When the oil price was high, it was possible not to think about costs, effective spending, and rampant corruption. When circumstances worsened, the regime also took the easy, well-trodden path of spending reserves, introducing new taxes for the general population, clamping down on small business, reducing social spending, and commercializing health care, education, and research.

Soon, however, it became clear these measures were insufficient for riding out the crisis. So, currently, the mechanism for confiscating “superfluous” money from major businessmen and top officials, previously untouchable, has been set into motion. This is borne out by the alleged anti-corruption campaigns that have been unleashed. In fact, their goal is to collect tribute from certain segments of the elite. But not from all segments, only from the “extended” circles, without affecting the circle of businessmen and administrators closest to the regime.

The system is going down the same road as the Soviet nomenklatura did in the 1980s. Initially, it firmly “brezhnevized” itself, stagnated, and rusted on the inside. Now, experiencing a lack of resources, it attempts to get by with superficial half-measures, in particular, by tempering corruption, which is sucking the country dry, by jailing a limited number of individuals. Ultimately, when the common folk learn of the colossal wealth possessed by middling colonels they are convinced of the regime’s utter corruption, but see no decisive measures being taken and are persuaded the elite has no desire to change anything. Eight billion rubles are seized in anti-corruption official Dmitry Zakharchenko’s flat, and people are paid eight-thousand-ruble pensions! [I honestly don’t know where Mironov got the second set of figures, although, of course, pensions in Russia are usually entirely to low to cope with the rising cost of living. — TRR.] A million times difference! But none of the higher-ups in the Interior Ministry has resigned. This fact alone is enough to shatter confidence in the entire political system.

The problem, however, and it is the main problem, is that the people with power and money—the nomenklatura-slash-oligarchy of our time—do not want to change their position even in the midst of a crisis. They cling to their extreme wealth and privileges. But the realization that change is necessary dawns on them with catastrophic tardiness. It was this way during tsarism’s final days, and under the late-Soviet regime. Instead of launching reforms in timely fashion, the regime has put them off, pushing the situation to the point of no return.

In the recent elections to the State Duma, United Russia, trudging to victory under the leadership of Prime Minister Medvedev, refrained altogether from proposing an anti-crisis plan to the nation, either a strategy of some sort or even a winning tactic. Quotations of Putin and tiresome references to Crimea and the country’s rising from its knees were the entire content of their campaign. The nation responded partly by skipping the elections, partly by voting as they were told, and partly by voting because there was no alternative. But the question of what to do next remains unanswered. Does the regime intend to answer the question, or will all this uncertainty crystallize in 2018?

Meanwhile, Russia finds itself at a crossroads. The first road is the inertial scenari0. Politically, it involves further crackdowns. The unwritten “social compact,” which emerged in the early noughties, has become impracticable since it cannot ensure a comfortable life. So without purging possible rivals and curtailing grassroots activism it will not be possible to painlessly solve the problem of extending the president’s term or transferring power to a chosen successor. So, for example, further censorship of the media will be required, as will the strict administration of what remains of elections, and increased persecution of undesirables, and more frequent trials and more show trials.

In economic terns, this simple plan involves the the “dekulakization” of less than totally loyal oligarchs and wayward officials, who will have to pay for the crisis. Undoubtedly, this will have a temporary effect and make it possible to plug certain holes in the budget. For a country like Russia, however, given the scale of the crisis, the effect will be quite short-lived. When this money runs out as well, reform will be the only option. But I am afraid that by then the last capital will be spent, and there will nothing left to invest in the economy. The chance to change things without radical demolition could be missed. The country will spend the last bits of the Soviet legacy, and exiting the crisis will once again require titanic efforts on the part of the people. Given increased global competition, however, Russia risks never catching up with anyone ever again.

The second scenario, vital for our survival, involves carrying out reforms right now. The government has to support the economy to give it a leg up and get development up and running. I would argue this is impossible without injections from the budget and, consequently, without strategic government planning, facilitating the rational use of the resources we have left. We not should support the economy per se, but those areas of growth that will encourage import substitution and the establishment of competitive production in the non-extractive sector and agriculture.

Where do we get the money? From reserves, tax reform (redirecting the tax burden toward the super wealthy), confiscation of funds acquired through corruption, and capital export controls. This will require quite stringent measures towards the business elite and high-ranking officials. Medium-sized businesses and rank-and-file servants should not be touched, however. Not scapegoats but the genuinely super wealthy should be involved in getting the county out of crisis.

To keep the money meant to bolster the economy from being stolen, we need a perestroika of the political system, because that is where the roots of corruption lies. It comes from secrecy, the regime’s accountability to no one but itself, and officialdom’s bloat and inefficiency. There are no miraculous prescriptions in this case. Throughout the world, free media and judicial, parliamentary, and public control help to temper the appetites of those in charge of the budget. The regular turnover of those in power is also necessary, and the only cure in this case are free and fair elections.

We also need to support the population, which has been rapidly growing poorer during the crisis, and not only from a sense of social justice. When people have no purchasing power, the economy is alway in crisis. Government financial assistance should be used to stimulate consumer demand, ensuring import substitution in those sectors where funds are received from public. Otherwise, the money will be converted to foreign currency and sent abroad. We must protect domestic producers from robbery and extortion. Otherwise, they will hide everything they get from the government and the public abroad. Plus, interest rates on loans to business must be drastically reduced. If all these things are done, tax revenues will start to grow in a few years, and government aid will be recouped.

Strategically, a reboot of the educational system is also needed now in keeping with the country’s development priorities for at least the next twenty years. Science and the national technological base must be supported.

The prescriptions for solving Russia’s problems are self-explanatory. Given the president’s high ratings and United Russia’s overwhelming majority in the Duma, it is high time to carry out large-scale reforms. There is a margin of safety and the required level of support. But everything in Russia is topsy-turvy. In Russia, it is more likely reforms will be launched if the regime’s ratings take a catastrophic nosedive. They will inevitably reach a critical level when the socio-economic situation worsens. You cannot fill your belly with endless tales of patriotism. People, after all, need to eat something, clothe their children, and get medical care.

We could also arrive at a different fork in the road: reforms from above or turmoil from below. Attempts to stop time have always led Russian regimes to ruin, destroying the country in the process. Must things come to this? The populace’s passivity in the face of a purge of the opposition is a temporary and illusory phenomenon. Many local social protests have erupted around the country. Their number is not diminishing, and general discontent has been growing. And things could seriously explode somewhere. Is it our fate to make the same mistake again and again?

I recall the joke about Ivan the Fool. A father had three sons. The eldest went into the yard, where a rake lay on the ground. He stepped on it and was killed. The middle son goes out, and it is the same story. Ivan, the youngest brother, realizes a rake is lying in the yard and he should not step on it, but there is no way around it. Such is life.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. I have published translations of his columns “Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a ‘Bad’ Prime Minister” (June 2016) and “Despair as a Sign of the Times” (September 2016). Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up.

The Lowdown

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Despair as a Sign of the Times
The general mood of discouragement has been growing because Russia has shifted into idle, and it is unclear when and how it will end
Nikolay Mironov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
September 6, 2016

Pain and despair have seized the country. Russians are losing their jobs. They cannot pay back their debts and feed their children. Due to constant problems and the lack of apparent prospects, families are falling apart. Some make desperate decisions, finally putting an end to their lives. Russia is losing people.

In July, an employee at a sports school in Trans-Baikal Territory committed suicide after he was not paid. In early August, a married couple in Blagoveshchensk, who were up to their eyeballs in debt,. jumped from a fourteenth-floor window, leaving their young child orphaned. This spring, a father of five in Kiselyovsk in Kemerovo Region hung himself because of debts. Large numbers of similar reports have been coming from different parts of the country.

Can you live on a wage of 10,000 to 15,000 rubles a month when prices are rising continuously? [15,000 rubles is currently equivalent to approximately 200 euros. — TRR.] Or on a pension of 8,000 rubles a month? How do you raise children on this kind of money? And what if, God forbid, you have emergency expenses, for example, for expensive medical treatment, whose cost exceeds the family budget many times over? Well yes, Russia has free medical care, so to speak, but we all knew what it is really like.

It has terrible consequences. The wave of cancer patients voluntarily departing from life continues. After a series of well-publicized cases in  2014–2015, the situation has not improved this year. In mid August, a man suffering from the cancer in the Moscow Region committed suicide with explosives. In June, another cancer patient committed suicide in Yaroslavl. Despite numerous similar suicides, the Russian Health Ministry continues to claim there is no link between the suicides of cancer patients and a deficit of pain medication. Just as there is no link, of course, between the despair felt by cancer patients in our country and the state of Russian medical care, which generally gives little chance to defeat the disease to those who have no money.

According to Rosstat, 24,000 to 26,000 people take their lives each year in Russia. But the causes of this and the means of remedying the situation are not discussed seriously. Instead, Rospotrebnadzor (Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare) have drafted recommendations for reporters on how to cover suicides.

Fewer and fewer people in our country know what they are going to live on tomorrow, how they will pay for rent and medical care. Russia is plunging into poverty. People have lost their sense of stability and security. The government, on the other hand, ignores these problems. It clearly has no strategy or even tactics for solving them.

There are a gazillion “public servants” in Russia, more than in the Soviet Union, but they serve only themselves and their bosses. High-ranking officials and the business clans that have fused with them live in a secure and comfortable world, whereas the common people are forced to survive alone. The civil service has lost its effectiveness. It has turned into a caste of masters and lords from whom we cannot defend ourselves, because they are the power, while we are “cattle.”

Can fear of policemen really be a norm of a civilized life, of a civilized country? Yet lawlessness on the part of the police has remained. All the talk about combating it has been just that—talk. Here is a recent case. Igor Gubanov, a resident of Magnitogorsk, protested against police lawlessness by cutting off two of his fingers. He could find no other way of making himself heard. In January, Gubanov and his wife, who live in a communal flat, were taken to a police precinct where, according to Gubanov, policemen raped his wife. A criminal investigation was launched, but soon the police investigators closed it, accusing the victimized woman of making false charges.

Despair is felt not only by people who have decided to commit shocking acts. The overall mood of discouragement has been increasing due to the fact Russia has shifted into idle and got stuck in the doldrums, and it is unclear when and how it will end.

The national anthem and memories are all that remain of the once-great country: outer space, victories, and prestige. The country’s most recent major achievements happened fifty years ago. The “unbreakable union” has been replaced by “our great power Russia,” but what is next? Great and poor, great and impoverished. Do these notions go together? How long can we live like this?

The Russian welfare state exists only on paper. Such declarations, by the way, have also been inscribed in the constitutions of Latin American, African, and Asian countries. A Brazilian in his favela reads that he lives in an wonderful welfare state, and he is amazed. The same is true of our fellow Russians, with their miserable wages and pensions. True, unlike their brothers from the country “where many wild monkeys live,” they do not live in huts yet. But, as they say, the night is young.

The main problem nowadays is that the country lacks a locomotive capable of pulling it out of crisis. The regime is concerned only with self-preservation. Officialdom is corrupt, inefficient, and lacking any strategic benchmarks. The “elite” (which I put in quotations, because they really are not the best people in the country) have been thoroughly denationalized: they have no stake in developing Russia. Until a normal and non-corrupt state makes the “elite” serve the country, it will never move it forward. In this case, what is wanted is the bloody-mindedness of a Peter the Great, who once put an end to mestnichestvo and forced the boyars and gentry to serve the country, or the statesmanship of Alexander II, who abolished serfdom over the lamentations of the landlords.

Instead, pro-government spin doctors have been increasingly ratcheing up the propaganda machine, searching for enemies, and heavily sugarcoating reality. Jingoism has already bored everyone to death. The people directing the show do not believe in it themselves, and the audience has stopped believing in it as well, despite the sunny ideology foisted on them, because Russia is running in place, and no one is solving its problems. The propaganda spiel that enemies are to blame for everything is still functioning, but even it cannot serve as a perennial explanation for each new outburst of social turmoil and, especially, the government’s extremely poor performance. So fine, Obama is a bad guy, but what does that have to do with indexing pensions?

The only thing the regime can really boast about is reinforcing itself. But it is a regime presiding over a country losing its vitality. As a priority, the self-preservation of the “elite” deprives Russia of the chance to put itself back in motion. Yet the purged political arena, in which there is almost no opposition to speak of, much less plain old independent people who think about their country, has stopped generating leaders. There is only one leader left in the country, and he presides over a multilayered horde of bosses and oligarchs, embezzlers and dolts  perched on their estates and thinking only of themselves.

Except for United Russia, a product of the same regime, Russia’s political parties have no weight nationwide. The same goes for grassroots organizations. The media have been muzzled. Those who try and shout louder than the rest face either a harsh crackdown or a trivial payoff. Many people have taken to making oppositional noises in the hope they will be paid to shut up. Imitating protest has become a business, just like imitating patriotism. Amid the mob of clowns and crooks, the reasonable speeches made by the few real patriots who are rooting not for themselves but for their country are drowned out by the overall senseless din.

By eliminating potential enemies, the regime has also destroyed the very possibility of an alternative emerging, of a reboot. The current policies are clearly ineffective, but what and who should replace them? Reasonable prescriptions, for example, for supporting the national non-oil economy and import substitution, restoring consumer demand through social assistance to an impoverished population, ending capital flight, going after offshore companies, and clamping down hard on corruption have been voiced. These ideas, however, have come from second- and third-rank players who can advise the authorities but cannot demand anything from them. So the regime has ignored them year after year, thus exacerbating the crisis.

I am not trying to whip up a frenzy. I would like to say something positive, but the situation is firmly deadlocked. It is clear what reforms are needed. It also clear how to implement them and where to begin: with the “elite,” the civil service, the budget, and the tax system. The only open question is who would be capable of doing all this. We have already talked about the government. Russia’s active middle class is small, and it is extremely demoralized. We are left with the rank-and-file population, who have suffered most from the crisis and seemingly have a stake in launching reforms. But for the time being only a few ordinary people have been willing to take responsibility, allowing the regime quickly to localize protests, as happened with the farmers.

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Nikolay Mironov. Photo courtesy of the Center for Economic and Political Reform (Moscow)

In the current environment, self-organization, society teaming up with honest people in the civil service and law enforcement, could be effective. Those honest people are undoubtedly there, but not in leadership roles. The country needs a grassroots organization, a movement, a party that could unite people and impose its own rules on the authorities. Society has to make the first move itself, which will serve as a signal to the honest people inside the system. We have to get the ball rolling.

Responsibility for what will become of the Motherland and us tomorrow lies with each of us today. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

All we have to do is not be silent, not relinquish our right to speak and act to someone else, not to count on an unknown savior of the Fatherland showing up. If he has not saved the country already, why would he do it now? And, needless to say, do not be afraid. We have to overcome our isolation to put an end to the senseless suicides, severed fingers, and broken lives, to put an end finally to the shameless plunder of the people and the export of the loot abroad. Even the smallest action, as long as it is collective, carries more weight than the most desperate individual deed.

We can, of course, wait for the moment when the country finally goes to hell in a hand basket, as in Tsarist Russia or the late Soviet Union. But do we really have to go through turmoil and destruction every time we need a new impulse to development? Are victims so necessary to the process of recovery?

The country is at a standstill, and the dump truck of history is rushing toward it. There are two options. Either we start the engine and drive, or we wait to get run over and tossed onto the roadside.

Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. I published a translation of his column “Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a ‘Bad’ Prime Minister” in June 2016. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up. Photo by the Russian Reader

Whipping Bear

Bears
Bears

Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a “Bad” Prime Minister
Nikolay Mironov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
June 1, 2016

Remember the Soviet joke about the plumber who comes to an apartment to fix a leaky radiator?

“The entire system is rotten here: the entire system has to be changed!” he concludes.

The joke is as topical now as it was then, because the system, it seems, has hit rock bottom. But the nation is clearly of two minds. It is seemingly aware of what has been happening in the country, but at the same time it maintains its loyalty to the regime that has brought us to this pass.

On the one hand, we see a president with a huge rating. On the other hand, we see a rapidly failing economy, a deteriorating social sphere, and, consequently, a high degree of public dissatisfaction with the regime. How can it be that as the foundation crumbles, the president manages to maintain his popularity?

The logic of this social attitude was, I think, nicely expressed by a cabbie who recently gave me a lift.

“Putin is going like gangbusters: the West, America, Syria, Donbas. And Medvedev is supposed to be taking care of the economy instead of fiddling with his iPhone.”

And right then and there he served me up a helping of bad news. He has been getting less work. Prices are rising. Who knows where the hell we are headed.

The taxi driver in fact reproduced the classic propaganda formula he hears every day on the TV. Aside from America, bad officials and liberals are the root of our troubles. The government is clearly underperforming, while the president is terribly busy with foreign policy and lifting Russia from its knees. He is the country’s sacred patron, its guardian angel, and the shortcomings of officials do not stick to him.

If you are thinking straight, cognitive dissonance must kick in, of course. The president has a huge number of powers. He appoints the government, and he could, if he felt like it, sack any minister, including the prime minister, without consulting with anyone. He has the power to kickstart any reforms via presidential decrees. And the Duma is at his beck and call, for United Russia holds the majority of seats there. Why does Putin not appoint a good team, dismiss corrupt officials, and announce a policy shift for the country? How will he lift the country from its knees if the economy tanks? If he is weak and incapable of doing it, why should we support him? If he just does not want to do it, that is another strike against him. But the nation, which has a weak grasp of political institutions and sees no credible alternative in sight, is willing to believe that “Putin has it rough,” that “he is fighting,” and that “they  are getting in his way.”

The massive brainwashing on this point allows the regime to keep a tight lid on the system and change nothing fundamental about it, thus preserving the current inertial scenario, which is favorable to the elites. It is favorable to them because, were the government to decide to undertake economic reforms, the economic interests of the elites would inevitably take a hit, forcing them to surrender some of their comforts and excess profits.

However, while the costs of the crisis are primarily borne by the masses, somebody has to be made the fall guy, the virtual whipping boy. With the exception of defense minister Sergei Shoigu and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the cabinet has been appointed to this role along with abstract liberal circles, who, allegedly, have a behind-the-scenes influence on officials.

It is obvious that today the head of state cannot officially support the current course, which has resulted in rampant poverty among the population. Equating this policy with the president would be, if not tantamount to suicide, then certainly a powerful blow to his popularity. But Putin has no intention to change course for the reason given above: the interests of the elites. For this reason, on the eve of the election campaigns, the plan is to deliberately unhook the domestic agenda from the president and hang it on Medvedev and his government. Consequently, the prime minister will no longer be the number two man in Russia, but an expendable, a scapegoat.

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Nikolay Mironov. Photo courtesy of the Center for Economic and Political Reform (Moscow)

Moreover, we should not identify Medvedev with United Russia. Their identities are not blurred in the propaganda, and this is no accident. All the negativity towards officials and the head of the government must not devolve on the party tasked with winning a majority in the Duma in September. United Russia members have thus even been criticizing government ministers, pretending that they and the executive branch are different animals, despite the fact they have the same leader (Medvedev) and a majority in parliament, allowing them to make any and all political appointments and legislative decisions.

This is a quite important part of the spectacle. Medvedev has to be a lightning rod for Putin, and yet United Russia, which Medvedev chairs, has to make it successfully through the campaign for the new seating of the Duma. Since this is the task at hand, the regime will do its utmost to control the volume of criticism leveled at the prime minister, including criticism voiced by opposition parties. As for attacks by forces close to the regime (e.g., the Russian People’s Front’s usual philippics against bureaucrats), they will most likely come down to a matter of tweaking the picture to help the president avoid the impact of potential criticism for the current situation. But the propagandists will avoid belittling the government excessively during the election period. “Local officials” will bear the brunt of the negativity. The government, moreover, will be given carte blanche to spend budgetary funds for populist purposes and to mitigate the crisis, including through a temporary increase in dividends paid out by large corporations. (The figures currently quoted range between 300 and 400 billion, which should be quite enough to get through the summer.)

Thus, during the Duma campaign, Medvedev will draw fire upon himself. So-called managed democracy, however, will ensure this fire will not turn into a conflagration and burn the regime and the elites. The president must remain unharmed, since his main play strategically is the 2018 presidential election, a key election for the elites.

The next act in the political spectacle will be Medvedev’s premiership after the Duma elections in September and in the run-up to 2018. Here, too, he will function as a whipping boy and political expendable, readying the way for the launch of Putin’s next presidential campaign.

After the election, the prime minister, having received formal carte blanche from the voters, can undertake unpopular measures. (Unless, of course, the oil price suddenly rises miraculously.) It is inevitable. Someone has to pay for the crisis, and, apparently, the elites are still not this someone. In any case, it is Medvedev who will have to make ends meet in the 2016 budget, with its whopping 14.7% deficit on the expenditures side, and then rob Peter to pay Paul when drafting the 2017 and 2018 budgets.

If the situation gets ugly, and the populace’s complaints attain a critical mass, Putin can dismiss Medvedev on the eve of the presidential election, appointing him to some cushy post. And he will again profit from the decision, because in the eyes of the electorate, the president will be seen as a virtual national savior. Having dampened tensions in society this way, he will be re-elected to another six-year term as president, winning an acceptable percentage of the vote. The opposition will again be confounded, and someone like Alexei Kudrin can become prime minister. This will nicely symbolize the compromise between “liberals” and “conservatives,” while also functioning as a nod to the west, whose cheap money we need desperately.

The alpha and omega of all this complicated maneuvering is preserving the system, and thus preserving the privileges and assets of the supreme elites, their lifestyle, and their ability to peaceably transfer their wealth to their children. They will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and once again enjoy the sunsets on the French Riviera and in Italy.

Only time and economic conditions will tell what comes next. If the country’s currency reserves run out, and the oil price does not increase, intrigues around choosing Putin’s successor will kick off. Or a new scapegoat will be found, and so on ad infinitum. Generally speaking, the current regime just does not plan that far ahead.

Only one question remains. What is in all of this for Medvedev himself? Does he enjoy being expendable? Here it is like the line from the classic Soviet comedy film The Pokrovsky Gate: “Life is lived not for pleasure’s sake, but for the sake of conscience.”

I think the answer that immediately comes to mind is also the most likely to be the right answer. Medvedev does his job and is loyal to his boss. He cannot imagine himself outside the system, much less as the creator of a new system.

Another joke comes to mind in this connection. President Medvedev wakes up in a sweat. His wife asks what the matter is.

“I dreamt I fired Putin,” Medvedev replies.

2011 clearly showed that staging a revolution or even serious reforms was beyond the prime minister’s scope. Medvedev’s political career consists of brief ascents followed by a series of humiliations. However, his job has numerous upsides, too. Is it so bad being prime minister of such a rich country as Russia for a whole six years?

Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up.