For Russia, it can only get worse
Russians who disapprove of what their country is doing to Ukraine are a small and unpopular minority.
The boldest champion of dissent, Alexei Navalny, is under house arrest. He and his brother Oleg are awaiting trial for fraud involving the French company, Yves Rocher — which the company has denied ever happened. Pavel Durov, who founded and ran In Touch, Russia’s largest social network, has left the country after being fired from his position. Sergei Guriev, the former head of the New Economic School, the center of liberal economic thinking, fled Russia last year, fearing arrest.
Even with their backs against the wall, though, the liberals are feisty. They press their case that Russia is now hastening its own doom. I caught up with several of them at a conference outside of Moscow last week, organized by the Moscow School of Civic Enlightenment, a non-governmental organization focused on democratic and civic issues. (Full Disclosure: I have been on the Moscow School’s advisory committee for the three years).
They liberals I met were angry — certain that their country was heading for a disaster. They disagreed only about how deep that disaster would be. Some, like Arseny Roginsky, who helped found the Memorial Foundation, spoke of the need to relate current events to Russia’s Stalinist and post-Stalinist past, in which nearly 20 million people died in an atmosphere of repression. For the past determines both the present and the future.
Roginsky bemoaned the fact that his institution, founded to exhume the memories of the millions who perished under the Soviet regimes, has not succeeded in implanting in the contemporary Russian mind the need for memory. Russia, Roginsky said, has “not erected one plaque in Moscow which commemorates the places where mass murders happened.”
Others, like Guriev, who fled his country last summer fearing he would be arrested for his anti-regime activism, are more focused on the increasingly rocky economics that underpin Russia’s Ukrainian gamble. Speaking on a Skype connection from Paris, where he now lives, Guriev forecast an increasingly grim future for Russia — pressed by sanctions, deprived of investment and unable to access Western bank lending.
The current Russian government, headed by President Vladimir Putin, he said, lacks the means to fulfill its promises to the population for higher pensions and services. He predicted it will likely resort to repression and propaganda to safeguard its power.
Putin’s administration, buoyed by the strong public support for its actions in Crimea, where the majority are ethnic Russians, has not told the Russian people just how perilous Russia’s economic future is. Nor has the previous or current Ukrainian government, where, according to Guriev, the situation is now “horrendous.”
Yevgeny Yasin, a former minister of economics, said that Russian capital flight this year will amount to $150 billion or more — leeching away resources from what should be investment projects.
One of Russia’s leading pollsters, Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center, showed a series of graphs that gave a sharply alarming glimpse of the Russian public mind. The public was revealed as strongly anti-Western in general and anti-American in particular and deeply attached to the Putin administration. People are proud of Moscow’s military successes in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea today. They are also decidedly nationalistic.
Yet in spite of the present high popularity of the state leaders, in Moscow,” Gudkov said, “74 percent say they feel fear and have negative feelings. This goes hand-in-hand with a feeling of helplessness — that you are incomplete and can’t influence anything. They don’t even want to do so. They think it’s dangerous, useless.”
It is difficult to evaluate this Russia. It’s never looked more “Western” or “global,” with chains of clothing stores, fast-food restaurants and prestige car dealerships. Yet it’s never been more anti-Western in sentiment, with distrust amounting to hatred of both foreigners and immigrants.
To the outsider these attitudes seem overheated. Yet Gudkov’s graphs show that Russian nationalism is espoused even by the highly educated, the powerful, the upwardly mobile and the intelligentsia — once key sources of liberal thinking.
This extraordinary switch in attitudes prompted Yevgeny Gontmakher, deputy director of the Institute of the World Economy at the Academy of Sciences, to argue that Russia is fundamentally unable to survive future shocks. Its public mood is fragile and its dependence on strong growth is now being denied.
“See what is happening in Greece,” said Gontmakher, “If that happened in Russia we couldn’t go through it peacefully. There were demonstrations and extremists and riots, but [the Greeks] understand that the market economy and democracy is better than anything else. They want to stay within the realm of a civilized society.”
Does Russia want the same? The question is behind the deep pessimism of the liberals. They forecast not just economic turmoil, but political repression.
Russia’s current course may mark a return if not to Stalinism — to a Soviet-level of suspicion, discrimination and repression.
I’m writing this while waiting for a friend in the foyer of one of the seven “wedding cake” buildings in central Moscow, now a Radisson, with music tinkling and a line of Mercedes waiting outside. It is tempting to put Russia’s current condition down to overheated disappointment in an anti-liberal government.
But the Russian liberals live here and I no longer do. The alienation from their country and fear of its rulers are palpable. Besides, no amount of Mercedes can guarantee a civil society if enough people care so little for it.
PHOTO: Russian soldiers march during a rehearsal for a May 9 victory parade in Dvortsovaya Square in St. Petersburg April 28, 2014. Russia prepares to mark the 69th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two on May 9. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk