Russia’s crisis: the political options

Vladimir Gelman
28 December 2008

It is by no means a proven fact that economic crises weaken authoritarian regimes.  Statistical analyses have shown that, however deep or prolonged these crises may be, the regime's duration in office is unaffected.  Some authoritarian regimes are able to emerge from a crisis without major losses (Mexico in 1982), while others are swept away by protesting citizens (Indonesia in 1998). 

The balance of supply and demand in any market is affected by economic crises:  in the political market there is a drastic change in the balance of political advantage.  During crises citizens may (1) prefer to preserve the existing regime and support the status quo ("loyalty"), (2) passively adapt to the changing situation ("exit") or (3) actively speak out against the policy of the ruling regime, or against the regime as such ("voice"). Many variables affect the choice of behavioural strategy, both at an individual and mass level.   These include demand for changes in the status quo, but also what is in offer from the ruling regime and from its opponents too. It is, therefore, not surprising that even popular dissatisfaction with the regime does not always result in mass protests.

Russia is no exception to the general rule. In the post-Soviet period, by international standards there was a very low level of social and economic protest, considering the scale and duration of the recession accompanying transformation during the 1990's. As market reform got under way in Russia there were many predictions of protests occasioned by the wave of dissatisfaction when prices were liberalised.  However, mass dissatisfaction throughout the whole of this period did not turn into a mass protest. In 1997-1998 surveys by VTSIOM (the All-Russian Centre for Study of Public Opinion) recorded that approximately 25-30% of Russian citizens were ready to take part in protests; the actual percentage was considerably lower. This discrepancy can be explained by the fact that social and economic protest in Russia depended not so much on the demand for alternatives to the existing status quo, as on what is on offer in the political market.

Little opposition or protest

Alternatives in post-Soviet Russia were few and far between.  Unlike the countries of Latin America, post-Communist countries did not have the preconditions necessary to create strong trade unions capable of mobilising the masses. In Russia they are still not there. What exceptions there are only prove the rule. 

The largest opposition party of Russia - the Communist Party - had considerable support in the 1990s, but for a number of reasons it proved incapable of converting this into anti-regime protest.  After its defeat at the presidential elections in 1996, the Party rejected once and for all the mobilisation of the masses, going as far as to proclaim the slogan "infiltration into power".   Other parties and movements were even less capable of heading mass demonstrations.

Furthermore, in the 1990s the potential role of protest was diminished still further by the spontaneous decentralisation of the Russian state.  Delayed payments of wages and pensions were found to be the fault of both the federal centre and the regional governors, so it was not so obvious at which of the potential "targets" the protest should be aimed. The federal and regional authorities in their turn not only shifted responsibility on to each other, but also used the protest for their own ends. In many instances mass demonstrations were actually organised or sponsored by the managers of enterprises or by regional and local authorities, as a way of putting pressure on the federal authorities. American researcher Graeme Robertson has shown that the more severe the conflict between the heads of executive power in the regions and the Federal centre at the end of the 1990s, the more serious the strikes in these regions. 

After 2000 the recession was replaced by swift growth in the Russian economy and the reasons for mass social and economic protest seemed to have disappeared. Yet the beginning of 2005 saw the largest mass protests in post-Soviet Russia, triggered by authorities unsuccessful attempt at replacing pensioners' social benefits with cash payments. However, this did not create any serious challenge to the regime either. On the one hand, the protest "target" proved to be divided, as responsibility for social reforms was split between the federal and regional authorities.  On the other hand, none of the opposition forces was capable of converting mass dissatisfaction into coordinated demonstrations on a nationwide scale.  As a result, the protest ran out of steam and gradually trickled away. 

At this time something similar occurred with other protests by public movements. Unconnected protests against urban redevelopment and housing reforms, in defence of the rights of car owners, small businesses etc. remained a local phenomenon. They did not affect the policy of the regime, and the coordination of these movements in different regions was sporadic. Therefore it is no exaggeration to say that there have not yet been any truly significant manifestations of social and economic protest in the post-Soviet history of Russia.

Strategies for dealing with protest

What can the authorities do about the protests? They have two strategies to choose from. They can opt for repression, and stop at nothing to prevent the goals of protest being achieved. Or they can choose conciliation, allowing the protestors to achieve part of their goal and even possibly co-opt them into the ranks of the regime's "fellow-travellers", while retaining control of the situation.

In the 1990s the federal authorities had almost no resources for repression: the forces needed for suppressing protest were limited and the costs could prove prohibitive. So the centre opted for conciliation, agreeing to negotiations and individual concessions. For instance, at the time of the "rail war" during the miners' strikes of 1998 they attempted to prevent protest from spreading nationwide and kept it local.  The federal authorities reacted similarly to the unexpected protests at proposed social benefits reform. They managed to buy off the pensioners and veterans who took to the streets, and a small percentage of the representatives of social groups, which could potentially have become the core of a fresh protest, were allowed into the establishment via the Public Chamber and other channels.

However, the strategy of repression was consistently used to deal with the threat of political protest, which worried the regime far more, especially after the "coloured revolutions" of 2003-05.   Organisations capable of challenging the regime (parties, nonprofit organizations, the media) were subject to attacks from the authorities (the dispersal of the "marches of dissent" being the best known example). Preventive measures to restrict the scope of their activities set the barriers very high for collective action on the part of real or potential opposition.

At the same time, the iron hand of the ruling group combined with other factors to allow the Russian regime to create an extremely unfavourable environment for social and economic protest. Chief among these was the fact that the elite was united and that the opportunities were minimal of being able to convert any alternative agenda into a decision-making system. It was with these unfavourable conditions and almost no experience of protest that Russia arrived at the beginning of the economic crisis. 

At present, although surveys by the Public Opinion Foundation, Levada Center and other services record a growth in mass dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country, there is still a high level of support for the regime and its leaders. Russian citizens remain loyal to the status quo (as has been the case so far, throughout the 2000s).

However, we should not forget that popular support for authoritarian regimes like Russia's is not diffuse, but quite specific. In other words, citizens support the regime not because they like it as such, but because for the majority it brings material dividends (or at least the hope of such dividends). Popular support for these regimes is rather like a relationship with a prostitute:  she is prepared to make love as long as she is paid money, but when the client's money runs out (in this case, the money of the ruling group of the authoritarian regime), her love is no longer for sale. So, if the recession in Russia will be, as many economists predict, deep and prolonged, it will be quite difficult for the Russian regime to keep its citizens' loyalty and there will inevitably be increased demands for alternatives to the status quo.  These demands are likely to be anti-modernisation ("bringing resource rents back") and based on slogans which are left-wing, or (in the worst case scenario) aggressively nationalistic. However, the selection of behavioural strategies ("exit" vs. "voice", passive adaptation vs. active resistance) will depend not only and not so much on demand, but also on what is available in the Russian political market.

Withdrawal v protest              

If political opportunities in Russia remain unchanged, mass nationwide protest does not at this stage seem very likely.  There are no nationwide organisations for mobilising the masses and no common "target" for protest. There are also no influential leaders who have deserted the ruling group and are capable of leading and channeling this protest (all of which was the case with a vengeance in the collapse of authoritarianism during the crises in the USSR in 1989-1991 or in Mexico in 1988-2000).  

Given these circumstances, the option of  "exit" as a reaction to the crisis would seem to be most likely for Russians. This could manifest itself in different forms, ranging from exit into a marginal way of life, exit into crime, up to leaving the country. But this will only happen if the regime makes the appropriate social and economic niches available.  After all, Russia had similar experiences in Soviet times, as it did in the 1990s. In other words, Russians are used to  "exit" . However, the problem is that the developing crisis makes such niches increasingly less accessible and/or less attractive. If "exit" is unattractive and/or inaccessible, Russians may simply be forced to "protest".

Paradoxically enough the conservative (reactive) strategy of restraint used by the Russian regime in the crisis might be another source of protest. The ruling group, which not unjustifiably considers protest a challenge to its supremacy, keeps a tight hand on even local protests e.g. in Vladivostok against increases in duties on imported cars. It reverts to preventive measures against potential enemies (such as tightening up the Criminal Code).

However, compared to other authoritarian regimes of the post-Soviet space, the Russian regime has a fairly low level of repressiveness and this could be the Achilles' heel of the strategy of repression.  During the 2000s, the Russian regime carried out "pinpoint" repression of its opponents, which is both cost effective and targeted at maintaining the status quo.

The current Russian regime has no direct experience of mass repressions of its citizens. Therefore, if protest even at local level exceeds the technical limits of suppression by force (in other words, if so many protestors take to the streets that it will be impossible to disperse them without mass killings), then the repression of protest may prove to be too costly for the regime. This cannot be ruled out (it is unlikely that the ruling group will suffer from moral qualms). But the level of risk for the leadership of the country is very high. Furthermore, one should remember that repressive authoritarian regimes are most dangerous for representatives of elite and sub-elite groups - for them the risk of becoming victims of this type of regime is much higher than for ordinary citizens.


At the same time, in conditions of crisis the Russian regime may change its strategy and revert to conciliation. If the economic and political situation in the country remains more or less under the control of the ruling group, then for an authoritarian regime with a (so far) low level of repression, a possible solution might be to expand its social and political base. 

The least expensive and most effective method would be for the regime to co-opt potentially disloyal "fellow-travellers" from elites and sub-elite groups.  Material support,  even if only symbolic, from some of the social segments that are most important for the regime (above all the residents of large cities) would also be effective.

For the ruling group, the short term cost of dividing up the (already decreasing) revenues with new junior partners would be relatively small; the long-term benefits of splitting up any potential opposition and isolating disloyal enemies on the principle "divide and rule" are obvious. It may be successful when demands for political alternatives increase and there is a threat of increased disloyalty among "fellow-travellers". 

The preventive measure of conciliation and co-opting may also include more significant proposals for the managed "top-down" liberalisation of the Russian political system.  For the moment at least these would not touch the heart of the regime - the absolute monopoly of the ruling group in the decision-making process. Historical experience, however, shows that this strategy only widens the window of political opportunities for protest, and is generally ineffective from the point of view of the survival of authoritarian regimes:  they are either forced to return to the previous status quo or they face the threat of collapse (as occurred in the USSR during the period of perestroika).

Revolution from above?


The Russian regime may consider an alternative:  an active offensive strategy of repression, a kind of "revolution from above".  A move to this strategy will become more likely if the ruling group begins to lose control of the economic and political situation: it could seem to them that even local protests will be too big for the regime either to buy off its opponents or to suppress them with physical force.  In this case the authorities may attempt to control the situation by initiating "protest" as a way of letting off steam and channeling mass dissatisfaction towards previously selected "targets".   The ruling group will thus be able to effect a partial change in the composition of the elites or even to carry out selective repressions against social groups, whose support for the regime is not too important but who are resented by many of their fellow citizens.  

The first scenario of "bombard the headquarters" might be directed against officials who are not coping in the crisis (starting with Dmitry Medvedev), some of the "oligarchs" and bankers, who send capital abroad and/or into currency assets, some regional leaders, and even, possibly, the leaders of "United Russia".  

In the second scenario a natural "target" might be immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, or even ethnic minorities as a whole. The expected increase in xenophobia and extremism in this case will be constrained by the political and ethnic composition of the population of Russia and the existence of its ethnic republics, especially in the North Caucasus and in the Volga Region.

It is extremely difficult to predict the consequences of these very risky steps (depending on their duration and scale) at present. The success of an active offensive strategy of repressions may allow the regime to survive the crisis and even to strengthen the position of Putin, sacrificing a section of fellow citizens; however, in an extreme case, its failure could even lead to the territorial disintegration of the country.

Throughout the 2000s, the Russian regime, which relied among other things on loyalty from its citizens, built political and institutional barriers on the path of changes to the status quo, in order to prevent any internal political challenge to the dominance of the ruling group. The challenges thrown up by the economic crisis could provoke Russians to abandon their loyalty to the regime. For this reason the revision of the status quo at the level of both popular behaviour and the strategy of the regime is currently highly likely. A further deepening of the crisis may force Russian authoritarianism towards changes. It is only not clear whether these changes will be for the best for the country.

© Vladimir Gelman, 2008

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