Photo courtesy of Cain and Todd Benson via Flickr

I’ve been struck over the past few years with how upfront various donors have been over the lack of new ideas for spurring civic engagement in Russia. At least twice, I’ve heard long-time funders of Russia practically beg for new ideas, as they’ve tired of receiving the same old proposals from the same old members of Russia’s embattled NGO sector. They weren’t necessarily disparaging the stalwarts of that sector – some of them former Soviet-era dissident types – but it was a frank acknowledgment that there simply weren’t enough nimble, innovative groups from within Russia bombarding them with proposals.

Some recent research makes clear why. In an article posted on 31 January on the website of the independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, Andrey Lipskiy reported the recent findings of the Levada Center, a respected Russian research center. [Unfortunately, I can't link to the article because I have it through the BBC Monitoring service, but perhaps a Russian speaker can do a better job finding the article, “Zone of Alienation” (the English translation), on the Novaya Gazeta website or the research directly on Levada's site.]

Lipskiy’s observations were based on impressions from the Levada Center’s annual conference that took place the week before – in particular a keynote speech by Lev Gudkov, the center’s director – and from the latest issue of “Public Opinion 2010,” one of Levada’s publications.

Typical for the Putin decade, the authorities and the people seem to be living in two parallel worlds, Lipskiy wrote: “Sociologists note a catastrophic mistrust of the authorities by Russians, and the total impossibility of influencing it. This is one of the reasons why the middle class is leaving the country.”

Leveda’s numbers illustrate a population thoroughly disgusted with its leadership:

The overwhelming majority of citizens believe that most politicians engage in politics “only for the sake of their own personal benefit” or “sooner” for the sake of it. Around 70 percent believe that politicians and bureaucrats are inclined to lie in describing the real state of affairs in various spheres of Russian life. Over 80 percent of citizens believe that parties do not reflect the interests of the people, and are only fighting for power. Sixty-two percent say that they live by relying only on themselves, and avoid entering into contact with the authorities. Alienation from the authorities is also manifested in the fact that most citizens do not want to answer for the actions of the government.

Yet almost no one wants to get involved to try and change the situation:

Citizens are decisively not interested in politics. There is a dominant desire to refrain from it and to somehow shield themselves from it. The main reason for this is that over 80 percent of those polled believe that nothing depends on them, and that they cannot influence anything. And who needs that kind of politics?

Other data suggests that people want to regulate their politicians in some way, but have no idea how, or simply don’t want to get involved personally.

At the same time, most of those polled are convinced that the main thing in changing the authorities must not be “strengthening their vertical chain of command,” but establishing control over them. How – they do not know. Especially since the personal ratings of the members of the tandem [Putin and Medvedev] – although they decline at times – on the whole continue to remain rather high. Either the people themselves want to establish control (but then it is unclear why they have a total repulsion to politics and the continuing low level of protest sentiments and even lower level of personal readiness to participate in any forms of protest). Or they want to re-assign this mission to members of the tandem, who stage public “dressing down” of public officials from time to time. In any case, the alienation of people from the authorities is simply edging up.

It’s fascinating that the revulsion felt for the political elite in general still hasn’t hit the president or prime minister particularly hard. The “teflon tandem” has apparently made a science of deflecting any criticism elsewhere, and staying popular. The question for Lipskiy and for today’s Russia is whether that situation will last indefinitely.

The past year showed a characteristic process of decentralization of public institutions and arbitrary action by the authorities. And also a rapidly growing volume of corruption at all levels. All this is noted and recorded by the mass consciousness, and settles in this consciousness. One of the obvious results of such a development of events is the clearly seen de-legitimization of the authorities, its loss of confidence among the population, and the growing alienation of society from the authorities. For now, this has not been fraught with any serious shake-ups. For now.

I’d be interested to hear if Egyptians were similarly thought apathetic just two weeks ago.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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