In May, I posted a blog about Vladimir Putin’s new political base: the rural working class. As opposition protests spread through Moscow after the disputed December parliamentary polls, Putin held on to win the presidency handily in March by clenching the support of Russians in rural areas who are more conservative than the urbanites. Analysts have argued that Putin reached out to this constituency by appealing to the strength of the state. But, I suggested, how solid is this support with the Russian state so clearly dysfunctional?
In The Other Russia, a new piece for Foreign Affairs (subscription required, or you can buy an inexpensive pdf version), Mikhail Dmitriev and Daniel Treisman present fresh focus group data by Moscow’s Center for Strategic Research suggesting that Putin’s base, as it were, is wobbly. The responses from 62 groups in 16 Russian regions “were surprising,” Dmitriev and Treisman say:
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.
Unlike the urban elite, the authors write, the other Russia sees the results of Putin’s reelection as final. These citizens don’t sympathize with the opposition protesters and their “abstract concepts, such as fairness and democracy.” Certainly, they won’t be joining any Pussy Riot solidarity rallies.
But the other Russia is nevertheless fed up. People are tired of a regime that cannot provide fundamental services like education and health care, of life in a country with twice as many doctors per capita as the U.S., but a 40 percent higher infant mortality rate. Focus group participants lamented corruption and the ubiquitous potholes in Russia’s roads. They generally expressed declining confidence in Team Putin and its empty promises.
Dmitriev and Treisman sum up the other Russia succinctly: “Russians outside the elite do not clamor to participate in the state, but they want a state that works.”
Today, 72 percent of Russians believe a political opposition is necessary, compared with 47 percent in 2000, according to a separate poll cited by the authors. In the focus groups, some participants called for a wholesale change in leadership. Dmitriev and Treisman suggest that another economic crisis or painful public sector reforms could inspire the other Russia to protest. At the moment, though, they’re simmering.
“Although not yet on the side of the middle-class urbanites,” Dmitriev and Treisman write, “the other Russia is today just barely content to tolerate the status quo.”
Picture from www.kremlin.ru via wikimedia.org