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Russia: Middle Class Rising

- December 13, 2011

Continuing our series of commentaries on recent developments in Russia, we are pleased to welcome the following guest post from Thomas Remington of Emory University:

Press reports in both Russia and the US of the large-scale protests against election fraud in Moscow and other large cities are characterizing this movement as the political mobilization of the Russian “middle class.” The middle classs trope has figured prominently in Russian press and scholarly discussion over the last few years. The Kremlin’s master strategist, Vladislav Surkov, has repeatedly pushed United Russia to defend the interests of the middle class, in whom he sees a force for stability–Russia’s “silent heroes,” as he calls them, borrowing a phrase from Barack Obama. Social scientists have tried to fix the size and dynamics of the middle class. Some see it growing in social weight and self-awareness, while others have noted the stagnation of incomes in the middle while incomes at the top–Russia’s top 1%–have skyrocketed. Shortly before the December 4 Duma election, a Kremlin-affiliated think tank issued a report claiming that the middle class now comprised nearly half of the working population of big cities. The numbers were more faith-based than real, but the report made a valid point: that without proper political representation in an adequately competitive electoral arena, redistributive tensions between higher-income and lower-income strata were bound to increase. Presciently, the report predicted significant political dissatisfaction if the electoral process failed to accommodate the “middle class’s” interests.

Kremlin cardinal Surkov understands this point well. Earlier this year he attempted to breathe life into the crumbling Right Cause party by recruiting oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov to head it. But Prokhorov’s refusal to limit his electoral ambitions to the small share of the vote Surkov was willing to concede to him wrecked the project. A few days ago, after the fiasco of the Duma election–the poor official results for United Russia, the widespread and well-documented use of ballot-stuffing, manipulation of absentee voting certificates, and after-hours revisions of local vote tallies–Surkov again pointed out that Russia needs a political party for the “disgruntled urban communities” that believe in quaint ideas of political rights and fair elections. Surkov expressed himself with his customary cynicism, but his job now will be to build a legitimate liberal party–perhaps led by former finance minister Kudrin–that will not be totally compromised by its association with the Kremlin.

But are we seeing the rise of the middle class? We might do better to ask harder questions about who is protesting and why. As several posts to this blog have pointed out, there have been growing numbers of self-organized movements of civic activism in recent years in many cities, with the social media replacing traditional channels of leadership and mobilization. Many protests have focused on abuses by the authorities in traffic accidents. There have been successful one-shot protests against proposed laws and regulations that tap the energy of communities of citizens aroused through the social media. Big cities contain clusters of educated, internet-savvy, self-aware, and politically engaged citizens. As if testing the classic Verba-Schlozman-Brady model of political participation, they have the grievances to motivate their involvement in civic protest (“because they want to”), they have the ability to communicate (“because they can”), and they summon one another to turn out for rallies and collective acts of protest (“because someone asked them”).

There is a proto-middle class in Russia, but it is divided straight down the middle between those in the private sector and those in the budget sector. The recent election protests are not the revolt of the middle class, but a result of the gradual establishment of a real civil society with growing self-confidence and an awareness of its rights that is taking on board the opportunities for mobilization granted by the new communications technologies.