17.11.2007
From Process to Progress
№4 2007 October/December
Svetlana Babayeva

RIA Novosti Senior Analyst. 

Georgy Bovt

Georgy Bovt — a political scientist and a member of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy.

TWO
RESOURCES

A Russian manager
at a large international corporation was asked a simple question:
“What would you do if someone decides to make a garbage dump or
start in-fill construction near your home?” His answer was even
simpler: “I’ll move elsewhere.”

No attempts to
struggle for his rights, no willingness to change anything. Why?
Because pragmatic thinking rules out any opportunity to influence
the course of events in the country. It makes more sense to put
your efforts into improving your micro-world than the world at
large.

And politics?
Down with politics.

And why not
influence anything? OK, let’s do it – within the span of my modest
capabilities in my micro-world.

Such are the
moods of the Russian people regarded as middle class – educated,
active and successful social climbers, optimistically minded,
efficient and knowledgeable – those who have supposedly benefited
in the past fifteen years. It is this group of individuals who will
govern the country in the next phase of history.

And yet they do
not want to govern. They do not seek such a responsibility even at
the town level, or inside a multi-apartment block. They do not
believe that the country can develop in a linear way, or that a
combination of subjective and objective influences can stimulate
good results that are both visible and tangible for
many.

There seems to be
another reserve, too. Last summer it settled on the shores of Lake
Seliger and materialized in an upgrade training course [summer camp
of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi, where the trainees
received an extensive course of lectures and practical instruction
classes varying from international politics to personal fitness –
Ed]. The problem regards, however, the question as to what exactly
was upgraded. The activity of this category of “managers” was
blatantly obvious over the past twelve months – they did not let
foes inside Russia, or those abroad, sleep a wink.

It has become
clear as daylight that someone channels the efforts of active
protesters into explicitly pragmatic alleys. There is a lingering
feeling that the cynicism of the masters of street actions,
regardless of whether they get instructions from the Kremlin or
from its opponents, has reached the critical point where even the
forces that bred the street campaigners had to acknowledge the
risks. The campaigners’ energies and skillfulness in political
technologies have become dangerous. They can organize “little
scurvy brawls” wherever and for whatever reason. Rumors have it
that some movements are already prepared to lend their activists to
anybody who needs a mob scene. This is why they are vigilantly
watched and are dispatched only to carefully calculated
“jobs.”

FRIGHTENING THOUGHTS

The ruling class
has run into a perplexity it created on its own. On the one hand,
there is governable life based on the apathy of some people and
petty pragmatic readiness of others. On the other hand, the rulers
have to retrieve the genuinely creative sections of society from
dormancy. Governable life no longer satisfies the rulers
themselves, while the unpredictability of awakening forces
frightens them, even though they declare this awakening highly
desirable. 

As a result, the
power to map out objectives for the country’s development belongs
to a rather limited group of people. This mapping-out function was
never up for bid (since a real opposition does not really exist and
society simply does not demand its formation); the decisions taken
have not undergone unbiased expert scrutiny – the only criterion
for decisions is the inner sensation of the people at the top of
the state power pyramid. In such a situation, mistakes from our
leaders do not arouse any public resistance or even public debate.
The rulers have developed an illusion of omniscience and
omnipotence, which is fraught with new errors.

Orientation to
the “construed majority” offers a weighty argument in favor of
one’s own rightfulness and all-mightiness. Yet it has a reverse
side, too – deflected objectives and criteria of efficiency of
accomplished decisions. This deflection grows as an ever-increasing
number of people try to cling to the “steering wheel.” They do it
for the fun of the process as such, not in the name of objectives.
They do not risk anything as they do not decide anything and, most
importantly, do not have responsibility for anything. They merely
need the process as a source of dividends. They are the simulators
of activity in a place where there exists a total deficit of
understanding in society of where to move and at what speed. Such
is the rule of the game: you do not ask the loyal followers
huddling around you to show either understanding or
knowledge.

People confuse
means for objectives. Listen, for instance, to the vocal claims
that victory in the election will be convincing, and a
constitutional majority in parliament will be formed. A triumph of
tactics, for sure, but what is it for if you look at strategy? Have
they outlined a set of pressing tasks, on which they have secured a
national consensus and which require an undivided majority vote? If
such goals do exist, they have not been properly announced,
discussed or accepted by society. Moreover, they are not accepted
by those very active strata that constitute a critical mass and
keep the country moving forward.

It appears that
the impressive set of political and nonpolitical efforts taken by
the political leaders recently have no aim to ponder the future.
Rather, they are aimed at bolstering the present situation as long
as possible or simply serve as a tactical justification for the
people making the efforts. These actions do not contain elements of
strategy or targeted willingness.

THEY WOKE NEXT
MORNING…

The active strata
of society, its potential modernizers and creators, have drifted
sideways to satisfy their private interests; they all have leisure
activities that they indulge in – regularly and with excitement. As
for the actions taken at all levels of government, they have
stopped producing any public discussion, to say nothing of a search
for alternatives. They are simply too boring. And even if something
really stirs the public – seldom as this happens (like the debates
around a new interpretation of ‘extremism’) – animated discussions
go on for about a week before the commotion dies down. Russia
offers a remarkable example of the dying oscillation
effect.

Many in the
political administration apportion blame for this to the “abutment”
class itself, but they seem to be wrong. The active class has slid
into stagnant apathy because it sensed that it was
unneeded.

A poll conducted
by the Levada Center reveals three main groups in the section
conventionally referred to as the elite who view the class of
decision-makers critically. These are businessmen, mass media
people and elected officials at the regional and local levels. Most
of them, however, prefer to keep silent about their
discontent.

The forms of
communication with the government can vary from embedding with it,
to co-existence, to oblivion. Many from the class of winners – the
ones who could turn into an abutment stratum – have taken the
following position in relations with the upper class: “We are ready
to get involved but don’t hold us responsible.”

As a result,
members of Russia’s creative class, which in other nations are
innovative and productive, have turned into a passive category.
They may continue acquiring new knowledge, experience and skills,
but they do not work toward building up the national cumulative
effect.

PEOPLE ARE
PEOPLE, YOU KNOW

Strange as it
might seem, the problems of Russian democracy today are universal
and typical of all civilization. In the West, political scientists
have been stating for decades that representative democracy (which
existed over the past two hundred or so years) is witnessing a
crisis.

The West seems to
be facing the same problems as Russia. The voters are inactive and
growing more and more disillusioned with traditional democratic
institutions (for instance, only 30 percent of Americans have trust
in Congress today) and with the cynicism and falsehood of
professional political windbags. The voters are disenchanted with
politics as such and long for new personalities and fresh ideas of
some kind, but for one reason or another these never
appear.

The number of
people who participate in elections is declining. Data from Ipsos
indicates that only 52 percent of Americans vote at elections
regularly. Other developed countries show a somewhat higher
electoral activity. For instance, a total of 73 percent of
Canadians go to the polls regularly. The Germans and the French
stand next in line at 71 percent. These nations are followed by the
Spanish (65 percent), the British (60 percent), the Italians (55
percent) and South Koreans (54 percent). Retired voters display the
highest percentage of participation, while the young are the least
active. Even the most democratic nations do not have much
confidence in the fairness and objectivity of ballot counting. The
percentage of those who trust the procedure stands at only 48
percent in Canada, 46 percent in Germany, 42 percent in Britain, 33
percent in France and Spain, 26 percent in the U.S., 24 percent in
Mexico, and 20 percent in Italy.

Political experts
began to speak about the crisis of liberal pluralism back in the
1970s. The most stable and developed democracies registered a
general fall of voter activity from the 1970s through to the 1990s.
The Council of Europe’s report for 2005 registered a 7 percent drop
in electoral activity in European countries, and also predicted
that not more than 65 percent of voters in Old Europe, and even
less people in Central and Eastern Europe, will go to the polls by
the year 2020. Strangely enough, the electoral situation worsened
after the collapse of Communism. Freedom and democracy no longer
make up the main content of political agenda today.

Politics has
become a marginal field of activity for most citizens in the
majority of developed democracies today. Involvement in politics is
mostly confined to voting, signing of random petitions and – which
is far more rare – participation in mass actions of some kind.
Politics per se is the realm of narrow groups of the population,
and that is why modern political parties a priori cannot boast mass
membership. Professional political technologists are now the ones
responsible for motivating the masses in political
activities.

Meanwhile – and
this is of crucial importance – the very elaboration of goals for
society and socially significant decision-making are not
concentrated exclusively to narrow political circles. An extensive
creative class (which tends to account for about one-third of
populations in the developed countries, although its specific
contours and size may vary in individual states,) either
participates in, or influences the process through networks of
public associations, NGOs, and mass media. Opinion polls, too, can
initiate important political steps without elections, impeachment
or voting. Society–government feedback works, among other things,
through power institutions, such as the independent judiciary,
smoothly functioning bureaucracy, and oppositional organizations,
which were established and adjusted at previous stages of the
development of representative democracy.

THE BALKANIZATION
OF POLITICS

Of the three
models of democratic rule – representative, direct and deliberative
– the developed countries have been showing a tendency toward some
form of direct or deliberative democracy over the past few decades.
Elections remain inviolable, but they are increasingly complemented
by other manifestations of social activity, which produce much the
same – and sometimes even larger – effect on social processes than
elections do.

Public activities
are not only shifting from representative to direct democracy
(which, first of all, manifest themselves in direct referendums),
but also from the national to the local and – simultaneously –
cultural/ethnic levels (see, for example, the rise of various
cultural/historical associations across Europe, from the Bretons in
France to the Lapps in Finland). Also, they shift to the
professional and “special interests” levels, where adherents of one
or another occupation or pastime can use other means than political
institutions to protect their interests.

These tendencies
are largely explained by the very character of contemporary
society. Its distinctive features are basically an environment of
new information, higher level of general education, and sharp
diversification of interests among different groups of the
population. The ability of political parties to coordinate and
balance the different interests of people in a classical
19th-century way has become impossible in practical terms. This
reality can be named as “Balkanization of politics,” which tends to
embrace ever more factors of influence, including an individual
blogger who can upturn the political situation to a degree that no
political party would deem feasible just a short time
ago.

Simultaneously,
all of these processes not only make people disappointed with
traditional mass political parties, but also motivate voters to
drift toward local problems. With new forms of democracy, local –
not national – referendums come to decide all sorts of issues.
These range from bans on smoking in public places, to taxation, to
problems of purely political nature, such as migration
policy.

ARE THERE
ALTERNATIVES?

Russian political
parties and imperfect democracy are both at a totally different
stage of development, and they still have a long way to go before
they sense the above problems. Moreover, improving the political
system is complicated by the need to simultaneously solve two
extremely different groups of problems. The first group includes
building political parties as institutions that have a set of
functions: electoral (mobilization of voters for polls);
ideological (formulation of the goals for the development of
society and its separate sections); and staff-building (creation of
the elite, recruiting of new cadres for it, and a healthy rotation
of government bureaucrats on this basis). The second group of
problems involves reacting to increasingly diversified interests of
social, ethnic, professional, etc. sections of the population in a
situation where society has acquired a basically new state in terms
of information.

However, the main
challenge facing Russia’s under-reformed democracy is bigger than
just the failure of its leading political parties to perform any
classical party functions. Russian society shows a lack of
initiative for direct-effect public activity, to say nothing of
direct local referendums of any kind.

In this context,
attempts to set up ‘sovereign democracy’ in this country can have a
more complex interpretation than analysts usually offer. The idea
of sovereign democracy partly arises from the awareness of the
crisis of classical pluralistic democracy in the form that it
acquired by the mid-20th century and that was fixed by political
scientists in the West. This factor naturally brings us to the
question: What shall we add to the form of classical democracy that
Russia began to take over at a time when this form became actually
outmoded?

On the tactical
plane, answers like “Russia will go its own unique way” will do,
for instance, to suit the goals of simple electoral rhetoric. But
for strategic purposes it seems expedient to accept the answer
which has been long elaborated by other democratic nations and
which has proven to be universal. It suggests evolution toward some
form of direct democracy, toward enacting the creative potential of
broader sections of the population rather than the narrow group of
professional politicians and political administrators.

This is precisely
what should constitute the next stage of sovereign democracy
development. All other paths will only lead us to historical
deadlocks, as well as to social (and, consequently, technological,
informational and industrial) conservation.

BITS OF NOTHING
FOR NO ONE IN PARTICULAR

Even if we rule
out all contingencies during the election race, it is necessary to
wake up the creativists by next spring or fall because there
remains still another problem.

A change of
political power, granted that it takes place, will require new
actions, plans and intentions and, consequently, numerous new
people willing to act prudently, invest their efforts and knowledge
not only for the sake of process (or its simulation), but for the
sake of results.

However, problems
concerning the questions of who is running for election, and
according to what election platform, have become totally irrelevant
in the tactical and political sense since such questions do not
bother anyone anymore.

Amidst excessive
political passivity, the result of the elections would be highly
predictable and beneficial for the party in power: about half of
those who would turn out at the polling stations would cast ballots
in favor of that party. Since the minimum turnout threshold has
been abolished, voter apathy has little significance in the
tactical sense.

This is true for
the short term, but what about the long-term
perspectives?

Russian society
has no clearly conceived and formulated requirements, nor does it
make any demands on what path the country should follow in the long
term (to say nothing of such specific elements of such development
as taxes, education and social policies that are present in any
classical democratic election campaign these days).

Policy documents
of Russian political parties that have ostensibly entered a
competition for seats in parliament are quite consonant with the
passive state of mind of the electorate.

If we remove
titles and tentative indications of party affiliation of these
programs, few political technologists will be able to differentiate
between the doctrines of the right-wing, left-wing, or United
Russia’s center. As a rule, these programs cover everything, yet
nothing in particular. They seem to be addressed to the entire
population. They are saturated with promises of “justice” and
benefits of every imaginable variety. These words evenly coat every
provision, but they do not contain any specifications as to what
instruments or what laws will be employed to translate them into
reality. Most importantly, these promises fail to tell the
population what they stand to gain from that “justice.”

THEY ARE
DIFFERENT NOW

In the meantime,
the structure of society and, correspondingly, its interests have
changed dramatically over the past years.

“If you take all
the classical attributes of the middle class, such as the level of
current spending, the size of savings and property, the level of
education, the areas of activity, access to the benefits of
civilization, etc., the percentage of such people barely reaches 7
to 8 percent in Russia,” says Yevgeny Gontmakher, the director of
the Social Policies Center at the World Economics Institute of the
Russian Academy of Sciences. “But if you proceed from the Russian
reality and consider just the basic features – because only 15
percent of Russians have savings at the moment – then we find that
20 percent of Russians can be categorized as middle
class.”

According to
Gontmakher, the lower, or impoverished strata, comprise 17 to 20
percent of the Russian population. He indicates that it is
impossible to rely on official data in this case, since such data
simply does not exist. However, the available data for calculating
the numbers of the most deprived citizens is accurate
enough.

But what about
the remaining 60 percent? Who are they? “They would be the middle
class somewhere in the West but not here,” says Gontmakher. 
“Quite obviously, these 60 percent incorporate three additional
strata, 20 percent of nationals each. The lowest of them embraces
those who are poor or can drop into poverty at any moment. Take,
for instance, a person working at a factory where payment of wages
stops suddenly. It is precisely this stratum that shows the highest
mortality rate among men, who do not take care of their health, as
their earnings do not allow it, while proper healthcare facilities
are inaccessible. Children in this stratum have no opportunity to
get a good education. People in this stratum do not have future
prospects. That is why there is a danger of driving whole
generations of people into a marginal position. Coupled with the
stratum of the poorest, these Russians make up 40 percent of total
population!”

The upper 20
percent are leaning toward the middle class (in Russian terms),
while the real status of the middle 20 percent stratum depends on
objective circumstances. Yet to lean toward some position does not
mean to belong there. Thus, these 30 to 50 percent of the populace
will present the greatest problem over the short term and during
the next political cycle. Their fate actually depends on the
conditions that should be created in the country. But they are not
being created!

The ruling class
has a unique ability to build its decisions, actions and plans
either on its own notions about life (they suit some people,
indeed, but no more than one percent across the country) or on its
own notions about the poor. If you read scrupulously the main
political manifestos, all of them address the lowest classes –or
the outright marginalized – in one way or another.

The concept of
society structure espoused by the ruling class took root in the
years immediately after the major financial crisis of August 1998
or, in some cases, in the last years of the Soviet era. The fact is
reflected in the election programs, seemingly tailored to suit all
and sundry.

Meanwhile, the
population has changed and has become widely stratified following
15 years of reforms and almost ten years of economic growth.
Russian society shows a wide spectrum of groups and sections, each
having particular economic interests, level of education, cultural
and material interests, everyday concerns, etc. As time passes,
they will invariably arrive at the realization of their specific
needs. They could achieve this more rapidly with the aid of parties
that have the goal of mapping out program objectives for society’s
development. But today’s parties are unable to draw up clear
ideological platforms.

The lower strata
of society must have the right to growth and protection (in the
broad sense, protection from arbitrariness of the upper classes, in
public health and in education). The government has the task of
reducing the number of the poor and bringing it to the commonly
accepted norms (10 to 15 percent). But this stratum should not
constitute the source of state policy-making, or serve as a support
structure for the regime.

Meanwhile, the
assortment of actions taken by the authorities more often than not
multiplies marginality, parasitism and irresponsibility (let us not
mention the problem of corruption and inefficiency that immediately
begins to grow when there are imbalances in the distribution).
Worse, all of these approaches are translated into the sphere or
non-material relations and start shaping the new national rules of
life.

These sections of
society do not determine the country’s future; the quality of the
country that the people entering the election race now will leave
to future generations depends on the personal, social, material and
career prospects of the upper 20 percent (and the 30-40 percent
standing below them). In the meantime, the ruling clan overlooks
exactly these key sections.

WORDS
ONLY

In the current
arrangement, the electorate and political parties have no
connection.

Party leaders
seem to recognize the problem. Look, for instance, at what
Vyacheslav Volodin, the secretary of the presidium of the United
Russia party’s General Council, said in an interview: “It’s very
important for us to suppress populism as much as possible on the
eve of elections, to minimize slogans and to rule out lies […]
United Russia would like to make the election campaign a
competition of parties’ proposals for how to address various
problems.”

Shortly later,
United Russia’s leader Boris Gryzlov uttered the following comments
concerning his party’s proposals on healthcare: “By saying
‘healthcare system reform’ we mean a radical improvement of medical
services offered to the population, including the unemployed,
against the policies of compulsory medical insurance, legislative
provisions for government guarantees of free medical care, and a
leveling-out of conditions in which it is provided in the Russian
Federation constituents and a changeover to payments of salaries to
medical workers upon the concrete results of patients’ treatment.”
What kind of specified information can a voter glean from such
formulations, and what do these fancy words mean?

Or take the
following passage that deals with corruption: “We must build a
compact but highly efficient ‘state of professional governance’
that will replace the ‘state of sweeping plunder.’ Political
democracy enjoys respect when and where it relies on a respected
professional class of administrators who understand state interests
as being in strict compliance with law, and view service for the
benefit of Russia as the highest honor.”

Who could say
whether that comment came from the Communist Party of the Russian
Federation, United Russia or the Liberal-Democratic Party? In fact,
it came from the Union of Right-Wing Forces, although any political
party might have undersigned the text as well.

Even in those
cases where party documents contain specific details (like the
Liberal-Democratic Party’s program that carries many proposals,
including some exotic recommendations for how to reform Russia’s
structure and governmental agencies), they are formulated in such a
manner that the average voter fails to understand how these reforms
will impact one’s private life in the future. The world of politics
continues to display a competition of party images, as opposed to
ideas, which one or another group of voters would find
appealing.

Yet the future
will require more specific appeals to various sections of society.
What will happen to bank loans for education, for instance? It is
not enough to say, “They should be accessible.” Tell us how it is
possible to access them.  Or how should insurance-based
healthcare be structured?  It is not enough to deliver rosy
utterances on “common accessibility.” In the realm of economic
policy, a politician should be able to specify a well-grounded
percentage of the Unified Social Tax and Value Added Tax, or a new
level of the individual income tax, before calling for
Socialist-style changes. And what does “affordable housing” mean?
Today it more resembles the mockery of voters rather than care for
them. And who can resolve the problem of mortgage loans? What
exactly will the system of pension accruals be? Today, candidates
simply scrawl figures as on a school blackboard. The slogan, “Let’s
make the aged affluent and dignified!” does not suffice any more;
it simply sounds demagogical.

AN EXPECTATION OF
GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Many analysts
believe that in the past two or three years vertical migration has
ceased to exist in Russia. When a girl from the southern city of
Krasnodar, for example, moves to Moscow to work as a shop
assistant, it is not migration; it is a desperate search for a
better lot. In most cases it will end up in nothing because the
passage to anywhere farther and higher than her shop is barred for
this girl.

“The most
dangerous thing now is to conserve the situation,” says Yevgeny
Gontmakher. “The chances of climbing to the top are now practically
non-existent, while the chances of tumbling down are abounding.
Incidentally, it is partly due to realization of this truth that
Russia occupies the world’s second top position as regards the
number of suicides.”

The loss of hope
looms large for many Russians – and not only them, since the
migrants (and it seems that few people argue that we need migrants)
also come to Russia in search of a better lot.

There are other
opinions about vertical migration. Some analysts believe it is even
growing, although in most cases it does not mean an opportunity to
move from one class to another, but merely to regain the levels of
current consumption (the things that cost 500 rubles in the past
cost $500 now). Consumption runs an additional risk of being upset
any minute by private mishaps (redundancies at work, a change of
managers and the ensuing ‘cleansings,’ or a reform of the network
of offices) or by some unforeseen external fluctuations, for
instance, a general slide of exchange rates of the national
currency. Undoubtedly, the growth of people’s purchasing power
influences economic performance and the spirit of reforms. But
still, the rise of wellbeing does not look to be steady.

“Consumer boom
has a compensatory nature,” says Dr. Vladimir Mau, the president of
the National Economy Academy reporting to the Russian government.
“The boom can bring about a new structure of consumption that, in
due turn, will put up new requirements to internal production.”
This is possible if the economic policies are competent and
efficient, he adds.

Dr. Mau
indicates, however, that one must use caution even in this case. He
cites the 19th-century situation when the development of railways
in Russia produced booming economic growth across the country.
“Spain began to build railways at much the same time, which led to
economic growth – in neighboring France. France was considered a
more stable country, and that is why investors preferred to place
production facilities there.”

A NORM WITH A
SHIFT

As the Russians
wonder about the Franco-Spanish miracles, they get a helping hand
from a peculiar national trait – a misplaced notion of the ‘norm.’
“People in Russia are ready to keep their demands in check without
reducing their own self-evaluation,” states Boris Dubin, the
director of the Social and Political Research Department at the
Levada Center. “At the same time, they put on pretences of being
worse-off to impress others. With the Russians, the norm has eroded
boundaries. They accept drinking and petty aggression – ranging
from manhandling to driving in the oncoming lane – as something
normal, and yet this ‘negative adaptation’ plays a certain
reassuring role, since it helps maintain certain social concord.
The tram services are poor but they are there, the wages are small
but they are paid, and television pours out dullness yet it exists.
This unifying mechanism is negative but it helps maintain relations
between people and helps to slow (or at least it seems to do so) a
slide into anomie, that is, complete disintegration.”

However, a
lowering of requirements does not promote a dynamic multi-factor
change in the country, since it leads to equality. But the fact is
that some need an environment, others want opportunities, still
others seek support and some categories look for aid. This implies
different mechanisms, actions, tools, and money.

Russia’s problem
is that we often pile things up indiscriminately. Money is offered
to those who are not needy, while the poor are fed with promises
that someone will address their needs tomorrow. The winners and
creators (scientists, experts and managers) are driven into hobbies
and self-contemplation, while avaricious youth movements and pop
music communities enjoy patronage. As for others – government
employees, the military, and a huge army of hired workers – they
are simply
ignored.                          

Russia will
change and make a leap forward if it eliminates institutional
barriers, since a critical mass that creates breakthroughs cannot
accumulate without their elimination. Meanwhile, the deflected
notions of the ruling class may cause Russia to become attached to
some awkward mode of existence typical of Latin America or
Africa.

Structural
limitations will then again plunge Russia into cyclic development,
for which it will pay a dire price. The country has lived through
similar things in the Soviet era, when even members of the CPSU’s
Central Committee noted structural lagging behind the
‘capitalists,’ but no one made any steps to rectify the situation.
Russia followed an extensive model of development in the hope that
quantity would eventually grow into quality some time. But it did
not happen.

John Stuart Mill
said in the 19th century that society becomes progressive when
enough security for property and personality is introduced so as to
make the onward growth of wealth and population possible. It would
be worthwhile to underline the words ‘progressive’ and ‘onward’ –
these two notions are vital for the current stage of Russia’s
development.