Protest in Russia is growing: public outcries against high-density construction projects and increased utility bills, protests by motorists and defrauded real estate investors, and strikes by blue-collar workers are all becoming more and more commonplace. Grassroots activism, however, is entirely divorced from politics. Russian citizens do not see their political rights as a tool for resolving social problems, and the reduction or even elimination of these rights meets little resistance from the vast majority of Russians.
Self-Defense as a First Step Towards Solidarity
The development of new forms of civic organization in Russia, beginning in 2005, appeared relatively unexpected, given the oil and gas boom and the overall stabilization of political life. We have seen various phenomena, including protests against social benefit reform, housing rights movements, protests against high-density construction projects and forced resettlement, environmental initiatives, new labor unions and a growing number of strikes over the last two to three years, and recent protests against police abuse. Why are we seeing this increase in civic organizations now? What are the factors that brought these phenomena about, and about do they have to say about the character and prospects of further civic mobilization?
Institutions, networks and rituals
Adaptation to the status quo has been the primary modus vivendi of the Russian populace since the mid-1990s. The concept of adaptation is key to understanding Soviet social norms and the various trajectories of escape from Soviet constructs. This adaptation involves behavior dependent on centralized authority and the socio-political framework created by that authority and accepted by the populace, but it does not involve the defense of individual and group interests or active measures to change the existing balance of social forces or alter the distribution of basic resources. Actors in this view are driven not by a desire for improvement, reaching higher and further goals, but by the fear of losing what one has and being thus reduced to a lower, humbler and simpler existence.
New Labor Movements
Sam Greene, Graeme Robertson
For the first time since the ‘Rail Wars’ of the late 1990s, Russian workers are again making news. While the media have focused on strikes at Ford and on the Moscow rail system, a broader wave of strikes has been gaining momentum in a range of industries across Russia. This new wave of strikes provides evidence that labor relations in Russia might be starting to look more like those in other countries. The highly politicized strikes of the 1980s and 1990s have given way to strikes that are largely about economics and about relations between employees and employers and that appear to reflect workers’ changing perceptions of entitlement. The state is still, of course, an important player in strikes, but in most cases it is no longer the primary or even a key player in the individual disputes.
Only at the end of the previous, 20th, century did the Russian Orthodox Church gain true independence from the state and the right to construct the internal life of its believers according to traditional norms. For the first time, after a long hiatus, autonomous social activity is beginning to take shape around Orthodox congregations, neither dictated nor proscribed from above. A wide range of congregant fellowships emerge, often guided by congregants’ own conceptions of their duty to their neighbors, as believers take upon themselves various social obligations: helping the elderly, prisoners, orphans, etc. Such practices have not yet become pervasive. However, the congregant movement is gaining strength and is gradually displacing the Soviet experience.
Is There a Conflict Between the Richest and the Poorest
More and more new millionaires are emerging among the ruling elite, even as that same elite encourage the mass opinion that there is no such thing as an honest millionaire. In that context, the widespread negative social feelings towards the richest minority should be seen as a process completely controlled by that privileged minority, serving the latter not as a threat, but as a source of protection. Neither the degree of economic inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient or by deciles, nor the publication of corresponding figures about the size of the gap between the rich and poor, poses any threat to the established social order. They contain no risk that the bottom 10% will rise against the top 10%.
The Market as a Mechanism for Reproducing Authority
A study of one Russian region provides an illustration of a mechanism for the reproduction of domination, emerging from post-Soviet transformations. Unlike the Soviet model, which rested on coercion and command, the current model places interests on the market. Dominance accrues to the actor who is able to draw geographic, institutional and financial boundaries and to control them via access to the field of collaboration. In the Russian case, these actors are the representatives of various groups in control of the state apparatus. Through their efforts, the market is turned into a closed club for a restricted number of members.
China’s Expansion in Africa
Ekaterina Demintseva, Igor Feduikin
China’s increasingly intensive relations with Africa are driven by three factors: the crises in Sino-Western relations since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989; the growth of the Chinese economy in general and Chinese external trade in particular; and Beijing’s desire to gain the support of many African countries during UN votes of key importance to China. This last factor is particularly significant: even before African countries became major sources of resources for Chinese industry, Beijing paid great attention to African states for political reasons, as part of its global campaign to isolate Taiwan.
Mikhail Berger, Olga Proskurnina