Modernization from below

By Vladimir Ryzhkov
The Moscow Times

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Kurskaya metro station in Moscow.
Kurskaya metro station in Moscow.

In his September "Go, Russia!" article, President Dmitry Medvedev lashed out angrily at those who oppose his impassioned call for modernization. He wrote, "Influential groups of corrupt officials and do-nothing 'entrepreneurs' are well ensconced. They have everything and are satisfied. They're going to squeeze the profits from the remnants of Soviet industry and squander the natural resources that belong to all of us until the end of the century. They are not creating anything new, do not want development and fear it."

A survey conducted by the Levada Center from Sept. 18 to 21 offers insights into the thinking of Russia's business and political elite. It confirms that Medvedev hit the nail on the head: The country's elite are generally satisfied with the status quo and do not want to change anything.

As it turns out, there is a major discrepancy between the way the poor majority and the thin layer of the wealthy ruling elite view Medvedev's call for modernization. Fewer than half of all poor people think that the country is on the right track, while two-thirds of the wealthy think that it is. As always, the crisis hit the poorest families the hardest, 60 per cent to 75 per cent of whom have been directly affected by it, compared with only 24 per cent of the richest families and about 40 per cent of those living somewhere above the minimum. Surprisingly, 24 per cent of the wealthiest families became even wealthier during this period, and 61 per cent of the richest families experienced no change at all.

The top 0.5 per cent of the wealthiest people in the country are optimistic about the future, with 80 per cent believing that "everything will work out" in the near future. Only 22 per cent of the poorest people share that opinion. That same 0.5 per cent of the country's nouveau riche is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's strongest support base, 73 per cent of whom rate him favorably. Only 43 per cent of the poor like Putin. Not surprisingly, United Russia, which Putin heads, is also popular among wealthy Russians, with their support for the party ranging from 46 per cent to 74 per cent. Only 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the poorest Russians support the party of power. This may explain the widespread allegations that election returns were falsified in United Russia's favor in the Oct. 11 vote.

The survey also revealed an interesting attitude toward corruption, which Medvedev has repeatedly called the country's main scourge. The poor majority constitute about 90 per cent of the population, and about the same per centage of respondents said they "definitely agree" or "probably agree" with the president's alarmist conclusions, while only 55 per cent of the wealthiest people share the president's opinion, with 44 per cent saying they "probably disagree" with him. It is obvious that the Russian elite are quite satisfied with the corrupt system that has developed in this country.

There were differing views regarding the ability of Russians to change the fundamental problems in the country's political and economic systems. From 41 per cent to 53 per cent of the poor and very poor agree with Medvedev that "the Russian people can overcome the resistance of corrupt officials and businessmen who are bargaining away the country's wealth," but not a single respondent among the very wealthiest fully agreed with that statement, and only 37 per cent partially agreed.

At the same time, the wealthiest Russians are more pro-Western than the poor majority, largely agreeing with Medvedev's claim that Russia should strengthen ties with the West. While only 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the poor support the president on this issue, 60 per cent to 80 per cent of the wealthy and very wealthy do. That can be explained by the fact that the elite hold most of their money in Western bank accounts, their children study in Western universities and they vacation in their Western villas and luxury apartments.

Russia's ultrarich are forming a ruling caste that controls most of the country's wealth, and they are growing increasingly isolated from the rest of society. About 70 per cent of respondents with moderate incomes answered that they have at least one relative or acquaintance who recently lost his job, while 40 per cent to 76 per cent of the wealthy do not have any friends or acquaintances who experienced that hardship.

If Medvedev wants to modernize the country, the first thing he should do is change the people with whom he consults on a regular basis. At present, most of them come from the wealthiest 10 per cent of the population — those who are satisfied with the status quo and who are protected from the harmful effects of the economic crisis, as well as from political and economic competition. The president's recent meeting with the country's top business leaders is a perfect example. It is no surprise that they advised him to raise protectionist barriers and encouraged him not to be ashamed about the highly suspicious landslide victory of United Russia candidates in the Oct. 11 vote.

If Medvedev really wants to modernize Russia, he should be listening more closely to the majority of the Russian people and not to the oligarchs and their servants.

October 27, 2009 — Return to cover.