First the Baltic states, then Georgia, now Ukraine. Is Russia next? The trend towards replacing political regimes in the post-Soviet space is getting stronger. In view of the victory of EuroMaidan’s Revolution, a pressing question arises: Will Ukraine become а contagious model of change for other states in the post-Soviet bloc, particularly the Russian Federation?
On the face of it, it seems improbable, something bordering on fantasy. However, three months ago the idea of walking around the grounds of Mezhyhirya’s opulent compound and dismissing Viktor Yanukovych as president also seemed unlikely. The boundary between reality and fantasy has been erased. By whom? By people who lost fear, the fear upon which the Soviet Union stood for so long.
In fact, the real breakup of the USSR is actually only taking place now. What we had in the 1990s were superficial changes to the political system. Nowadays, however, we are seeing in-depth changes in people’s consciousness.
Ukraine is a striking example of these processes. It has confirmed that there is already no place for the Soviet Union in people’s consciousness.
The oligarchic states with the presidents whose main ideology consists of accumulating and boosting their own wealth and power turn out to be too weak in the face of contemporary globalization processes. Taking shape is a new generation, free from the Soviet clichés, which is difficult or even impossible to influence, which travels around the world, studies abroad, watches foreign movies, etc.
Interesting in this context are the processes going on inside Russia. For Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian protests seem like another failure in his foreign policy – as painful to him as the Orange Revolution was. Not only in terms of his loss of political influence in Europe’s largest nation, but also regarding the impact of events in Ukraine on the Russians’ consciousness. Are similar changes possible there?
What money can’t buy
The availability of strategically important resources – gas and oil – is the key stabilizing factor in Ukraine. It allows Vladimir Putin to maintain relatively high living standards for citizens. For example, the average wage in the larger Ukrainian cities is $400 while Russian cities have about $1,000.
In addition, the Russian government implements various social programs for the poorest. In this way, the barrel of the gun is sugarcoated with financial assistance which usually dampens the furor that leads to mass protests. This gives Russian leaders an optimistic outlook: they think everything is under their control. Events in Ukraine are perceived as a theoretical anomoly and impossible in Russia.
However, a generation is taking shape that view high wages not as an extraordinary achievement of the authorities but rather as something taken for granted. “A paradox arises”, points out leading Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert. “As Kremlin leaders try to maintain more or less acceptable living standards for Russian society, the number of people who are beginning to perceive this policy as a norm has been gradually and unnoticeably growing”.
According to Konstantin Eggert, the voice of the generation that has grown up in independent Russia is increasing its volume. It was they who came out in Moscow to Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011 and 2012.
Then Russian President Vadimir Putin and his team encountered for the first time the phenomenon of “angry townspeople” – people already not satisfied with the talk about the “evil 1990s” from which they were saved (by Putin) and about Russia getting off its knees. And Putin has taken a tough line against them. From his point of view, the people taking to the streets are ungrateful. He has given them stability, money, opportunities to buy iPads and iPhones, but they have not appreciated that.
From that point on, Putin’s policy towards society changed. During his first two terms in office, the Kremlin had adhered to the following ideology: “We are leaders of entire Russia” – young and old, hipsters, engineers, liberals, democrats, monarchists and communists alike. But the message that lingers on TV screens now states: the Russian authorities are authorities of the “right” citizens.
‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ citizens
A conventional “social contract” has been concluded between the authorities and the “right” citizens, according to which the authorities undertake to meet people’s basic needs in exchange for their political freedoms.
“That is a sort of a quasi-Soviet Union contract which guarantees food and goods which one can leave or enter at any time, and where private life is protected,” journalist Eggert said. “However, it still has a number of other typical Soviet features: state control of the economy and political life, ‘great-power’ status in the sense of the Cold War era, and a passive society that accepts what is sent down by the authorities from the top.”
So far, it works because nostalgia for the Soviet past is still strong, especially among the older generation. Against this background, the idea of building a “great country” turned out to be rather effective and was planted in a fertile ground.
However, the number of ’wrong’ active citizens will be growing every year because, first of all, one generation is succeeding the previous one. Secondly, people are getting increasingly tired of seeing the same faces and hearing the same promises for 15 years. The main slogan of the existing authorities – stability - stops working because it can be effective only after a crisis – or preceding one.
Power of newsfeeds
The state ideology’s task is to secure support for Putin’s actions among people and to deter protest movements. It’s another pillar on which Putin’s regime stands: the ideology successfully built into mass consciousness and social context. Total control over mass media is an integral part. According to Konstantin Eggert, the Russian leader strongly believes that the information space must be managed. That’s why loss of control over TV would be the last thing tolerated by Putin. An absolutely armor-clad system is built around it because it’s the most important thing.
“In view of our realities, I thought for some time that influence of television is fading”, Eggert says. “However, it is fading slowly and only in certain points, for example in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Overall the country, as before, watches TV, and as before, TV shapes 90% of opinions and facts. In this sense, its impact upon public opinion is very strong”.
Calm before the storm
All these conditions, alongside the absence of any weighty opposition party and high-profile opposition politicians make any mass protests in Russia impossible in the near future. This situation may calms Putin but it has negative consequences in the future. The current system is wholly self-sufficient, designed around supporting itself in its present state. However, any proposal to make something new means instability. And that is a great contradiction that will appear on the agenda sooner or later.
Lilia Shevtsova, leading expert at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says that the regime will inevitably fall down. It’s only a matter of cost and time. People are not taking to the streets so far because they see no alternative and because their situation is not yet intolerable. There are too many opportunities to survive and get out of trouble. However, this calm is very fragile and deceptive. It will not last forever.
After waiting for changes for so long, people will eventually take to the streets. However, what would be the result given the conditions where there are no political parties or free press? “It is quite likely that it would be an explosion of huge kinetic energy”, Lilia Shevtsova says. “An explosion backed up by the provinces that hate power and wealth, both current and past. That sees no future. And this gives yet more hate and revenge. At the same time, there is no political opposition that could lead this energy of hate into a more democratic or pluralistic direction”.
To prevent that, the Russian leaders should implement democratic changes in political and social environments right now. The sooner they start doing it the less acute the transition from the “Putin’s regime” to a more democratic society will be. However, this process cannot be avoided.
Political evolution or political revolution. Development and change of society in favorable conditions, or a volcanic boiling explosion. One of the two will take place in the Russian nation’s development. Time will show.
Veniamin Umnov of Odesa is a journalism student of I.I. Mechnikov Odessa National University
The question of Ukraine’s relations with the European Union and Russia is, of course, most of all a question for the young and for future generations. Therefore, during 2013-14, the media project www.mymedia.org.ua, in collaboration with the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and financially supported by the Danish Foreign Ministry (Danida) are running a number of journalism workshops on how to cover these issues. The participants are young journalists from all over Ukraine. On pages 10-15, www.mymedia.org.ua – in partnership with the Kyiv Post – brings five of the best pieces, demonstrating the variety in focus and styles of the country’s young journalists, and, not least, their budding talent for grasping complex issues.