Under the Soviet Union, Russian’s prioritized bread over freedom. It seems as though they still prefer bread. Freedom House rates Russia a 20% on its democracy scale and blames the strong relationship between bureaucrats and organized crime groups for the rampant corruption (Freedom House 2020). The Eastern European country has limited civil rights that truly democratic systems of government afford citizens, such as freedom of the press and fair elections. The leader of the opposition party, Alexi Navalny has been barred from participating in elections due to embezzlement charges and has now survived two poisonings, all of which he attributes to the Kremlin (BBC September, 2020). Such blatant acts of authoritarianism in the west would be cause for revolution, but for many Russian citizens, the old phrase “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” seems applicable.
Those who hold political power in Russia have done an exceedingly good job of distracting Russians with redistribution today, rather than guaranteeing them political power for tomorrow, which political scientists Acemoglu and Robinson argue helps foster and maintain democracy. This accompanied by an ever-shrinking middle class and growing inequality could be blamed for the lack of true democratic reform in Russia. The preferences of individuals can be boiled down to the social and economic consequences of the regimes under which they live, and those with more power get to advance their preferences (Acemoglu and Robinson). Only 14% of Russians are considered middle class (The Moscow Times 2019), that number jumps to 52% in America (Bennett, Fry, Kochhar, 2020). The inequality gap in Russia is monumental. Elites control policy preferences because they stand to lose the most if the country were to institute democratic reforms. A large middle class is often the tipping point for increased and consolidated democracy because their preferences more closely align with the elites. Therefore, granting them is less harmful to those at the top as the two groups often agree on a wide array of issues (Acemoglu and Robinson). A lack of real opposition to the party in power and a micro-middle class are not likely factors in facilitating an emerging democracy.
A lot of Russians like Putin and don’t mind his authoritative tendencies because he restored Russia to world power status, does not pander to America, created Chinese allies, and is a “macho man” (BBC July 2020). Even with how poorly the countries response to Covid has been, approval ratings for Putin are at 59%, higher than Trump’s approval rating has ever been. Putin is seen favorably in the eyes of many Russian citizens because he is able to provide them just enough bread but not enough political power so as to diminish his own position. Because elites in Russia would stand to lose a lot if revolution occured or a true democracy were instituted, false promises and appealing to constituents symbolically make for a less threatening political agenda. As long as the elites control access to democratic institutions and are able to change them as they see fit, the average citizen will continue to buy into this limited version of democracy (Acemoglu and Robinson).
This summer, Putin held a controversial reform vote, yet 78% of voters agreed to Putin’s constitutional changes. The Kremlin, wisely hid major democratic backsliding with constitutional reforms that appealed to Russia’s conservative ideology and social welfare needs. The new constitution bans gay marriage, increases government pensions, and sets the minimum wage above minimum living standards. All of these elements of reform benefit Russia’s poor conservative lower class, but don’t substantially affect Russian elites. Putin zeroed out his term limits after 2024, allowing him to serve 2 more, 6-year terms until the year 2036. This will have a substantially positive impact on elites who have prospered under his current 20-year rule (BBC July 2020). In fact, the vote was most likely held to give the illusion to citizens that they could exercise political freedoms because copies of the reformed constitutions were made available in stores the following day. Many private polling companies in Russia have questioned the legitimacy of the vote (Kirby 2020). By holding a fake vote, Putin is able to give the illusion that his de facto political power has turned to de jure political power, which is a more stable type of dominion to have over constituents (Acemoglu and Robinson). This is probably why Putin decided to hold the quasi vote now, when his approval ratings are lower than they have been at previous points in the year. For some Russian citizens, increased pensions and minimum wage raises are worth Putin’s perpetual reign. With no real political power, means to organize, or popular opposition party, who can blame them.
Despite what appears to be the status quo for many Russians, recently some citizens have been standing up for democratic principles. Daron and Robinson hypothesize that crisis, both economically and socially, can lead to shifts in political power. Although extreme inequality and lack of a middle class do not often lead to democratization, if the cost of repressing the masses becomes too burdensome on elites, they may be forced to change. After the constitutional change, there were a number of protests in Moscow. Citizens have begun rising up in larger numbers, calling for the end of Putin’s reign (Kim 2020) . These citizens want to secure political power, not just for today, but for the future. If the economy in Russia continues to stay stagnant, and those that seek revolution are seen as a credible threat to the Kremlin, citizens may be able to demand a change in political institutions.
“14% Of Russians Are Considered Middle Class Official Data.” The Moscow Times, August 12, 2019. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/08/12/14-of-russians-are-considered-middle-class-official-data-a66823.
“Alexei Navalny Has ‘Bank Accounts Frozen and Flat Seized.” BBC, September 24, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/worldeurope54284945?intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Ftopics%2Fce1qrvlegnyt%2Frussia.
Bennett, Fry, Kochhar, “Are you in the American middle class? Find out with our income calculator” Pew Research Center, July 23, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/23/are-you-in-the-american-middle-class/.
Kim, Luca. “Protesters In Russia’s Far East Challenge Putin’s Authority, Demand His Resignation” NPR. July 24, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/07/24/894571311/protesters-in-russias-far-east-challenge-putins-authority-demand-his-resignation
Kirby, Jen. “Russia just Paved the way for Putin to be President for Life.” Vox. July 2 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/7/2/21311144/putin-russia-vote-president-2036
“Putin Strongly Backed in Controversial Russian Reform Vote”BBC, July 2, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53255964
“*Photo by Anastasiya Romanova, (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.”
Acemoglu, D, & Robinson, J A. (2012). Our Argument Overivew of the Book. In Economic origins of dictatorship and democracy (pp. 1-33). New York: Cambridge University Press.