Russia's Middle Class Protestors

"The gap between the Putin regime and the expectations and attitudes of the Russian middle class is widened by a deep generational--perhaps even existential--divide." -- American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Russian Scholar Leon Aron in his latest Russian Outlook.

Aron examines the demonstrations and rallies which have been taking place in Russia since December 2011 and finds that:

  • Although the demonstrators could be described as political opposition, a civil rights movement would be a more fitting characterization. The movement is united by a quest for dignity in liberty and democratic citizenship, and as a result, the movement is likely to endure -- despite the Russian regime’s attempts to stifle public protest.
  • These rallies appear to follow the pattern of successful antiauthoritarian revolutions in Europe, Asia, and Latin American, which were spearheaded by a middle class comprised of young, urban, well-educated, and relatively prosperous men and women.
  •  
    • The protests were not confined to Moscow or St. Petersburg. The rallies and marches took place in 113 Russian cities and towns, including all the largest ones.
  •  
    • The crowds are strongly middle class.  For example, in a December 24, 2011, protest, 70 percent had college degrees or higher and 13 percent were more than halfway (over three years) through college; only 5 percent could be classified as rich.
  •  
    • Of equal importance is the geography of the demonstrators' social base. Democratization, open and competitive politics, impartial justice, fair elections, and elimination of corruption have a growing appeal in the country’s largest cities (populations of five hundred thousand or more) where between 44 and 50 million Russians live.
  • The Kremlin's greatest political challenge is to close the gap between the reality and expectations of the middle class. Can the regime manage this? Theoretically, it is possible, but in practice, it appears increasingly unlikely.
  • The protesters appear to predicate success on changes coming from within, from "below." Not from a revolution or a good tsar.
  • If Russia's protest movements do persist, the country's domestic policy will become an increasingly central factor in relations with the United States.

 

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at AEI and can be reached at [email protected] or through assistant [email protected] (202).862.5942. 

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