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14 December 2015

Freedom by Plato

Protests by truck drivers have shown that the Kremlin’s successes in foreign policy cannot divert attention away from pressing problems ad infinitum

Recent polls by the Levada-Center indicate that the number of Russians who feel free is sustained at a relatively high level despite a drop following the Crimea euphoria. If you closely follow political processes in the country, these data are unlikely to be seen as reflective of the latest developments. During the last couple of years, a growth of 17 percentage points in the number of ‘free’ citizens has been registered, however, no improvements in the civil rights sphere have been introduced in Russia during this time frame. The authorities continue to remind the opposition of bygones. Thus, one of the participants of the rally in the Bolotnaya Square has been detained and new charges have been levied at Mikhail Khodorkovsky despite universal awareness that his extradition is extremely unlikely.

Incidentally, polls by the Levada-Center have pointed repeatedly to the low value of civil rights in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Russians. The word ‘freedom’, as our studies show, is associated by our compatriots with material well-being, available freedom of choice and the possibility to, more or less, successfully organize their lives and lives of their loved ones under the existing circumstances (while not revisiting the rules of the game as such!). It seems that the decline in living standards under the conditions of the crisis should negatively impact the sense of freedom experienced by Russians.

However, one should take a closer look at socio-economic indicators. In general, expectations of any positive changes as well as readiness to spend money on expensive goods are currently at the lowest levels since the last crisis. Russian respondents anticipate possible changes for the worse and do not expect changes for the better in the nearest future. High indices of approval for the authorities serve to remove any doubts: Russians do not see the root cause of the problem in the country’s current leadership. Passively, but almost unanimously, Russians support foreign policy which has boiled down to the organization of combat activities over the course of the last two years, prompting them to loathingly shift their focus to domestic issues. This may explain the initial fear of the authorities to recognize the possibility of the Russian plane flying from Egypt to Saint Petersburg having been blown up since this immediately alters the role of the country’s residents from observer to direct participant/victim of the conflict.

Russians indeed have a choice: either to observe foreign policy or settle their domestic policy themselves. A major element of society decisively favors the former. For example, as few as 5-6% of respondents are very proud of the social justice in the country whereas 22% have a strong, positive impression as regards its increased influence in the world and 40% - of military achievements.

System failure

However, this well-established mechanism of switching attention sometimes fails – and the protests of truck drivers constitute proof of this. Trucker’s protests against the introduction of the toll collection system ‘Plato’ held in different cities across Russia, have come as a complete surprise to the authorities who have decided to ignore them, blocking broad discussion of the topic in the national media. Thus, most Russians have been left outside the information field in which news of the protests’ developments is spread. As a result, in late November, as few as 10% of Russians cited trucker protests as one of the incidents of civil unrest they immediately recalled.

That being said, information which reached this 10% of Russians had virtually no effect on their attitudes towards the economic and social policies of the state. These people are no more critical of the state system than Russians are on average. Most likely, this is down to their sources of information, since the model of news digestion is the same in this group as it is in Russia on the whole. People learned about the protests through news headlines on major TV channels which did not elaborate on the motives of the protesters or give specific details regarding the new toll collection system. However, a survey conducted in Moscow in December revealed significant changes in the composition of the channels of information-gathering. Data from the last survey on the possibility of increased persecution of dissenters showed a slight increase in the number of respondents expecting persecution: from 25% to 33%. And, indeed, among this small group (we continue to refer to the 10% who were aware of the ongoing trucker’s protests) expectation of repressions is a few percent higher. Moreover, readiness to take part in political action is 7%-10% higher among this group. This supports our findings that protest expectations rise after protests take place.

Even if such limited coverage by the mass media can, to a certain extent, change the attitudes of Russians (albeit briefly), we can expect the strengthening of loyal attitudes to protest activity in the core of those who disagree with the actions of the authorities and businessmen close to them. In his article Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989’ Timur Kuran highlights the presence of similar phenomena in the countries of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The probability of overcoming the threshold which separates passive, spectator-like participation in politics and activism increases together with the proliferation of movements of dissatisfied citizens and the diminishing possibilities for repressive institutions of the state to punish ‘deviant’ behavior.

‘Freedom’ has replaced freedom

The reason behind this protest is obvious: the tax burden has proved to be unbearable for small and medium-sized businessmen and has forced them to the brink of insolvency. However, this case is somewhat of an exception. Price increases countrywide, imposed contributions for major housing refurbishment and the threat of dismissal and other consequences of the crisis have hit many families in one way or another: 19% of Russians experience quite serious problems as a result of sanctions but we do not observe rallies against the economic policy of the state. In reality, constructed by propaganda, freedom of choice and the right to well-being have been replaced by the mythical freedom from the outside world and external dependence. To quote one of the respondents: ‘All these instances of cooperation mean trouble. Our economy had been tied very strongly to the West… that’s why the sanctions hit a raw nerve’. The policy of economic confrontation offers a sense of freedom from the Western world as well as hope that we will be living by our own rules which do not fit with other people’s norms. Autarchy does not give people a sense of personal freedom – a fact not widely recognized. One can convince oneself that there is an easier way to demonstrate self-reliance, prove one’s importance to oneself and to the entire world. Respondents continue to assert the existence of outside pressure on them: work, family commitments, a lack of support outside the narrow circle of acquaintances etc. Under such circumstances, reference to the virtual life of television becomes an increasingly valuable air vent. However, this air vent has already proved insufficient for the truckers who protest on the roads of our country.

Possible consequences and limitations of the protests

Nevertheless, one should not overestimate the importance of the ongoing unrest. Columnist Kirill Rogov notes that the trucker protests deliver a blow to Russia’s political myth based on the opposition of the Russian people under the leadership of ‘the chieftain’ to internal and external elites. I suspect that it is not entirely true. The authorities, quite skillfully, have recently managed to redirect the ire and resentment of the Russian public over their unenviable position within the contemporary social class structure towards the outside world. Shifting attention towards the search for enemies within the country does not sit well with the interests of the leadership since it enhances the sense of division and the lack of unity within the country, overlooked against the backdrop of covert or acknowledged attacks against the external and alien environment.

Having learnt to live in a state of war against the entire world, Russians will not easily come to terms with the not so heroic life of ‘peace time’ as their rights are trampled on, freedoms are impinged and wages are reduced. On the contrary, we see attempts of our respondents to describe life in Russia in Marxist-Leninist terms; as a class confrontation between the rich and poor. Although this is not about revolution or even mass protest actions, today we observe a deficit of unity following a brief period of post-Crimean togetherness. It is about the dismantling of ‘peaceful’ social relations and the entrenchment of a militarized state of public consciousness.

The trucker protests took the form of peacefully moving convoys of trucks. However, the reaction of the authorities resembled a secret military operation including military equipment and OMON riot police dispatched to the scenes of the protests. Drivers affected by ‘Plato’ complained that they had no one to ask for help and there was no other way to express their standpoint save for silent and embittered ‘standing’ at the outskirts of Moscow. Researchers from the Laboratory of Public Sociology indicated in their studies that from 2011-2012 political protests led to increased inner turmoil not in those at whom they were addressed, but in participants themselves. Observations of a huge number of like-minded people entirely unrelated in terms of kinship or friendship, yet capable of carrying out collective action became extremely important for the formation of the protests’ mainstay who went on to participate in other rallies.

Despite the fact that the rationale and motives of the truck drivers are fundamentally different from protests of the urban ‘middle class’ fighting for respect for political rights and democratic procedures, the very process of protest group formation likely goes through, more or less, the same phases. We are now witnessing the very beginning of collective solidarity formation among truck drivers. However, this movement has potential in the form of possible institutionalization of independent professional organizations and adoption of peaceful demonstrations as an effective and generally accepted means of expressing disagreement with policy. The gaze of the protesters is now directed at the top leadership of the country which should, in their opinion, resolve the problem. And the power elite may use it to maintain their own prestige by publicly ‘punishing’ the son of the billionaire-confidant who owns a large stake in ‘Plato’. However, the very experience of addressing the authorities in the form of protest serves as a timely reminder that virtual reality cannot divert attention from the shortcomings of the political and economic order in the country entirely. 

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