Staunton, December 7, 2015 Pro-Kremlin writers have argued that the deteriorating economic situation will lead Russians to willingly tighten their belts, and opposition ones have suggested that economic problems will lead to political protests and even regime change. But both are wrong, Yevgeny Gontmakher says.
In a commentary December 7, the Moscow economic analyst points out that there have been protests but they haven’t spread and that that pattern continues even with all the attention that has been given to the truckers’ strike and is likely to continue well into the future.
Nonetheless, Gontmakher argues, there are several interesting aspects to the truckers’ action: they have attracted some support from allies groups like port workers, and they have been able to organize themselves for a mass action across the country and not just in isolated locations.
But perhaps most intriguingly, he continues, the long-haul truckers “up to now are proud of the fact that they support the state in the person of the current president…and they hate ‘the fifth column’ which they at last have seen on television.” Despite that, however, they have acted in their drive on Moscow more collectively than have other groups.
“What has occurred?” Gontmakher asks rhetorically.
First of all, he says, the crisis for the truckers has been growing for some time. As the economic situation has worsened, demand for their services has fallen and so too have their earnings. Second, in contrast to other groups, the state has imposed a new fee on them, something it hasn’t done to any other group.
That of course has led the truckers to ask why us and why not others – and especially why does the state want our fees to go to a private oligarch? If the state had asked them to sacrifice to state needs and to pay to it, Gontmakher says, “all the protests would have instantly disappeared.”
And there has been a third factor at work as well: the truckers used to being independent operators and proud of that have not restrained themselves about those who want to take their money and they have seen this replayed again and again on the Internet. They hoped Vladimir Putin would hear their plea and respond in his presidential address, but that didn’t happen.
Many are seeking to explain what is going on by pointing to the willingness of Russians to sacrifice for their country to again be a great power. Others argue that the refrigerator is finally defeating the television, and still others say that spiritual values are trumping material existence once again.
The truckers’ strike shows that “not one of these scenarios is being realized in Russia,” Gontmakher says. But at the same time, “judging from everything, their protest will not lead to the chain reaction of events like the All-Union miners’ strike in 1989” or lead to the birth of something like Poland’s Solidarnost movement.
The first was possible because the Soviet state was already weak, and the second because of the power of the Catholic Church. But in Russia now, the state is not so weak that it can’t move against any protesters and people know that; and the Russian Orthodox Church is not on the side of the workers as the Catholic Church was.
That suggests, he continues, that after a time, the truck drivers will go home, some to sell off their trucks, others to continue to work as best they can, and still others to “go into the traditional Russian depression” and consumer enormous amount of low quality alcohol. Perhaps a tiny minority will even try to withdraw from society and go into a monastery.
“But this will not compensate for the growing social negative of millions of drivers and those who are linked to them in life,” Gontmakher says. “Any talk about a ‘special’ Russian path, about our outstanding ‘spirituality,’ and about the dawning Russian leadership in innovation will lead them to respond with traditional unprintable Russian words.”
And in responding in that way, the Moscow analyst says, “they will be right.”