Will Russia survive its economic and political crisis?
September 17, 1998
in this forum:
Is Primakov the right man for the job? What does the appointment of Primakov mean for Russia's relations with the West ? What should the United States and the West do to help Russia get through this crisis? What does the average Russian think about the current crisis? Can the appointment of Primakov be interpreted as a defeat for the reformist policies of Yeltsin? Is there any possibility that Yeltsin will dismantle the monopolies?
Siva Natarajan of San Jose, CA, asks: What does the average Russian think about the current crisis?
Michael McFaul, assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, responds:
So far, we have little evidence on this question as few polls have been taken. (I personally would never try to speak on behalf of the average Russian). In polls released this week, people fear inflation most. Starvation -- a refrain heard often in the West -- is a lesser concern. Remember, Russians have learned to survive with economic hardship well before this latest crisis. In a survey conducted earlier this year, 71% of respondents reported that their household has a plot of land where they grow food !
On a more anectdotal level, I can tell you that my friends in Russia are disugusted and disheartened by this latest crisis as it means that all of the gains of the previous fivie years have been wiped out. These friends of mine are middle-class people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, who in many ways will be the people hit hardest by this crisis as it is the middle class who had money in banks, who bought imported goods (in Moscow 60% of all food purchased is imported), and who worked in new private firms that are now closing. And the biggest tregedy of all is that it did not have to occur. This crisis could have been avoided.
A final lingering legacy of this crisis will be the defamation of the word "market reform." Little that has happened in Russia in the last several years should have been called "reform" or "capitalism", yet it was labeled so. Now, people argue that reform has failed. In reality, reform was never attempted, but it will be hard to convince people in Russia of this fact after this latest and ongoing tragedy.
Leon Aron, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, responds:
Like the "average American", the "average Russian" does not exist. Apart from the general revulsion and the sense of being betrayed yet again by the political class, the attitudes toward the crisis likely differ sharply among the socio-economic and demographic groups.
The younger, better educated and urban Russians, who have profited very significantly from the reform and who have been Yeltsin's core constituency and delivered his victory in the 1996 Presidential election, feel disappointed and angry at the President but not ready to abandon capitalism and reform. The communist constituency (rural, elderly and poor) feel vindicated and want a significant rollback to the Soviet past. What happens next will be determined, in the end, by how the political forces representing both groups read their messages and respond to them.