Political Alienation in Russia and the West

Both face rising discontent. Yet only the more open societies have a chance of addressing popular concerns.

President Vladimir Putin is seeking to position Russia as an ascendant world power that defends traditional moral, family and religious values. In so doing he casts an air of superiority over the United States and Europe, supposedly mired in moral and economic decline. In fact, Russia confronts severe challenges to governance and central authority, with significant segments of its population alienated. America and Europe face some of the same challenges, albeit less dramatic.

In America, conservative insurgents feed on declining public trust in central government (Washington) and seek to roll back its power. Only one in ten Americans has a positive view of Congress, which is often politically polarized or gridlocked in dealing with major issues, such as immigration reform and fiscal policy. In a Gallup poll released last week, 65 percent of Americans voiced dissatisfaction with the nation’s system and efficacy of government, up five percentage points from last year. The United States has fought two unpopular wars in the last decade, and the public is mistrustful of rationale for new military engagements abroad, such as in Syria.

In Europe, there is popular frustration with the accretion of European Union power in Brussels. Opinion polls indicate that anti-EU forces are gaining ground. The United Kingdom's planned referendum on EU membership is another manifestation, although driven by an internal party dispute with right-wing Conservatives. In some regions, such as Scotland and Catalonia, politicians seek referendums on national independence. Another sign of alienation is the growth of far-right parties throughout Europe. In November, a continental anti-EU alliance was formed, and its rallying cry is to “slay the monster in Brussels." These parties are strongly nationalist, oppose immigration and, in some cases, are homophobic or anti-Semitic. They are likely to win major representation in next May’s European parliamentary elections.

In Russia, Putin has set out to restore the standing of the state. He and his cohorts have centralized authority, intimidated political opposition, and dominated the media. Oil and gas revenues have fueled Russia's standing. Semi-authoritarian methods have proven popular amongst those who seek more stability, especially the rural and less educated. In late 2011, however, tens of thousands of mostly urban, middle-class people began taking to the streets in Moscow to protest against Putin’s rule and flawed legislative elections, the largest demonstrations since the collapse of the USSR two decades earlier.

Since then Putin has tightened his grip. A new law imposed heavy penalties on participants in unauthorized demonstrations. The security organs arrested Russia’s only prominent opposition mayor, Yaroslavl’s Yevgeny Urlashov. Putin’s main challenger, the liberal nationalist Aleksei Navalny, was convicted on trumped up charges and given a suspended prison sentence.

Russia is faced with an Islamist insurgency in its Muslim-majority North Caucasus. Moscow has used a mix of economic inducements and compliant local strongmen in an unsuccessful effort to contain unrest. The threat of terrorist acts is turning the nearby Sochi Olympics into a major security challenge. Many Russians, especially on the right, favor the use of force in the North Caucasus, but some others would like to jettison the troubled region. Russia has fought two bloody wars in Chechnya to prevent its independence. The Northern Caucasus will remain unsettled until the authorities deal with underlying causes of the insurgency.

Despite street demonstrations and popular backing for Navalny, democratic views remain in the minority, especially in the countryside. The corrosive effect of massive corruption, however, is pervasive. Russia’s brain drain and capital outflow reflect a lack of trust in Russia’s leadership and future.

Russian economic growth is stagnating and other problems are mounting. Funds set aside from previous energy sales are being used to pay for salaries, pensions, and large infrastructure projects. Development of new oil and gas production on which the budget depends will be very expensive. The Sochi Games will cost $50-60 billion, in good part due to cost overruns and wasteful contracts awarded to Kremlin cronies. Last month Putin promised impoverished and politically fractious Ukraine $15 billion and cheaper natural gas for not moving closer to the EU, and subsidies to Belarus and Kyrgyzstan are a drain. Health and demographic problems are ill omens for Russia’s future.

Former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin recently cautioned that investment in Russia is not growing because of low investor and business confidence. According to one recent poll, more than half of Russians believe that their standard of living fell over the past five years, and that it will continue to do so over the next five years. In a similar 2006 poll, only 21 percent of Russians were pessimistic about improvements in living standards.

New initiatives are needed to reverse political alienation and low public confidence. Even though circumstances among Russia, Europe, and America are quite different, many of the symptoms are similar. The West has sufficient openness and civil society to address problems of alienation peacefully, but Russia can do so only if freedoms are expanded and the citizenry is more engaged.

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