Political Efficacy, the Middle Class, and the “Russian Spring”

In the wake of parliamentary elections, Russian protesters have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.

What prompts people living under tyranny to finally rise up and demand change? The Arab Spring of 2011 has given us a laboratory to examine various theories of revolution and political change. The events in Russia during the last week have given us an additional window into the causes of political change.

As discussed previously in this blog, Russia has stalled in its transition from communist autocracy to liberal democracy. But up until now, the Russian people have seemed content to sacrifice democracy for stability and economic growth, which Vladimir Putin has provided. Putin’s announcement, however, that he would seek the presidency again in 2012–where he could stay for 12 more years–and simply switch positions again with current president Dmitry Medvedev was poorly received by the Russian people. This discontent was exacerbated by last week’s parliamentary elections, which produced losses for the ruling United Russia party but were widely perceived as flawed and provoked massive demonstrations in Moscow.

Why are these pro-democracy stirrings occurring now?  Some evidence indicates that a new sense of political efficacy has gripped some Russians.  Political scientists have shown through survey research a strong correlation between perceptions of political efficacy–the belief that one can have an impact on political outcomes–and political participation.  Julia Ioffe writes in a Foreign Policy article:

“For years, polls showed well over 80 percent of Russians did not believe they could influence the political process. And, for the most part, they were right, not least because people who do not participate — either because they don’t want to, or because they’re disincentivized from doing so — can have little effect. The lack of incentives to participate was important, and it was by design…The [election] results, despite the forgeries and the trickery, at least accurately reflected in some way United Russia’s sinking poll numbers, and this seemed to have been the push the class of the fed-up needed: it showed them that if you go out and participate, even in a crooked system, something, even something small, can come of it.”

Who populates this vocal group of dissenting Russians?  Ioffe quotes a member of the Russian Duma (parliament) as saying: “We have a middle class now. It may not be as big as in Germany and France, but it exists. And the quality of the needs in towns has changed, from how to survive to how to live. They have what to eat and what to drive. The question now is how to live with dignity and justice.”  Indeed, scholars have suggested that the presence of a rising middle class is a key precursor to democratic change in a country, since people who have become accustomed to greater economic power and choices normally desire political influence that is commensurate with their newfound economic power.  Ioffe concludes:  “As could be seen at the week’s mass protests, and in the Twitter and Facebook blizzard in the days that followed, what these young, educated, urban, middle-class Russians of the Putin era need is exactly what [the Duma member] said they needed: dignity and justice.”

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