To Be or Not to Be: Can Russia raise living standards without saving Crimea and Syria?

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June 15, 2016 – 

Ivan Proshkin, PolitRussia – 

Translated by J. Arnoldski 

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A few days ago, the All-Russian Center for Studying Public Opinion (VTSIOM) published the results of the latest sociological study. According to the results, an interesting trend can be observed: for Russians, living standards and citizens’ welfare is become all the more of an important factor of the country’s strength. This factor is starting to be considered by our citizens to be the most important item on the agenda, even surpassing successes in the foreign policy field.

According to the survey, the proportion of respondents who believe that that the influence of our country on the international arena is great is no larger and no less than 75%. This is somewhat lower than the “Crimean year” of 2014, when it was 82%. However, it is still significantly higher than the data from 2008 of 58%. The share of those who believe that Russia’s influence on international affairs is not only great, but very great consisted of 28% this year as opposed to 14% in 2008. 

In addition, sociologists asked the question whether Russia should regain the status of a superpower or restrict itself to the role of regional power. 38% of respondents said that Russia should strive to play one of the dominant roles on the planet. In addition, 40% of responders believe that our country must become one of the 10 most prosperous countries on the planet. Meanwhile, it is curious that the proportion of those who believe Russia should achieve leadership in the post-Soviet space dropped from 16% in 2003 to 9% in 2016.

On this note, every fourth citizen of our country believes that Russia is already among the great powers. Alternatively, 49% are sure that if it isn’t yet, then Russia is on the way to achieve such a status in the next few years. Still others doubt that the country has the ability to play one of the leading roles in the international arena. This proportion was around 18%  and a considerable portion of these respondents are supporters of the non-parliamentary parties such as PARNAS, Yabloko, and others.

However, the most interesting result of them all of the sociological survey is that, against the background of the ongoing financial crisis, citizens’ living standards have become the most important indicator of the country’s greatness for Russians. If earlier a considerable proportion of respondents identified Russia’s greatness with the strength of its army and related factors, then now the significance of this has greatly decreased, and favor for a high standard of living and welfare has come out in first place at 38% in 2016 as opposed to 25% in 2014. 

The survey’s data has been commented on by the head of VTSIOM’s Management of Monitoring and Electoral Studies, Mikhail Mamonov, who is of the opinion that this survey indicates that the relevance of the so-called “Crimean” and “Syrian” scenarios to Russian society, against the background of the ongoing economic crisis, has given rise to a tendency of increasing criticism of the foreign policy activity of the state. Mamonov stated:

“The crisis has encouraged some rethinking of government priorities. Public demand focuses on the reasonable combination of Russia’s activity in the international arena and the development of the national economy. The population insists that authorities should turn greater attention towards problems in the financial position of citizens. The failure to resolve domestic economic problems raises questions as to the foreign policy activity of the state.”

Indeed, if earlier Russians didn’t pay attention to lower living standards in comparison to foreign political successes, then now the situation is changing. Citizens see the discrepancy between pictures shown on TV of the country’s greatness after the reunification of Crimea and success in Syria and the domestic political situation which, from a socio-economic point of view, is far from being in the best shape. The decline in living standards, job losses, and other adverse factors have become the most agitating topics for Russians. Syria, the struggle against the US, and other geopolitical maneuvers are, of course, good and definitely raise the self-esteem of the country’s citizens. However, all of this is seen as far from their own problems, as the decline in living standards and rising prices in shops are for citizens very tangible and sensitive issues. Therefore, citizens’ standard of living is becoming the key factor in being a great power and the dominating indicator in the minds of Russians.

The discrepancy of living standards in Russia with its striving to play a role in the international arena has long been a cause for speculation by all kinds of liberal journalists, publicists, public figures, and other “well-wishers.” However, the words of the radio host and former leader of the electoral staff of Mikhail Prokhorov, Anton Krasovsky, spoken on the radio show “Echo of Moscow” are quite telling:

“We have gone mad because of our enormousness and we can’t admit our own insignificance. In terms of territory, we are larger than China and any other major country by three times, yet our population is 10 times smaller than China. Do you realize how insignificant we are? Do you understand this? This is what I want to ask all Russians.”

The constant speculation of our liberal figures on the topic of the “Upper Volta with nuclear weapons” has as one of its objectives convincing Russian citizens of the worthlessness of their own country which, while boasting of its successes in the international arena, at the same time cannot even provide a decent standard of living for its citizens. In this view, there is nothing good here. However, such rhetoric is utilized by figures who exclusively want to spread their opinion that Russia is a second-class country which cannot conduct an active foreign policy as a fairly small part of the global economy. According to this, all foreign policy activity is but the “war games” of the Russian leadership who have supposedly let themselves go too far. In fact, based on our economic status and role in the global economy, we are supposed to submit to Washington, and relegate ourselves to a secondary role in the international economic system, as recently stated by the head of the Center for Analytical Studies, Aleksey Kudrin. 

There is no doubt that the state should make the living standards of its citizens and the socio-economic situation in the country a priority over foreign policy maneuvers. Nevertheless, it is necessary to note that the standard of living in one state or another in fact depends, among other things, on the actions of this state in the international arena. A state which suffers constant defeat on the foreign policy front cannot be a prosperous one. And when it can’t be prosperous, the standard of living cannot be high. 

We’re not talking about such small states as Switzerland, Czech Republic, Denmark, and the like. These dwarfs have no foreign policy at all – someone else defines it for them. Russia, which throughout its more than thousand-year-long history has been constantly forced to fend off enemies from both West and East, cannot not pursue an active foreign policy. Otherwise, we will become subordinates to an overseas power, as Mr. Kudrin and other liberal social and political figures advocate. 

And we will be disciplined into a second, and then third-rate role, where Russia’s fate will be to forever remain a raw material appendage of Western countries, and in which any activity aimed at creating other economic sectors will be destroyed. What has been left over and what we are now attempting to develop (space-rocket aircraft, ship building, military industry, agriculture, etc.) will be permanently destroyed. After all, a “gas-station” country doesn’t need any of these things.

It is precisely for this reason that our foreign policy activity directly affects the standard of living in the country. this means that nothing good waits for us if we suddenly abandon the struggle for our geopolitical subjectivity both near and far from our borders and focus solely on domestic affairs. They simply will not allow Russia to build “its own little paradise” within out borders. We are not Switzerland or Czech Republic. The more successful that Russia acts on the global chessboard, the more hope there is that we will be able to provide a high standard of living for ourselves and our children. 

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