The Price of Rotten Stability

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Stability has become the catchword of the Putin era. The country's political life is now so predictable that most people no longer take any interest whatsoever in politics. It's indeed all very dull and boring.

Yet at the same time, Russia is experiencing a true consumer boom, with salaries after inflation increasing at an average of 12 percent annually. Imported cars now clearly outnumber Russian models, and their overabundance is causing enormous traffic jams. The countless restaurants, clubs, casinos and other places of entertainment that have sprung up across the country support the message we hear all of the time on ubiquitous state television stations -- one that encourage viewers to enjoy life and "Live it up!" And why not, when everything is supposedly going so well in the country and when people are getting richer by the day?

Moreover, state-run television news reminds us daily that the world is paying more attention to Russia now. That sentiment was echoed by the crowds of people who gathered in the streets to celebrate the country's football wins over Sweden and Holland.

The nongovernmental EU-Russia Centre ordered a survey by sociologists at the Levada Center to determine what Russians who are considered affluent are thinking. These are people roughly belonging to the "upper middle class" -- by Russian standards, of course -- with monthly incomes of at least 1,500 euros per month in Moscow, 1,000 euros per month in St. Petersburg and 800 euros per month in other large cities.

But the poll revealed that the majority of these prosperous respondents felt uncertain about the stability of their financial condition. They live in fear that their standard of living could easily and quickly deteriorate.

Even after eight years of continuous economic growth, only 13 percent of respondents felt that Russia would be stable for the long term. Fifty-nine percent of the wealthy and successful felt the situation could change radically for the worse at any moment. In addition to this sense of economic insecurity, respondents also expressed a lack of faith in the effectiveness of state institutions, and about 76 percent of those questioned felt they could not defend themselves from the abuses of arbitrary rule, particularly from the police.

Moreover, about 65 percent of those polled were unsure if they could uphold their rights in a court of law. Statistics on Russia's court system confirm this skepticism; in the past several years, acquittals have been handed down in about only 0.5 percent of all court cases. Even Josef Stalin's infamous three-judge courts -- about as grotesque of a parody of the court system as you can find -- reached "not guilty" verdicts in 10 percent of their cases.

But one of the most surprising results of the poll is the amazingly high degree of complacency and passivity among "successful Russians." They have reconciled themselves to the country's "rotten stability." They don't believe that elections, political parties or nongovernmental organizations can do much to change the political status quo.

How can we cure these societal ills? The problem is that everyone is busy just trying to keep their own financial boats afloat. And to that end, people are prepared to use just about any trick in the book, including those that are generally condemned as immoral. They are willing to give bribes to expedite bureaucratic procedures that would otherwise drag on endlessly. Lacking confidence in the court system, they prefer to find "informal" solutions to disagreements. Having lost faith in the medical system, they are prepared to pay government-employed physicians in the so-called free health care system money under the table for preferential treatment.

This is a vicious circle of cynicism, apathy, complacency and corruption. This circle appears even more dominant now that pollsters have confirmed that these unhealthy attitudes permeates all of Russian society.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.