Peeved but Not Protesting

When there is a financial crisis in any country, it is usually bad for the ruling party but good for the opposition. In this regard, Russia's crisis promises to become an economic disaster on a grand scale. True, it hasn't peaked yet, but we don't have long to wait.

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Although the crisis is developing quite nicely, the same cannot be said for the opposition. Although opposition groups previously criticized the government relentlessly on various issues, we have heard little from them lately. One reason may be because the "liberal bloc" in the government, which is headed by Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, has taken much of the wind out of the liberal opposition's sails.

Take, for example, the radically libertarian Andrei Illarionov, who served as the economic adviser to then-President Vladimir Putin until he resigned in 2005 over Putin's unwillingness to adopt his liberal economic reforms. There wasn't much Illarionov could say against Kudrin's sound idea to create a stabilization fund or against Kudrin's persistent opposition to spending these funds domestically.

And what about the public at large? After all, Russia's population consists of more than just state officials and their liberal opponents. Most people don't belong to either category.

Russians have been largely silent on the country's financial crisis. This is not so much tacit consent as it is concealed anger. Whatever it is, Russians haven't voiced their concerns. Attempts by opposition groups to rally the masses on Oct. 25 by organizing protests on the so-called Day of Outrage were a resounding failure. The event's organizers showed up on the appointed day, but the public stayed home.

The occasional speech by an opposition leader might make for a good photo op, but to exert any serious influence, people must hit the streets -- not in the hundreds as we have now, but in the tens of thousands. Yet the people's pervasive discontent never boils over into open protest. In a country where civil protest is chalked up as careerism or considered folly, people think such activists are crazy, and they try to keep a safe distance from opposition activists.

Moreover, the dogmatic ideology of the opposition forces, which ranges from the ultraliberalism of Valeria Novodvorskaya and Garry Kasparov to the antiquated Stalinism and Bolshevism of Eduard Limonov and Sergei Udaltsov, is a discrediting factor that alienates people.

At the same time, the many initiative groups and grassroots movements that sprung up in 2005 over the monetization of pension benefits were heavily politicized. When the flag-toting political activists show up at these protests, mainstream Russians felt uncomfortable in their presence.

But despite their attempts to avoid politics like the plague, leaders of these social groups repeatedly discover that they cannot fully escape it, however hard they try. Their challenge is not how to remain outside of politics, but how to formulate policies that can better promote their own interests in political and organizational circles. This kind of political savvy only comes with experience, however, and experience comes from making a long string of painful but edifying errors.

Now, all that is left is to hope that the crisis will offer useful, albeit painful, lessons. It will force society and the political system to initiate fundamental changes -- whether they want to or not.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.