Surkov Says Middle Class Now Top Priority

The state must move decisively to protect the emerging middle classes from poverty in the economic slowdown brought by the economic crisis, Kremlin First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov said Friday.

The crisis has hammered confidence in stocks, bonds and the national currency and raised concerns about stability in a country with the world's biggest reserves of natural resources.

The Kremlin is trying to prevent the deepening crisis from stalling the longest Russian economic boom in a generation, which led to soaring living standards for many sections of society.

One of the biggest questions for Russian observers is how the country's middle classes, whose political apathy is the stuff of legend in Moscow, will react to the crisis.

"If the 1980s were the times of the intellectuals and the 1990s were the times of the oligarchs, then the 00s can be seen as the epoch of the middle classes," Surkov said in a speech published on the web site of the ruling United Russia party.

"The main task of the state during the slump must become the preservation of the middle class, the defense of the middle class from the waves of poverty and confusion that are coming from the West," he said in the speech posted on the web site www.edinros.ru.

The comments indicate the concern at the top of the Kremlin about the impact of the crisis now that the shine has come off the Russian economy, which boomed over the past 10 years on the back of high prices for raw materials and soaring consumption.

Surkov, who rarely appears in public and who is credited with helping manage the transition of power from former President Vladimir Putin to Dmitry Medvedev, is one of the Kremlin's most influential officials.

"The slowdown of the economy demands decisive steps from the state to meet the middling sorts … to help the middle class survive next year without serious losses, to support levels of employment and consumption," Surkov said.

Surkov said the most important task was to convince the middle class that Russia was their state.

"Their leaders are Medvedev and Putin — they will not allow the middle classes to be harmed," Surkov said.

Recent polls also show that confidence in the Russian economy is tumbling and that less than half of respondents expect their lives to get better next year.

Opponents of the Kremlin say the political apathy of the middle classes was assured while the economy grew but that rising unemployment and the economic crisis could provoke a backlash against Medvedev and Putin.

Kremlin watchers caution that political apathy among many younger members of the urban middle classes, who have been branded the "IKEA generation," is deeply set.

"Of course the homeless and the billionaires and the representatives of other marginal groups and minorities are also our citizens, and the state remembers them, but the first care today is for the middle class," Surkov said