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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A True Citizen More Than a Good Shopper

Moscow has turned into one huge marketplace in the run-up to the New Year's holiday. Judging from the traffic jams in the city, and especially those near supermarkets, the scale of this year's shopping bonanza will set a new record. Many supermarkets long ago switched to 24-hour service. Moscow now has more giant around-the-clock stores than any other city in the world, but even at night you can still encounter lines. The crowds of shoppers snatch up furniture, cars, home electronics and the latest cell phone models as fast as the Soviets used to grab potatoes from store shelves. In addition, Moscow's young women feverishly buy up fashionable clothing that costs twice what it does in Europe. It is hard to believe that Russia is a poor country.

The country's consumer market is on the verge of becoming Europe's largest. Russians' real income has grown 12 percent to 15 percent annually, outstripping labor productivity by a factor of two. And if you take into consideration the robust shadow economy, actual incomes are probably growing even faster.

A consumer boom has seized the country, and conspicuous consumption is a major component of this tremendous growth in spending. There is a rational economic reason for this profligacy: As before, Russians have no place to put their money except in consumer goods and entertainment. Real estate prices, especially in the big cities, have soared to such dizzying heights that the overwhelming majority of buyers don't have a hope in the world of ever purchasing a new apartment. Only 400,000 Russians have chosen to invest in the stock market, including in relatively accessible mutual funds. Overseas travel is becoming increasingly fraught with complex visa requirements, and members of the middle class, who are busy at work all day, don't have the time to deal with the hassle. They prefer purchasing ready-made tours in the same way that they might buy something at a supermarket. The result is that the demand for trips to visa-free countries is growing at an astronomical rate.

In general, Russians do not tend to look very far into the future. Most people are content with their standard of living, but at the same time, they can't seem to satisfy their endless desire for more and more consumer comforts.

Now imagine that a pollster approaches one of these beaming consumers wheeling his overflowing shopping cart toward the register and asks how he feels about human rights and freedoms. Does he need freedom of speech, for example? How do you think our happy shopper would respond? According to a recent poll by the Levada Center, it turns out that the average Russian doesn't have much need for traditional human rights and freedoms. Only 21 percent of the respondents considered freedom of speech important, 13 percent valued the right to receive information, 11 percent value religious freedom and a mere 10 percent want the right to vote for representative government.

In all likelihood, the democracy that is "suitable for Russia" is associated with President Vladimir Putin's style of leadership, with its strong central authority and clearly ordered society.

It seems to me that the most pressing questions for the near future are the following: Will Russia's pervasive consumer-based mentality have an influence on the people's understanding of democracy? Will a supermarket shopper choosing between brands learn to estimate the worth of human rights and freedoms? Will demanding his rights as a consumer lead him to demand his civil rights in a courtroom? Will Russians defend their consumer rights if authorities begin encroaching upon them after an economic downturn?

An active consumer does not automatically turn into a politically aware and responsible citizen. This is sad news because, without building a foundation of citizen rights and responsibilities, I don't see any prospects for building a healthy civil society.

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