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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Calm Before the Uprising

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The announcement that the main assembly line of the AvtoVAZ auto factory would be halted on Aug. 1 could not but provoke some form of government intervention. It seemed that the country’s leaders had declared that keeping the domestic auto industry afloat was a top anti-crisis priority. That was why the government introduced the high import tariffs on used foreign cars that sparked protests in the Far East. Billions of rubles of budgetary funds were spent on protecting the domestic auto industry. Most important, though, officials made upbeat speeches and gave public promises that automotive assembly lines would continue working at all costs.

But all of that has turned into yet another fiasco for the government. Just as nobody bought AvtoVAZ cars before the anti-crisis measures were introduced, nobody buys them now either. Because of the drop in personal incomes, people are buying fewer cars across the board, and this is especially true for the lower-end cars targeted at people with the least purchasing power.

Independent unions of autoworkers have reacted to the planned production halt by organizing a rally slated for Thursday. The authorities have responded to that challenge by mobilizing the riot police. But nothing very dramatic has transpired so far. People are not panicking, even though the situation is deteriorating daily. For now, people simply do not understand what is happening, and if they are aware of the problems looming, they have no idea what to do about them.

Even in places where people are protesting, there is no real threat to the authorities. By calling out the riot police, the authorities are demonstrating their readiness to react to any public disturbance by beating back the rebellious crowd. But what happens if the police can’t cope with their task and don’t arrive at the scene of a rally in time? Or worse, what if they demand overtime pay and new bulletproof vests to battle the protesters? Probably, nothing will happen. Having shouted out their grievances to their chiefs, people will quietly disperse and return to their homes. In a worst-case scenario, they might try to block a highway somewhere.

But as long as the protest does not go beyond the bounds of harmless noisemaking, there is no reason to call it a political crisis. Many intellectuals, like many in the general public, like to make the flippant comment that the crisis exists only in our heads, but the exact opposite is true. The crisis pervades every segment of the economy and every strata of society.

The economic shocks awaiting us this fall do not have the potential to cause social upheavals, much less political revolutions. Instead, they will lead to the realization that a crisis does, in fact, exist. And that is not a small affair. If the Russian people finally begin to recognize the scale of the troubles, that will change a lot of things — from their perception of the state to their understanding of their own role in the social order.

The political subordination among Russians is by no means the result of repressive actions by the authorities, the stifling of a free press or crackdowns on the occasional Dissenters’ March. It is caused by the general lack of political awareness and activity among the masses.

The crisis could easily awaken them, and this is bound to be a very rude awakening indeed.

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