Nervous Russia stomps dissent
Economic angst is prompting more rallies Sunday. How will the Kremlin react?
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Printed media have also come under tougher scrutiny. After Yevgeny Gontmakher, a former deputy social services minister, explored the potential for unrest this coming winter in an article in the business newspaper Vedemosti, a warning came from the government agency that oversees the press. The article, according to the government, "could be considered an attempt to incite extremist activities" under Russia's tough media laws. Such infractions could get a newspaper shut down.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Gontmakher, director of the independent Center for Social Policy, is unrepentant. "The situation is growing very serious, and I'm afraid social conflicts will break out in the coming year if something isn't done to establish dialogue between the population and authorities," he says. The danger is particularly severe in single-industry towns, of which Russia has about 700, he says. "People are trapped in small cities, where economic failure could bring social turmoil and political paralysis. I fear our authorities will not recognize this threat until it's too late."
Though Russia endured a decade of severe depression during the 1990s with only a few big social protests, some experts say the country is more volatile now. In the confusion following the Soviet Union's breakup, many workers in bankrupt factories went without salaries but retained their official jobs and often were paid in products – which they bartered for necessities – and were allowed to use company housing. A study in the mid-1990s found that half of all food consumed was home-grown.
"Society has changed radically since the 1990s," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute for Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. "Today, thanks to a decade of economic growth, Russia is a wage labor society. When you get unemployed today, there is nothing to fall back on."
In the 1990s, opposition parties dominated the Duma, and a more open, robust media existed. Experts warn that the concentration of power in the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin, and the near monopoly held by the United Russia Party, which Mr. Putin leads, leaves few outlets for dissent and no alternative avenues for spreading responsibility in the event of economic failure.
"The authorities argue that social stability has been the great achievement of the Putin era, and they are very much afraid of losing this image," says Vladimir Gimpelson, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "The political system has become too rigid, and if unrest begins, there is a danger it can be completely broken."
Limonov, a best-selling novelist turned street agitator, says the Kremlin today is like many past Russian governments, which relied on security forces and propaganda to maintain order but had little genuine contact with their own populations. "Russian civil society is grown up, it has become modern, while our state remains medieval," he says. "No wonder they're afraid of us."