Until just a few months ago, Konstantin Sharets, a company executive in Moscow, had not shown any interest in politics, but exasperated by corruption that throws obstacles in the way of any attempt to build a business in Russia, his patience snapped when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party won a fraction under 50 percent in fraud-tainted parliamentary polls.
He joined tens of thousands of other Russians, most of them representatives of the country’s growing middle class, in attending mass protests against Putin aimed at telling the Russian strongman that enough was enough.
Their horizons broadened by foreign travel and connected by constant Internet access, the middle class have formed the core of the protest movement against Putin’s rule, but ironically it is the relative economic stability created during Putin’s 12-year domination that has created a substantial middle class in Russia with disposable incomes and an increasingly critical mentality.
“It is important that people go out en masse into the streets to show the authorities and the rest of the world that a substantial part of the population desires change and wants to be heard,” Sharets said.
“We want there to be less corruption in the country,” said the 39-year-old, complaining that corrupt bureaucrats were still placing an “inconceivable” number of obstacles in the way of entrepreneurs.
The authorities were taken by surprise by the protestors’ middle-class profile, said Natalia Tikhonova, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Whereas previously in Russia political and social demands had been made largely by the working class, “today it is the middle class that is expressing itself,” she said.
In Russia, this meant white collar workers, employees of small business, office workers, as well as teachers and doctors, Tikhonova said. Taken together, they represent 33 percent to 35 percent of the Russian population.
These Russians “do not think they depend on the authorities” and simply want to be “left alone, for the law to be respected and for what they have succeeded in building up to be protected,” she said.
A survey by the independent Levada Center at one of the biggest opposition protests on Dec. 24 showed that 62 percent of the protesters had higher education, with only 4 percent describing themselves as workers.
Analysts from Citibank said rising wealth levels had turned Russia in to a middle-class country “arguably for the first time in its history.”
Estimating between a third and a half of Russia’s population now to be middle class, they predicted the protests “will lead to the middle class taking more of a role in the running of the country.”
After coming close to economic meltdown in the late 1990s under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, the country enjoyed prosperity and a stronger ruble under Putin’s rule, with the crucial help of a high oil price.
Citibank noted that before the early 2000s there was almost no discretionary spending in Russia, whereas now Russia has almost as many cars as Germany and most households enjoy the full range of electrical goods.
Yet the global economic crisis of 2008 cast a cloud for many over the future, exposing Russia’s dependence on hydrocarbon exports and the apparent failure of Putin to implement serious reform of its economy.