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The Russia Journal
January 24-30, 2003
Russia's middle class searches for identity
By Peter Lavelle
(The second of a two-part series.)

In the first part of this series, there was a discussion of the misuse of
the term "middle class" when referring to a certain group of wage earners
and consumers in Russia today. In this follow-up, I review some of the
necessary conditions for the term to have any significant meaning. All of
these conditions, unfortunately, remained tied, even hostage, to the
current governments reform project.

The ability of the citizens to effect social change is still dependent on
the well-known tradition of Russias very specific historical experience
with the "trickle-down effect." What Russia is experiencing now is a repeat
of tried and failed practices with little indication that tradition is
about to be overturned.

For Russia to have a middle class, its civil-society project has to start
making real progress. Being able to travel abroad, own a mobile telephone
and afford fashionable Western apparel are not important when it comes to
defining members of the middle class. Nor do they serve as evidence that
civil society exists. Civil society comes in different forms and is based
on different foundations in different places and times. It is also a set of
practices and established traditions that respect the empowerment of
citizens and their right to make political and financial decisions. In
short, money is not the only element necessary for the rise of this class.
At this juncture, money is the only thing that the so-called "middle class"
in Russia has. This is an uninspiring beginning for a group that, at least
in theory, should become the dominant political and economic force in the
Russian society.

In todays Russia, money is part of the "discourse of power." The middle
class must have a "discourse of representation," and its self-confidence
derived from what it contributes to the society. Most of the people
considered to be part of this class are traders and service providers; few
actually make anything or export anything with a competitive advantage.

This is very important. To date, the acclaimed "Russian middle class"
talked about by Western pundits has lacked the ability to grow. It is
common knowledge that the number of small businesses and entrepreneurs in
general is much smaller than before the August 1998 financial meltdown.
At the same time, this group of consumers appears to be getting larger.
Why? Small businesses and entrepreneurs may be in decline, but the influx
of investment into the economy by Russias raw-materials-export mandarins
is on the increase. In many ways, our mythical middle class is a by-product
of high raw-materials commodity prices around the world. This is not the
strongest leg to stand on for those who define themselves in terms of
conspicuous consumption while taking advantage of cheap and
state-subsidized social services.

The individuals who are said to be in the "middle class" are remarkably
apolitical. They are, in fact, politically homeless. Once the government
forces it to pay for the social services it takes for granted, this group
will find itself with decreased disposal income, and, as a result, demand
will slow. This just might be the best thing to happen for this stratum of
society, which has gotten used to some of the finer things in life. Who
knows, they just might want to protest, using the present political system,
to protect the privileged lifestyle they have learned to appreciate over
the past few years.

Those who claim Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) represent the
middle class are delusional or at best attempting to apply Western
political theory to Russia without the slightest interest in basing their
conclusions on reality. Yabloko and the SPS seem quite happy to be the
Kremlins loyal-opposition think tanks. This is the service both parties
provide to the Kremlin, and it may prove to be in the latters best
interest to see them find a place among the victors in the new parliament
following this years elections. At present, the SPS and Yabloko are
courting Russias fun-loving and complacent consumers of "staples of
decency" without much effect.

However, it will be an encouraging sign when those threatened with the loss
of that icon of well-being, the mobile telephone, in the event of an
economic shock turn to the these two parties. When this happens, it might
be a blessing for democracy and the civil-society project. After all,
protest is at the heart of a meaningful middle class.

In what may be an exercise in counterintuitive thinking, the best thing the
government could do is to demand those who are thought to belong to
Russias middle class to fight for their lifestyles, which may engender the
process of identity creation so sorely lacking among this stratum of the

The government needs to protect those who cannot protect themselves while,
at the same time, it has limited leverage over those who control so much of
the economy. The current government would also be well-advised to create a
Middle Class Ministry to protect those who desire the visible perks of
being what is considered prosperous and modern out of self-preservation. In
doing so, a real and politically significant Russian middle class will have
a vested interest in this country. The super-rich can always expatriate
their wealth, and Russias post-communist poor will have to be managed as a
tragic generational problem. Those who want to emulate their Western peers
just might save Russia, mobile telephones in tow.

(Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and the author of "Peter Lavelles
Weekly Russia Report"available at www.russiareport.ru and the Russian
Business report at business.russiareport.ru.)

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