Russia’s growing middle class favours status quo

Russia’s growing middle class favours status quo

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soaring popularity amidst his support for separatists in eastern Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the relationship between his government and Russia’s growing middle class.

The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology recently released a study on Russia’s nascent middle class, drawing on 2,000 respondents across the Federation and exploring the nature of one of the world’s fastest growing middle classes.

The middle class is defined through a number of criteria. This includes having a secondary level of education, disposable income, self-identifying as ‘middle class’ and having a white-collar occupation, not based on physical labor.

The number of Russians identified as middle class increased one and a half times over the last ten years reaching 60 million, as Russia experienced an energy sector and consumption-driven economic boom. It now compromises 42 percent of Russians, with 60 percent of the middle class being under the age of 40.

Yet, there are a number of signs that the growth of the middle class is not sustainable. Entrepreneurs form only a small portion of the class, a sign of the continuing poor climate for the development of small and medium-sized enterprises. Few are employed in “creative” professions that are associated with a post-industrial society, such as scientists, finance managers, journalists, or programmers.

70 percent of Russia’s ‘core’ middle class are state officials, employed by state enterprises, or work in state-dominated fields, such as education and health care services. This is not surprising, considering that 25.7 percent of the workforce is now employed by the state, with the federal government alone employing half a million people, and the increasing role the state has taken in the post-crisis economy.

Additionally, few members of the middle class see any point in continuing in furthering their education or receiving additional qualifications – only 15 percent spend leisure time doing so, a sign that qualifications are not the reason for career advancement.

Nonetheless, the nascent middle class does not appear to pose a threat to Putin’s rule. The fact that the average middle class Russian is employed by the state, either through bureaucracy or state-controlled industry has translated into a continuation of Soviet-style loyalty to the powers-that-be.

The middle class is the most content class in Russia, with 78 percent indicating they favor stability over change. Putin has made sure that state employees are content, most famously by signing “May Directives” in May 2012. They guarantee that state wages will increase over the next few years. The bulk of the budgetary burden has been left to struggling state and local governments. With an approaching recession, continued wage increases are unlikely.

With the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s asymmetrical war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has succeeded in defusing the signs of a recalcitrant middle class in Russia’s major cities that emerged after the 2011 presidential elections. Indeed, survey demonstrates the political orientation of the middle class is increasingly nationalistic and supportive of a ‘Great Power’ foreign policy. His support is now at historic highs.

The biggest risks to the stability of his government are not disgruntled urban dwellers but the effects of a potential economic recession. A recession could hit Russia’s industry hard, concentrated in struggling single-factory cities, which employs the working class that is considered Putin’s core electorate.

Despite the affinity of the middle class for stability, the survey gives evidence as well that the post-Soviet generation has a different approach to power: a majority of the middle class in their early 20s identify themselves as supporters of democratic governance.

The political orientation of the nascent middle class and its ability to shift toward productive activities and away from rent-seeking will play a key role in determining the political future of the Russian Federation.

About Author

Luke Rodeheffer

Luke Rodeheffer is a cyberthreat researcher at Flashpoint in New York City. He holds an MA from Stanford University, where he was a FLAS Fellow for Turkish. Luke was previously a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine and a research assistant at Koç University in Istanbul. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeRodeheffer