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Viewing cable 09HAVANA132, ASSESSING THE RISK OF SOCIAL UNREST IN RUSSIA

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09HAVANA132 2009-02-27 21:09 2010-11-30 21:09 SECRET US Interests Section Havana
R 272120Z FEB 09
FM USINT HAVANA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 4178
INFO CIA WASHINGTON DC
DIA WASHINGTON DC
FBI WASHINGTON DC
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MOSCOW 000512

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/03/2019
TAGS: ASEC PTER
SUBJECT: ASSESSING THE RISK OF SOCIAL UNREST IN RUSSIA

Classified By: Ambassador John Beyrle. Reason: 1.4 (d).

1. (C) Summary. The risk of crisis-driven unrest in Russia
remains low and is likely to remain so, at least through the
summer. Public opinion surveys show an up-tick in
dissatisfaction with the country's general direction, but
with no indication that the darkening mood signals an
increased tendency for protest or other signs of active
discontent. Moscow's top sociologists point to deep
wellsprings of trust in Putin, successes in the government's
efforts to limit layoffs, and the Russian "psyche" of
perseverance as explanation for their predictions of relative
social stability over the coming months. Some argue with
justification that society has yet to feel the full effect of
the economic crisis. They predict a moment of truth next
fall, when unemployed (or underemployed) Russians return from
their summer dachas to face continued deprivations and
expected cutbacks in government benefits and support. End
Summary.

The Public Mood: Darkening but Not Black
----------------------------------------

2. (C) Russia's top three polling firms offer a consistent
picture of a society adjusting to the reality of economic
crisis; an increase in general dissatisfaction about the
course of events; but general social stability. Ludmilla
Presnyakova of the Fund for Public Opinion (FOM) provided
data from a February 14-15 survey that showed 58 percent of
respondents considered Russia "in crisis" -- up from 31
percent in late January -- and 34 percent expected the crisis
to last at least a year. The state-controlled VTsIOM company
reported that the number or those who were strongly disturbed
by the economic crisis had increased from 40 percent in
January to 56 percent in February. Further, VTsIOM surveys
found a sharp increase in the number of respondents concerned
about unemployment from 25 percent last year to 61 percent in
February.

3. (C) Already, economic issues are having a negative impact
on the political arena. Levada Center polling for February
showed a continued downturn in public perceptions about the
direction of the country, with 40 percent of respondents
saying they considered the country moving in the wrong
direction. This compares with only 25 percent in June and 30
percent in November. The economic crisis has also made a
slight dent in Putin's personal popularity according to
Levada polls, with one-fifth of the population not approving
and about 80 percent supporting the Premier. Medvedev's
ratings are seen as a derivative of Putin's and have likewise
dipped in recent weeks. More telling, public approval of the
government (separate from the personalities of the
leadership) has fallen to only 54 percent; 43 percent
disapproved.

4. (C) Taken in perspective, however, Levada data over the
eight years of the Putin era shows long-standing Russian
skepticism about the government and more measured, though
positive, assessments of Putin. For most of the period from
1999 to 2007, the majority of Russians disapproved of their
government's work, sometimes with as much as a negative 40
percent approval index (the difference between those who
approved vice those who disapproved). Putin's approval index
has enjoyed positive numbers, but varied from less than 40
percent in 2004-2005 to a peak of 80 percent at the time of
the war in Georgia. Levada's numbers suggest that the slide
in public opinion thus far has merely reflected a decrease
from unusually high ratings over the past two years.

5. (C) Despite the crisis, FOM surveys found little change in
respondents' inclination to take part in protest activities:
from 2005 to the present, the number of those who would
consider the possibility has been stable at around 30 percent
of the population, with fluctuations within the 3 percent
margin of error. Even among the unemployed, only 35 percent
said they would consider joining a protest action, compared
to 28 percent among the population writ large.

Is Russia Revolutionary?
------------------------

6. (C) Many in the political sphere share the sociologists'
skepticism about the potential for social unrest over the
short to medium term. Economist Evgeniy Gontmakher of the
Medvedev-linked Institute of Contemporary Development waved
off suggestions that crisis-linked dissatisfaction would lead
to social upheaval and a threat to the current order. Despite
having published a provocative article hypothesizing a
political crisis emerging from the government's failure to
deal with a localized protest, he argued to us that Russians
remain apolitical, apathetic, and waiting for the government
to take action. Further, Russia's immense size and diversity

MOSCOW 00000512 002 OF 002


are potent roadblocks to the emergence of a nationwide
protest movement, leaving Gontmakher ambivalent about the
risks that economic crisis in and of itself will engender
revolution from below.

7. (C) Rostislav Turovksiy of the Center for Political
Technologies likewise argued that the current system has deep
wellsprings of social support. Echoing Gontmakher, he told us
that Russia's populace remains deeply conservative and
influenced by the government's propaganda machine, which he
claimed would never permit programming that cast blame on
government policies for the economic crisis. Andrey Kortunov
of the Eurasia Foundation agreed, noting that the Russian
leadership retained significant carrots and sticks;
culturally, he argued, there would also be an initial
willingness to trust the leadership, particularly Putin, by a
populace woefully uninformed about international economics.

8. (C) A few of our contacts, however, are less sanguine and
see the potential for mass social unrest growing, with the
risk increasing sharply in the fall. Valeriy Solovei of the
Gorbachev Foundation said his main concern was for the middle
class, which he considered about 25 percent of the
population. The poorer lower class (estimated at 70% of the
population) "had nothing to lose" and would survive economic
hardship by digging their potatoes and drinking the days
away. Oleg Voronin agreed, noting that much of Russian
society would spend the summer at the dacha, with only some
sporadic protests of office workers (perhaps in Moscow) and
some blue collar demonstrations like the coal miners blockade
of the main Siberian rail lines. Next fall, however, when the
Russian government eventually runs out of cash, economic
tensions will rise and give rise to more public displays of
discontent.

9. (C) Presnyakova sees some logic in the scenario painted by
the "pessimists" Solovei and Voronin. She cited research that
most Russians have sufficient resources to last four to six
months during a crisis, allowing those who have lost their
jobs in 2009 to last through summer. Moreover, she said that
up to half of all Russian families have a dacha plot where
they could grow food supplies for a difficult year. Moreover,
in a February FOM poll only 1 percent of respondents cited
unemployment (being laid off) as the personal impact of the
crisis vice a quarter who suffered pay delays or the 33
percent who cited a reduction in pay or a loss of a bonus.
Presnyakova assessed that this reflected the success of
government pressure on firms to limit unemployment. As the
crisis deepens and the government draws down its reserves,
such measures to limit layoffs are likely to diminish
sharply. Assessments of how Russian society will react to
those coming changes are mixed.

Comment
-------

10. (C) It is difficult to predict the course of events in a
country as large and differentiated as Russia, especially
given the uncertainties of the global economic crisis. We are
inclined to the view that Russia will maintain
socio-political stability through the summer, albeit with the
recognition that localized demonstrations of protest are
possible throughout the country, particularly in the "one
company towns." Without a viable political alternative and
the tandem's control over mass media, the likelihood that
economic discontent can evolve into a political movement
remains low. However, as we will discuss septel, the greater
risk to socio-political stability is that of inter- and
intra-elite conflict, in which one or more of the competing
clans seeks to leverage public discontent to gain advantage.
End comment.
BEYRLE