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Stability at All Costs

At a plenary session of the Communist Party’s Central Committee on April 23, 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had just been elected as general secretary, spoke of the need for serious reforms to Soviet society, coining a word that would soon become legendary — perestroika.

Two weeks ago, VTsIOM published the results of a study on the current political mood in Russia. It turns out that 72 percent of those asked preferred “stability, even if achieving it would involve some violations of democratic principles and restrictions on personal freedoms.” Only 16 percent of respondents expressed a preference for democracy.

During Gorbachev’s first years in office, Soviet citizens euphorically supported him after they endured 18 years of Leonid Brezhnev’s gerontocracy and stagnation. Strangely enough, Russians have once again embraced the values of the Brezhnev era. According to the VTsIOM survey, respondents primarily understood “order” to mean political and economic stability and a social safety net for the population. That is, they want the same things that Brezhnev introduced after Nikita Khrushchev’s reckless leadership and after Josef Stalin’s brutal reign.

Is it true that for the sake of order and stability Russians are against change? Do they really suffer from an anti-democratic phobia? I heard one answer at a recent Moscow conference of independent regional newspaper editors. They were discussing the March 2008 mayoral elections in Kachkanar, a city in the Sverdlovsk region in the Urals.

Lyudmila Lapteva, editor of the Kachkanarsky Chetverg newspaper, said: “We are lucky that the new mayor is a decent person. He could have turned out to be a real bastard.” You might think that her remarks were directed at a mayor who was imposed on the people by the ruling party. Nothing of the sort. It is a simple scenario: The 40,000 residents of Kachkanar are completely dependent on the local mining plant owned by the Evraz Group, the country’s second-largest steelmaker. The plant put forward its own candidate who, according to Lapteva, was worthy in all respects. But his campaign had so many dirty political and administrative methods that the people turned against him. The Kachkanarsky Chetverg newspaper led that popular protest. As a result and contrary to all expectations, the opposition candidate won the election. A “color revolution” of sorts had taken place in a small company town.

Other independent publishers attending the conference asked Lapteva whether it had been wise to oppose a plant on which the welfare of the town depended. She answered that the mayor did not purge the old administration and did not lock horns with the plant. On the contrary, he has been looking for ways to reach agreements with the other side despite the fact that they have not yet come to terms with their political defeat. The “color revolutionary” turned out to be a deeply conservative individual.

During the perestroika years, this would be analogous to Boris Yeltsin’s election as president of the Russian Republic in June 1991, six months before the Soviet Union collapsed. Yeltsin was also voted into office on a wave of popular protest, but he, in contrast to the Kachkanar mayor, plunged the country into ruin and chaos.

Ever since Yeltsin, Russians seeking change have started to fear what might happen if they express their own free will. And who can blame them?

Alexei Pankin is editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.

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