Sociologists and experts at the Gaidar Economic Forum discounted the prospects for widespread social protests within Russia as a result of the nation’s declining economic fortunes.

Russian activists walk across Red Square holding white ribbons, the symbol of the opposition movement in Russia, on March 24, 2013. Photo: AP

Although most Russians support the Kremlin and its policies, there is still no certainty that it will be a long-lasting trend if Russia’s economic challenges persist in 2015. This might threaten one of the country’s most important advantages – its social capital, which has been defined as the “investment in social relations with expected returns in the marketplace” by prominent scholar Nan Lin, professor at Duke University

However, the experts and sociologists who came together at the 2015 Gaidar Economic Forum, organized by the Russian Presidential Academy (RANEPA), seem to be hesitant about making any predictions about the future of Russia’s social capital during a period of economic volatility and unpredictability. Although social protests look like major risks, experts argue that in the short-term they don’t threaten Russia; however, in the long run, there is no certainty. 

Prof. Robin J. Lewis, director of the Master of Global Public Policy Program (MGPP) at RANEPA, argues that, at present, there is no reason to worry about the revival of the protest movement in Russia as long as the current economic difficulties come to an end. But if the crisis is perennial, it will erode living standards of people and threaten prosperity. In this case, people might take to the streets, Lewis cautiously assumes.  

So far, the majority of the Russian population has been loyal and grateful to the Kremlin because Russians have been able to enjoy two key social amenities offered by the Russian government – comparably high living standards and high consumption opportunities. But it may be not the case in the future, after the Ukrainian crisis, the sanctions wars and the headlong drop in oil prices

“At the beginning of the new century, Russia’s citizens finally began to enjoy the fruits of their post-Soviet freedoms when another long bout of low oil prices prompted President Vladimir Putin’s first government to dramatically improve Russia’s macro-economic policies. As a direct result, personal incomes, pension levels, savings and investment soared annually,” said Bernard Sucher, a member of the board of directors at Aton Group. In contrast, in 2014 Russia was “locked into a downward economic trajectory.”

Oddly enough, the Russian authorities feel relatively optimistic, even though the upcoming poor economic performance might dissatisfy the Russian population. The Kremlin believes that it is able to use all the economic and political challenges in its favor. As implied from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s speech at the 2015 Gaidar Economic Forum, the Kremlin brought people together by using the so-called “besieged fortress” mentality to mobilize Russian society against sanctions.

“Even in its current inefficient form, Russia’s economy is sustainable as long as the citizenry is willing to live with hardship and lost opportunity,” Sucher points out. “History suggests that one should not underestimate the capacity of the Russian people to endure the unendurable.” 

Russians’ presumed endurance, combined with their capability to put up with hard times and losses, are among the reasons why some experts don’t believe that social protests will happen in the foreseeable future.  

However, the problem appears to be more complicated than it does at first glance. Even though Russians might have stamina to deal with economic hardships, will they trust the authorities in the future? 

Trust in the government and the president remains crucial for maintaining a country’s social capital, as Ngaire Woods, dean at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Public Diplomacy, and her counterpart from China’s Tsinghua University, Xue Lan, agreed during the Gaidar Forum. So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin approval ratings are robust. But it remains to be seen if that will be the case in two to three years. 

If one accepts the logic of Irvin Studin, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief Magazine and a participant of the Gaidar Forum, who views social capital as a matter of mentality, the situation becomes more complex. 

After all, some of Russia’s prominent sociologists and historians believe that the Kremlin manipulates the mentality of Russians to legitimize its regime. For example, Lev Gudkov, director of Russia’s Levada Center for public opinion polling, points out that Russians are experiencing a deep inferiority complex and a sort of psychological trauma after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of which makes them easier to manipulate

Likewise, Victoria Zhuravleva, professor of American History and International Relations and director of the American Studies Program at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), argues that the Kremlin uses the “besieged fortress” mentality to spur anti-American sentiment in Russia.  So, the Kremlin seems to use its implied social contract with its citizens as a way to counter the impact of sanctions and slumping energy prices.

Yet, Marcos Troyjo, adjunct professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, is more optimistic about the nature and future of Russia’s social capital. Despite the serious implications of declining oil prices, the Russian political leadership looks very skillful in bringing people together, he argues. According to him, the challenge for the Russian leadership is not only improving its economic outlook over the next 24 to 36 months, but also nurturing the talents and potential of a new generation

“Russia has to use its expertise and its comparative advantage in mineral resources in order to build the knowledge economy, a tech-intensive society for the future,” he said. That is the big challenge: Building a bridge from the world of comparative advantages [in mineral resources] to the world of competitive advantage [in knowledge]. That’s the secret for Russia.”

Russia Direct is a Media Partner of the Gaidar Economic Forum.