Russia Direct interviews Russian and American pundits about the role that the global middle class plays in U.S.-Russian relations and in shaping the geopolitical agenda.

Will middle class be able to impact U.S.-Russia bilateral relations? Photo: AP

As the world becomes more globalized, the role of the middle class seems to be becoming increasingly important. The Arab Spring and the recent protests in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Russia indicate that people are becoming more politically aware and ready to challenge the government to effect more changes in society.

As Francis Fukuyama wrote in his article published in The Wall Street Journal, the emerging global middle class poses “a challenge for both authoritarian regimes and new democracies.”

According to him, the rise of a new global middle class underlies the phenomenon of the "end of power."

“The middle classes have been on the front lines of opposition to abuses of power, whether by authoritarian or democratic regimes,” he wrote. “The challenge for them is to turn their protest movements into durable political change, expressed in the form of new institutions and policies.”

But while the global middle class tries to flex its muscle in the face of long-term challenges, both Russian and American experts still doubt its ability to impact the global geopolitical agenda and bilateral relations between countries such as Russia and the United States.

Russia Direct interviewed a number of pundits about the role that U.S. and Russian middle classes play in improving bilateral relations and the impact they might have on geopolitics.

Alexandra Vacroux, executive director, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

The evidence at the moment suggests that they [Russian and U.S. middle classes] cannot [impact the bilateral political agenda], though this may well be because the middle class relationships are not that well established. Comparing the U.S.-Russian relationship to Russia’s relationship with European countries (and energy clients) suggests that increasing economic ties between American and Russian companies may ultimately be the best way to ensure long-term stability in the bilateral relationship.

The American and Russian political leaderships must feel that damaging the bilateral relationship will jeopardize the support they receive from their economic and political allies. If there are no negative domestic consequences when leaders or legislatures take measures to harm the relationship, the bilateral relationship will remain hostage to the whims and personal chemistry of the leaders.

The U.S.-Russian “reset” was a policy set out by the American administration as a way of normalizing relations with the Russian leadership. As such, it was conceived as a “top down” policy that tried to create networks between Russians and Americans in a number of different sectors through bilateral commissions.

In quite a few sectors, the bilateral commissions and sub-commissions have succeeded in bringing professionals together in new economic ventures, or in areas like sports. These lower-level interactions are critical to stabilizing the U.S.-Russian relationship over the long-term.

Ideally, there are enough points of contact between people in both countries so that the overall bilateral relationship is stable – and is perceived as important – regardless of what is happening between political elites in both countries.

To be really effective, however, the people in question need to have some influence in their sphere, either because they are involved in lower-level politics or because they are successful business people, or successful in some other realm.

Those involved in the lower-level contacts with their foreign counterparts must have enough influence to potentially pressure their political leaders to improve the bilateral relationship when it falters, and enough “skin in the game” to feel that a deteriorating relationship is bad for them personally.

Professionals involved in real business projects, educational exchanges and ongoing research projects are examples of those who have strong personal incentives to keep the relationship healthy.

Eduard Ponarin, Ph.D., Director, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, Higher School of Economics

I am not sure there is a massive interest in U.S.-Russian relations on behalf of the middle class or beyond, even though there are certainly some isolated enthusiasts. Economic interests might give the relationship a boost, but there is little economic interaction between Russia and the United States compared to, for instance, Russia's interaction with Germany, China or Ukraine.

Members of the two nations' middle classes are more secure than the general public in their respective countries. This feeling of security results in higher openness, tolerance and a desire for greater freedom, while these qualities are less present among the lower classes in both countries. However, unlike the United States, which has had a very comfortable institutional and economic environment ever since World War II, Russia has had some very traumatic experiences very recently.

Business people and the government bureaucracy in Russia weathered a period of “wild capitalism,” when their physical security was at risk. The Russian institutions are still in flux and the status quo is still shaky. This experience makes members of the Russian middle class more cynical, less trusting, less open and less tolerant compared to their American counterparts. The situation is somewhat better within the youngest cohorts of the Russian middle class, who did not go through the traumatic experience of the 1990s.

There is a stronger tradition of grassroots activism in the United States than in Russia. Again, the youngest cohorts of the Russian middle class are more proactive, as evidenced, for instance, by their reaction to the recent natural disasters.

But even though the younger representatives of the Russian middle class may sometimes be more isolationist, if not nationalist, they would be the best bet in an effort of this kind. The feasibility of such an effort, however, depends on the general political environment, which may not be very favorable at the moment.

Can Russian and U.S. middle classes impact the bilateral political agenda? I believe that the public, even the middle class, has a rather limited impact on foreign policy, which is driven by the political elite's perception of the national interests.

If the national interests of any two countries, as perceived by their respective ruling elites, come into massive contradiction, the bilateral relations will decline. There must be another national interest, for instance an economic interest that would override the differences. Otherwise, the general public’s involvement has very little effect, even in a democracy.

Gregory Feifer, former Moscow correspondent, National Public Radio (NPR) and Radio Liberty, author of the books "The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan" and "Russians: The People Behind The Power"

Forming ties between various levels of officialdom and society is always a good idea, and was one of the Barack Obama administration's goals for its Russia «reset» policy. However, I don't believe joint business or education projects would be large enough to exert any significant influence.

Although Americans and Russians appear to share many outward qualities compared to more stratified Western European societies – including informality and hospitality – I don't see enough connections between the two to make much difference for either. That's not to say that exchange programs for business, education and officialdom aren't highly beneficial – they are. It's just that there are far too few.

I don't believe that either the Russian or American middle class will significantly affect political relations between the two countries. For one, Americans are largely ignorant about foreign affairs – they just don't care about them very much.

In Russia, although feelings toward the United States are often conflicted and tend to vacillate, they are largely driven from the top. President Vladimir Putin rose to power in 1999 thanks in no small part to a wave of anti-Americanism that bubbled over during NATO's bombing of Serbia that year. He has since skillfully helped channel it to make himself popular – he draws from it, but he also helps perpetuate it.

In Russia, the ruling elite exerts control through administrative coercion and corruption. When the middle class first emerged in the late 1990s, there were hopes it would provide support for independent parties advocating liberal economic reform and democratization. Those expectations surfaced again during the protests that began in December 2011.

However, they've largely fallen flat. As in the 1990s, the middle class is still best defined as a "consumer class" because it shows the outward signs of a Western middle class without the political influence. There are many reasons for that, including that its members have a clear stake in the going political-economic system. It's a scheme that grossly favors those at the top, but distributes enough to maintain support.

Carol Graham, Ph.D., Leo Pasvolsky senior fellow, The Brookings Institution, College Park professor, University of Maryland

First of all, the two middle classes share what all middle classes share, which is being beyond poverty and vulnerability but not being in the ranks of the wealthy. As such, they are usually professional or semi-professional cohorts with aspirations for themselves and their children, with technical or higher education, and with some sense of support for market economies and democracy – e.g. the system that they live under.

Of course, that distinguishes the two classes, as the U.S. system, for all its flaws, has been in place for a long time and the sense or belief in the middle class as a backbone of sorts for the system has also been there a long time.

In contrast, in Russia, the system is still in flux and the nature of democracy there is also quite different. The modern (e.g. post Soviet) middle class is a fairly new phenomenon and its identity is still developing.

Its frustration with the system, meanwhile, was evidenced by the protests of two years ago.

So, can the two middle classes have joint ventures? Possibly, but not likely, as these things are more easily established when there are joint business interests, and those are usually identified by the leaders of businesses, large or small, but most likely large.

[Regarding their impact on bilateral policy], the only way that the middle classes can influence bilateral relations is in the amount of support (or not) that they demonstrate for their respective regimes and their policies.

While all recognize that the middle class is important, it is still a relatively amorphous concept, and the nature of its influence is hard to identify precisely. As such, stretching that to its influence in bilateral relations is even harder.