Putin’s Broken Social Contract

Russia’s recent ban on Western produce has unleashed a storm of panic on social networks, primarily from the relatively well-to-do urban elites mystified at the prospect of having to get by without French cheeses, Spanish tomatoes, Italian pasta and Norwegian salmon. It’s not the first time Russia has used trade bans in retaliation for being disrespected by its neighbours. Georgian wine, Ukrainian chocolates, American chicken, Lithuanian cheese and even Belorussian milk – all have at one time or another been slapped with trade bans by Russia in an attempt to use food as a bargaining tool. While previous food bans came and went, largely unnoticed by the Russian population, this new set of restrictions has struck a painful nerve judging by the reaction from Russia’s upper-middle class.

Putin’s rushed, knee-jerk import ban is more than a mix of populism and revenge – it chips away at the very social contract Putin put into place between the state and the Russian population. Though largely unspoken, this informal social contract offered Russians the ability to enrich themselves freely in exchange for forfeiting their political rights. Putin’s regime incentivized consumption, while clamping down hard on civil society and the independent media by consolidating power around the president and systematically dismantling the existing albeit fragile democratic institutions. For most of Putin’s 15 years in power, each party has kept its side of the bargain. Russians have for the most part stayed out of politics and off the streets, while Putin has rarely interfered with the rapid accumulation of wealth – whether by legal means or otherwise – by a growing upper-middle class. In a variation on the Soviet social contract, in Putin’s Russia people pretended to pay taxes and the state pretended to offer services. While handing over the political space entirely to Putin and the state, Russians focused on enriching their personal space with brand new SUVs, holiday homes, good food and the latest Apple products.

The freedom only money can buy

Under Putin Russians have learned to live surrounded by omnipresent corruption, bloated bureaucracy and a broken legal system – all in exchange for the freedom to indulge in the spoils of the country’s oil and gas boom. Luxury villas in Spain for the very wealthy, spacious dachas for the budding middle class  – the purchasing power of the Russian population exploded as people scrambled to splurge their newfound wealth on real estate, cars and travel. Free to consume and travel abroad Russians remained largely silent in response to crackdowns on NGOs, the imprisonment of political dissidents and unprecedented levels of corruption. Even when the last independent TV and radio channels came under threat – most Russians didn’t budge, even those who were never particularly fond of the Putin regime. Neither the ban on American adoptions nor the astronomical cost and corruption associated with the Sochi Olympics nor the downing of MH17 by Russian-supplied weapons managed to shake the foundation of Putin’s social contract. But the recent import ban crosses an invisible red line, which Putin had hitherto always respected: Russian’s freedom of consumption. Russians gave up their freedom of speech and assembly more than a decade ago, but Putin’s latest ban invades their private space where it hurts most – in their fridges.

While Russia routinely sparred with its Western partners on the international arena, few upper-middle class Russians took any of it seriously, more focused on planning their next trip to Miami and downloading the latest season of Game of Thrones. With the new ban on European products, the Russian government is taking a serious gamble and risks alienating those who have supported the regime through apathy and non-participation. Indeed, Putin’s popularity hinges less on enthusiastic Putin supporters and more on the silent majority: those who couldn’t care either way as long as their high quality of life is maintained. By dictating to the Russian people what they may or may not consume, Putin is clearly breaking his end of the bargain.

Image source: Sergey Rodovnichenko / https://flic.kr/p/7cfv3t

Image source: Sergey Rodovnichenko / https://flic.kr/p/7cfv3t

A sign of things to come?

Russia’s embargo appears to be only the first in a series of new restrictions aimed at curtailing what Russians care about the most: the freedom to travel and consume. An estimated 4 million Ministry of Interior employees were the first to receive orders forbidding them from traveling to Western countries, but rumors of similar bans being enforced on other government workers have circulated online. With the new embargo Putin is trying to get Russians to rally around the flag while uprooting the very social contract which has kept him in power for so long. The question remains whether the Russian people will follow their leader if they have to set this year’s New Years dinner without Scottish herring, Spanish mandarins and French cognac.

Image Source: Ilya Varlamov / http://zyalt.livejournal.com/1135479.html
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