Put yourself in the shoes of an average Russian for a moment: The economy has taken a serious hit in recent years, driving down real wages and purchasing power; corruption is as bad as ever and your country’s locked in a Cold War–style standoff with the United States, the world’s only superpower. Meanwhile, the strongman behind it all is certain to secure — by hook or by crook — yet another term as a seemingly untouchable president.
Would you be brimming with hope? Probably not. Strangely, though, none of these factors seems to faze most Russians. At least not this year:
63 percent of Russians say they’re hopeful about 2018 — more than at any time in the past 15 years.
That’s according to a January survey by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster. Researcher Denis Volkov says the trend for optimism has actually been a year or so in the making, based in part on Russia’s slow but steady recovery from economic turmoil. Since 2014, sagging global oil prices and Western sanctions have battered the economy, but this year, the country managed to pull out of its recession and post a 1.5 percent gross domestic product growth (even if that fell short of projections). Another factor, Volkov suggests, might be President Vladimir Putin’s recent partial troop withdrawal from Syria, where the Russian military has spent more than two years bolstering Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
For a population concerned foremost with economic security and typically wary of distant military adventures, these are encouraging steps. In this traditionally volatile neck of the woods, stability is priceless. But optimism is often fleeting, and it’s almost as if Russians are ready for disappointment: The same Levada survey found at least 58 percent also expect both political and economic instability this year. Experts chalk that up to a key pillar of the Russian mentality since Soviet times: Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. “That seems to be a very rational, historically aware sense,” says Graeme Robertson, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “so it’s not particularly contradictory.”
Barring unforeseen circumstances, few experts predict an explosion of discontent similar to what the world saw in 2011–12, when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets against the Kremlin. Since then, Putin has used the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing conflict in eastern Ukraine to rally most of the population around the proverbial flag, Robertson says. It’s worked well: Even amid a stunted economy, the strongman has enjoyed steady approval ratings well above 80 percent.
Yet even though Putin is expected to sweep this month’s elections — sidelining the opposition has certainly helped — Volkov, the Levada researcher, says the state isn’t immune to growing public discontent. If the economy stagnates around its current sluggish growth rate, as many expect, that could prove dangerous for the regime. Russia has already seen a boost in socioeconomic protests lately, a phenomenon that’s new to the Putin era. So as far as optimism is concerned, Volkov poses one key question: “Will the government be able to maintain it or not?”
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