Russia: Talking war in times of economic crisis

War-themed rhetoric has helped the Russian government control crisis-related discontent, but it could backfire.

Servicemen dressed in historical uniforms wait before military parade marking anniversary of 1941 parade in Red Square in Moscow
Russia allocated $43bln to the defence sector in the 2017 budget [Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

When the sanctions hit Russia in 2014 and Moscow responded with a trade boycott, Irina found it funny that people started obsessing about the disappearance of gourmet cheese from stores.

The 32-year-old education researcher, who asked that only her first name be used, says she didn’t feel the effect of the sanctions either in her everyday life, or in her cheese-buying habits.

The same year, as oil prices faced a dramatic fall, the rouble collapsed and an economic crisis hit Russia with full force.

Being a member of the Moscow middle class, Irina felt shielded from its effects as well, although she says she did have to limit her travelling abroad and cut down on luxury items.

But as much as prognoses for the Russian economy have been pessimistic, Irina says she is not anxious about her future financial security. What she finds much more worrying is the markedly aggressive turn of government rhetoric which has accompanied the crisis.

“I was shocked to see the extent of ‘militarisation’ of the news. […] It is as if they are trying to prepare the country for war.” she says. “I think this aspect of the crisis is the most dangerous one.”

The aggressive rhetoric of the government and state media intensified around the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s standoff with the West, while at the same time, the Russian economy went into recession.

Eliot Borenstein, Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, explained this phenomenon. “In many ways, US and European sanctions were a gift to Putin, since they allowed any decline in the economy to be chalked up to the work of Russia’s enemies,” he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “Moreover, this facilitates the feeling that coping with economic difficulties is a matter of patriotism.”

The government’s appeal to Russian’s patriotic sentiments seems to have been effective in keeping general dissatisfaction among the populace at bay.

Many Russians have braced themselves for a long economic recession. Yet, there are some, like Irina, who are not willing to accept the consequences of the Kremlin’s militaristic rhetoric.

Spinning an economic crisis

When oil prices collapsed at the end of  2014, Russia’s rouble lost some 60 percent of its value to the dollar. GDP per capita dropped from $15,000 to $9,000 and the economy shrank by about 4 percent year on year.

Spending cuts were introduced and poverty rates increased. In 2015, the proportion of poor families with an income sufficient for purchasing food only increased from 22 to 39 percent, according to a study by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, while the middle class shrunk by 16 percent, according to Sberbank CIB Ivanov Consumer Confidence Tracker.

The standard of living deteriorated most significantly for Russia’s poor outside the major economic centres.

A December 19, 2016, incident in the Siberian city of Irkutsk in which more than 70 people died after drinking bath lotion made of 90 percent ethanol demonstrated the desperation some people face. The victims – mostly poor and homeless – drank the substance because one bottle cost only 30 roubles (50 cents), six times less than a bottle of vodka. 

Local media commented that the economic crisis, along with a higher alcohol tax, pushed more Russians to use illegally made alcohol and alcohol products. Over the past two years, poverty has reportedly been growing in the Irkutsk region, spreading to more than 21 percent of the population, while the real value of salaries has fallen by more than 10 percent.

Boris Grozovsky, a Russian financial journalist, told Al Jazeera that he thinks the economic crisis will also gradually affect healthcare and education. In 2015, Russia witnessed what local media said was its first teachers’ strike in 15 years, after salaries were delayed in Zabaykalsky region; doctors and kindergarten teachers also joined the protest. Medics have complained that the real value of their salaries has fallen, and that underfunding of the healthcare sector could lead to a serious deficit of cadres.

Grozovsky says that although Russia is in for a long recession, that the standard of living will not fall to 1990s levels, when GDP per capita was $1,500-$3,000.

“What is awaiting us is a sluggish stagnation. As other countries develop, we will lag behind,” he explained

Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has dedicated himself to public appearances to reassure the public with speeches about tackling the crisis. In September he published an article outlining a vision for reforming the Russian economy to “make Russia attractive to business”.

After the 2017 state budget was voted in, he appeared on state TV channels assuring the public that there would be enough money to cover social benefits and that the economy was expected to grow next year. These media outlets also ran reports with a positive spin on the crisis, focusing, for example, on the low inflation and consumer spending during the holiday season.

But Marina Krasilnikova, a sociologist at the Moscow-based research centre Levada, says Russians have accepted the economic crisis and have adjusted their expectations and consumption habits.

According to the Nielsen Global Consumer Confidence Index, 73 percent of Russian respondents to its survey said they had to cut their expenses, and 82 percent felt that it was not a good time to spend money.

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Aggressive rhetoric

While the government has sought to alleviate social fears, it also has made it clear that defence is a priority and that it is dedicating a solid chunk of that budget to ensure the modernisation of the military.

In the 2017 budget, it allocated $43bn, 4.7 percent of Russia’s GDP, to the defence sector – what some analysts have called “record spending” for a country currently not at war.

Vladimir Putin, himself, has spoken repeatedly on the importance of the military. In late December he warned that Russia is currently stronger than any “potential aggressor”, but that it only takes a slip in “modernisation of the army and the fleet or in its preparation for this to change”.

This type of alarmist rhetoric is not only effective in justifying the defence budget to the general public but it is also distracting attention away from the economic crisis.

Krasilnikova says that “the idea that Russia is a great country which has a lot of foes is quite popular” and has mitigated people’s dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

Such rhetoric has been consistently used on popular state TV channels such as Russia 1.

“[Russia] possesses the military power to destroy the US [a] minimum 10 times. We are the only country that poses [an] existential threat to them,” mused MP Vyacheslav Nikonov on one of the most popular political talk shows on Russia 1, Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. The host is known for his belligerent language and personal interviews with Vladimir Putin.

Alleging US funding of liberal politicians in Russia, Nikonov also claimed that after the introduction of a law cracking down on “foreign agents”, funding for such agents grew 10 times.

News broadcasts also often carry similar rhetoric. Russia 1 news reports in mid-December about the situation in Aleppo extensively covered the successful operations of the Russian military, emphasising the absence of Western involvement or help and Western media’s indifference or deliberate avoidance of reporting on Russian successes.

Growing anxiety

According to Vlad Strukov, Associate Professor in Film and Digital Culture at Leeds University, while antagonistic language is not something new to Russian media, its intensity has grown significantly in the past few years.

“Five to 10 years ago there would be discussions about the threat of NATO, but it was still as a kind of a distant threat. […] Now the rhetoric is as if it was already happening in a way. That NATO is planning military action,” he told Al Jazeera.

This rhetorical warmongering has inevitably affected the general  population. A recent study shows that some 48 percent of Russians think that the exacerbated relations with the West due to the crisis in Syria could trigger World War III.

The assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara on December 19 shook Russian society, and while state media covered the Andrey Karlov’s “heroic” death, there were others who found it unsettling.

“The rise of anti-Russian protests in the Middle East after the capturing of Aleppo, at the backdrop of which ambassador Andrei Karlov was assassinated, shows that while Russia was regaining its influence in the region, it also took away from the US the status of ‘main imperialistic enemy’,” wrote Vladimir Frolov, a Russian political analyst.

He pointed out that this turn of events does not bode well for Russia and that it could usher in more “terrorist” attacks.

Even before the assassination, enthusiasm among the general population for the military intervention in the Middle East had started to cool.  Russia’s military operations in Syria have cost almost $1bn a year and a secret but growing number of casualties among Russian servicemen and mercenaries.

Back in October 2015, some 72 percent of respondents in a Levada Centre survey supported air strikes in Syria; by October 2016, that approval has fallen to 52 percent.

For Irina, the government’s warmongering is much more worrying than the state of the economy.

“I would like to see less of this militarisation. […] I would like to see a turn away from war and towards peaceful development,” she says.

Source: Al Jazeera