The exploitation of socioeconomic differences for political ends isn’t limited to the U.S. these days. Russia’s de facto ruler of 12 years, Vladimir Putin, seems to be shifting his electoral strategy a few weeks before the country’s presidential vote. Last month, Putin offered Russia’s restless urban middle class “an invitation to dialogue.” He said that the “economy must be built in a way that citizens with high education and aspirations can find a worthy place in it.” And Putin’s campaign program devotes plenty of attention to “modernization” — which was a mantra throughout Dmitry Medvedev’s feeble presidency — and various “entrepreneurial freedoms.”
At the same time, he warned that “a recurring problem in Russian history is the desire of part of the elite to take a leap towards a revolution, rather than work for sequential development.” But Putin’s definition of the elite has changed since Russia’s wave of massive protests began in December, and now extends well beyond the Moscow intelligentsia. To Putin, the elite includes an ungrateful middle class whose living standards rose substantially during the economic expansion that preceded the financial crisis — which Putin attributes to the “stability” of his “managed democracy” rather than oil and natural-gas windfalls.
However, what last month seemed like Putin’s effort to placate the middle class has recently given way to an almost exclusive emphasis on the consolidation of his low-income base. These factory hands, farmers, and other blue-collar workers spend much of their leisure time watching state television where news programs depict the anti-Putin protesters as privileged urban elites.
But Putin’s attempts to galvanize support by dividing the country won’t boost his legitimacy, nor will it help him return to the Kremlin under free and fair conditions. Class warfare isn’t a winning strategy. It can’t succeed in Russia and it certainly can’t succeed here in the U.S.
— Daniel Vajdic is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.