By Damla Karagoz, Fall 2012
On Friday , September 14, 2012, the Elliot School of International Affairs held its fifth annual PONARS Eurasia Conference. The daylong conference dealt with an array of topics but the first panel focused on the current protests and public opinion in Russia. Anti-regime protesters have been screaming “Russia Without Putin” but we see that the middle class has not completely woken up yet and one of the major issues we see in Russia today is the overall lack of support for change from the current regime. Additionally there has been opposition to US funded NGOs that advocate democracy and a lack of desire of money from the US altogether.
Public opinion research disagrees with the idea that antigovernment protestors represent the majority of Russia today even though changes in public opinion remain possible. Even though the middle class is more educated and knowledgeable, they are not distinctive in comparison to other social classes. This may be because the economic incentives of university graduates align with the current regime; graduates anticipate holding elite positions in society and thus accept the values of the political elite. Furthermore, Russia has a technocratic culture of higher education inherited from the Soviet era that focuses on specializations rather than liberal studies that open students to a broader range of topics.
Changing the education system in Russia however, would be close to impossible since the system is “completely corrupt” according to Theodore P. Gerber, who states that vested interests make it hard to reform. Thus one way to expand liberal views in Russia would be bolstering exchange programs so students can receive a different perspective on democracy and favor pro-democratic civil society institutions. Filling in the missing link between university education and democratic values may give the younger Russian population new ideas and perhaps even change the prominence of a technocratic culture. Increasing the values of an American degree would inevitably change the view of a degree focused on specialized skills. Although university exchange programs and partnerships with the US may not be considered a significant form of democracy assistance, it is beneficial to try a completely new approach to Russia since the current system is not working. Of course whether or not these Russian students would go back to their country and try to advance change is another question altogether.