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'We've never been in this situation before' The Kremlin wants to know what Russian people are most concerned about. Their solution: focus groups.

Source: Meduza
Emin Jafarov

Russia’s war against Ukraine has gone on for almost a month now. As pressure from sanctions and other restrictions on the Russian economy grows, Russia’s domestic situation is looking worse and worse — despite the authorities’ successful repression of the anti-war movement through threats and arrests. Meduza has learned of recent efforts by the Russian presidential administration to determine which problems concern the population most. Unfortunately for them, the hard part will be solving them.

‘Older people’s frustrations are the most dangerous’

The Russian presidential administration (AP) has begun conducting sociological studies of Russian citizens’ hopes and fears associated with the worsening economy, according to two sources close to the Kremlin. AP contractors have been conducting both quantitative and qualitative research, including interviews and focus groups.

The impetus for the research is that the Kremlin expects Russian’s dissatisfaction with their leaders’ actions to grow in the coming weeks, and the authorities want to determine exactly which problems associated with the war are most painful for citizens.

“[According to available data,] people are most worried about three things: a rise in unemployment, which could affect them personally; the situation with medications; and an increase in prices [and resulting] currency devaluation,” said one of Meduza’s sources.

He noted that the situation could change in a matter of weeks or months — for example, people might start worrying more about the loss of variety in stores:

“For now, many are confident that there won’t be food shortages and that the government will handle it. Sanctions and import substitutions were widely discussed back in 2014, too, and nothing terrible actually ended up happening. Groceries and other goods stayed in stores. So people aren’t expecting any serious deterioration here. A portion of Russians, of course, are stocking up on sugar and hygiene products, but they’re doing that just in case. People did that at the beginning of the pandemic, and when oil prices and the ruble fell in 2020.”

A political strategist close to the AP's internal political bloc who’s familiar with the study results told Meduza that Russians are noticing the rise in prices that began when the war started, but they’re currently viewing it as a temporary problem. On the other hand, people are concerned about the coming wave of unemployment: “[People] can sense that they might soon have problems with work — especially those who lived through the 1990s.”

Another problem Russians are especially worried about is the medical market: product availability is falling and prices are rising. “Medication is vitally important — it’s not the area to be optimistic about the future. People need their medicine right here, right now,” a source told Meduza.

Another source close to the AP said the problem with medications mostly affects people “50 and older.” The source called this age group “one of the most socially active groups.”

“At the beginning of the aughts, they actively protested against the monetization of social benefits. In the regions, there are occasional protests against utility price increases, and most of the participants are older people. What’s more, older people make up a significant portion of the authorities’ electoral support, so their frustrations are very dangerous,” he said.

A clearance sale at Prisma, a Finnish supermarket, after the company decided to stop operating in Russia. St. Petersburg, March 12, 2022
Alexander Chizhenok / Kommersant

‘In a few months, it will be clear which problems are solvable and which aren’t’

While the Kremlin is conducting this research, it’s the government and governors who will be held responsible for solving these problems. President Vladimir Putin has already instructed regional heads to create and head task forces “to maintain economic security.” The government also plans to allocate 40 billion rubles (about $385 million) for business support as part of a special credit program. Another 40 billion rubles have been reserved for employment support. Citizens who have lost more than 30% of their income will be eligible for credit holidays of up to six months.

The AP, however, isn’t sure these measures will help. A source close to the Kremlin said the following:

“Work is currently in somewhat of an emergency mode. Most serious decisions are on hold — political decisions, personnel decisions, and economic decisions. It’s not clear where the situation with Ukraine will land, whether there will be new sanctions — or whether some sanctions will be lifted if a peace agreement is reached. The country has never been in this situation before. In a few months, it will probably be clear what’s solvable and what’s not.”

A source close to the government added that the Russian authorities weren’t prepared for such harsh sanctions, and that they’re now having to “make it up as they go.” “Nothing is out of the realm of possibility, not even an EU rejection of Russian energy companies. In that case, we would have problems filling the state budget,” said the source. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it — we have enough problems already.”

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Is Russia prepared for an economic crisis? Development expert Natalia Zubarevich on how sanctions will affect ordinary Russians — and what tools the government has to soften the blow

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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