Conference reports Aleksanteri Annual Conference 2016 LIFE & DEATH IN RUSSIA
The Russian welfare state has undergone deep structural transformations during the last twenty-five years. The aim of the 16th Annual […]
Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 4 2016, p 100
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 3, 2017
The Russian welfare state has undergone deep structural transformations during the last twenty-five years. The aim of the 16th Annual Aleksanteri Conference, “Life and Death in Russia”, held last October in Helsinki, was to address questions on the character of the changes in social welfare and the extent to which the government’s policies have been put into practice in an effective way. In more than forty panels, various aspects of Russian welfare matters were discussed: the effect of the new pension system, the implementing of a new health care reform, care for elderly people, regional dimensions of health and wealth, and new trends in state policies on child welfare — to mention but a few of the topics brought up at this very rich conference. Obviously, the full scope of facts and exchanges of well-informed views was impossible for one person to grasp and digest. But let me share a few impressions.
Two key note speakers, the Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn, currently stationed at Oxford University, and the US political scientist Thomas Remington, addressed broad issues of welfare. The welfare state is the most important existing institution for reducing inequality, Therborn stated. The stronger the welfare state is, the more socially and economically equal is the distribution of wealth. The “disastrous restoration of capitalism” made Russia stand out with extremely negative rates of life expectancy and mortality. Thus, the concentration of wealth has risen in Russia, as it has, by the way, in the US and China. In these three countries, salaries and other forms of direct income mean almost everything for the welfare of the population, since the social transfers are so low in comparison to many countries, especially in Europe. A growing practice of part time employment and vacation without pay, together with the fact that almost twenty percent of the population works in the so-called informal sector, increases unpredictability and insecurity in people’s everyday lives.
Remington claimed that Russians are basically aware of social inequality, viewing it as being excessive and unfair. Still, following global surveys, Russians underestimate the degree of existing inequality, while for example British and French people overestimate it. The explanation could be that wealth in Russia is comparatively secret. Furthermore, the cost of protesting is regarded too risky. Instead, people interact in smaller groups of family, friends, and neighbors to help each other out.
Various panels concluded that, when it came to major state reforms in the social sphere, the implementing of a new pension system had scored best, while health care reform and a renewing of the educational system had been stalled in recent years. Still, one presenter referred to a survey showing that only seven percent of the population claims to live well on their pensions, while fifty percentage say they can’t live solely on their pension. As in many areas of the social sphere, the family and other close persons are the ones to help in difficult situations. Quite a few panels at the conference were devoted to the care of elderly people. A common conclusion was that the standard of care and access to various kinds of care differs widely among geographical regions.
Panels on the health care reform that has been launched by Putin’s government analyzed the trend away from a universal health care system towards a neoliberal system. Partnership arrangements are being tried out between the state, commercial actors and nonprofit organizations, i.e. NGOs with a social orientation. One of the main challenges in this process is the uneasy interaction between the NGOs and the state bureaucracy, which has no tradition of such collaboration. Another challenge is the fact that the reform process is stalled partly due to lack of funding. Flat tax is practiced in Russia and only individuals are taxed, while the corporate world contributes on a voluntary basis. Also, the population demonstrates an unwillingness to accept a privatized health care system since the legacy from previous times is a universal welfare system, financed and realized by the state. “It is difficult to reform a health care system”, one US scholar concluded, pointing to the thorny experience of implementing Obamacare in his own country. “Only the US government’s striving to get the health care system closer to a universal welfare state model has been regarded with suspicion in a country with deep roots in individualism, while opinion is reversed in Russia, with its people disapproving of a liberal, individualized health care system”, the speaker added.
A session that especially caught my interest took up the ongoing shift in official ideology about child welfare that stresses the need to move away from a system of a high percentage of children in state residences with collective care by professionals, and instead proceed to a system where orphanages or foster families should be viewed as strictly provisional arrangements. The stated goal is to have every child placed in its own biological or adoptive family. The new ideas fit well into a strong official family-oriented discourse in today’s Russia. Financial support to families is a prioritized state budget item. ≈