Russia: is Putin’s project unravelling?

imageAfter a parliamentary election campaign that seemed to hit new depths in terms of tedium and dreariness writes Rick Simon , and in which the success of the pro-Kremlin United Russia was a foregone conclusion, sections of Russian society appear to have woken up and vented their frustrations at the Kremlin’s control of the political process. The ranks of the opposition, usually isolated and physically assaulted when they take to the streets, were suddenly swelled, especially in Moscow, by thousands of citizens angry at the manipulation of the election results. Does this represent a real challenge to the authority of the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin in particular? This article will attempt to outline the current state of play and the prospects for change.

First, to understand what has changed it is crucial to grasp the nature of post-communist Russia. I have argued elsewhere, that the changes since 1985 can be characterised, in the expression of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, as a passive revolution[i]. What this means is that the process of capitalist transformation has been much less complete than many envisaged. The pro-capitalist regime that emerged under Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet Union’s collapse, was based on an embryonic capitalist class backed up by global capitalist powers. The more lucrative sectors in energy, the media and non-ferrous metals became the arena for conflicts between the emerging ‘oligarchs’ allied to elements within the state and criminal groups.

At the same time, the Soviet elite, the nomenklatura, remained relatively intact, especially in the regions and industrial management. As a consequence, compromises had to be made to maintain Russia’s stability that undermined the neo-liberal ‘shock therapy’. In particular, the privatisation process enabled many nomenklaturshchiki to exchange management for ownership while maintaining Soviet-era production relations minus the central planning. Unlike the oligarchs, however, the nomenklatura, in the main, gained title to industrial sectors lacking investment and unable to compete in the global economy.

Putin’s ascent to power in 2000 represented a Bonapartist solution to the problem of an increasingly divided elite, a weak state, and a failing economy. Putin tipped the balance between consent and coercion much more towards the latter. He re-established the power of the state, centralising its functions around the post of the presidency and diminishing the influence of the regions. He established a strong pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, which utilises a nomenklatura-like system of appointments and corrupt patron-client relationships to strengthen the Kremlin’s influence at all levels of the Russian political system and ensure the distribution of oil monies to elite groups.

Putin’s ‘stick’ has been assisted by the ‘carrot’ provided by rising oil prices: wage arrears have been paid off, salaries have increased, unemployment has been reduced and, domestically, energy prices have been kept down. The revenue from oil and natural gas has enabled most foreign debt to be paid off and significant reserves to be accumulated, eliminating any leverage that foreign banks or governments might have. Moreover, the control of energy supplies has enabled the Kremlin to exert influence over neighbouring states, especially Ukraine, creating the impression of a significant global power. Whereas Yeltsin attempted to link Russia with Western capitalist traditions, Putin has re-established the linkage between contemporary Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Tsarist era.

Putin’s legitimacy has, therefore, been built on the basis of stability, economic prosperity and nationalist ideology. It is this foundation that is beginning to show cracks.

The success of United Russia derived from a quiescence among the general population generated by rising living standards. The Kremlin’s manipulation of election campaigns could be tolerated if the prospects continued to be good but that feeling has begun to dissipate since the financial crisis of 2008.

In 2009, Russia suffered an 8% fall in GDP, and despite reasonable growth since then, continues to experience a haemorrhaging of capital. This has combined with Putin’s announcement that he will run for president in 2012 and that Medvedev will be his new Prime Minister – a reversal of the current so-called ‘tandemocracy’ – but which seemed to take Medvedev by surprise.

Whereas, in the early 2000s, Putin seemed to represent stability after 10 years of chaos and plummeting living standards, he is now associated in the eyes of many Russians with corruption, manipulation, and stagnation. For an emerging ‘middle class’ of professionals and small entrepreneurs, Medvedev seemed to be a more liberal, progressive president whose watchword was modernisation. Those illusions have been dashed. The prospect of Putin for a further 12 years (the presidential term has been extended from 4 to 6 years), and more of the same, no longer appeals.

While Putin has established much greater state control over the media and the political process more generally, not all opposition has been eliminated and the Internet remains a source of uncensored information and debate, although one only available to a minority of Russians, primarily in the major cities. Generally, however, organised opposition has been ideologically and strategically divided. It has been more of an irritant than a source of real concern. Nevertheless, on election day, the 4th December 2011, the Kremlin decided to prevent any manifestations of dissent through cyber-attacks on critical websites and the arrest of leading oppositionists.

The election results themselves, represent a setback for the Kremlin. Officially, United Russia gained just under 50% of the poll, a fall of 15% on 2007, but oppositionists claim that, in fact, United Russia’s vote was closer to 35%. The opposition alleges significant ballot-stuffing and other electoral irregularities backed up by video footage that was quickly released to YouTube. Russia’s official ‘opposition’ parties, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, A Just Russia, and the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, all gained significantly but represent no real threat to the Kremlin.

The response of the opposition was to organise a demonstration which was broken up by the police with a significant number of arrests. The opposition then made plans for much larger demonstrations across Russia, appealing to all who opposed election fraud. In Moscow, where parties opposed to United Russia had done well, an estimated 50,000 took to the streets on 10th December. The picture in other parts of Russia was however rather more varied: in St Petersburg, around 7000 demonstrated leading to a large number of arrests, but in other cities the numbers varied from a few hundred to a few thousand.

The lukewarm responses of the authorities – Putin claimed the protests were instigated by the West – to the demands of the demonstrators that the elections be rerun resulted in a claimed turnout of 120,000 in Moscow on 24th December.

These demonstrations represent a significant change in people’s attitudes to Vladimir Putin but it is a very heterogeneous movement, running the gamut from far left to far right, and with a negative agenda (‘Russia without Putin’). In addition, the people on the streets were predominantly not those from the poorest sections of society but from those straitjacketed by the requirements of Putin’s bonapartist regime: a dependence on the energy sector and oligarch-dominated industries combined with the need to maintain and subsidise Russia’s decrepit manufacturing sector and a vastly expanded state and security apparatus.

Russia’s far left has recently shown signs of overcoming its sectarian divisions by unifying into the Russian Socialist Movement. Unfortunately, Russia’s working class has failed to overcome the legacy of its atomisation during the Soviet period. The relations in most manufacturing industry are still paternalistic and the unions support management in the factories and United Russia politically. Chinks of light have been seen in factories linked to western companies where industrial relations are more antagonistic. Strikes at companies such as Ford have produced significant improvements in wages and working conditions and given a boost to independent trade-unionism.

The goal of the Russian left must be to establish an independent working-class movement and, in the current context, this means drawing unions into the popular protests, promoting demands that meet the immediate needs of ordinary Russians. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, former leader of the neo-liberal ‘Right Cause’ party, has proclaimed himself the candidate of the opposition to Putin in March’s presidential elections. Against this development, a genuinely oppositional workers’ candidate would be a welcome, albeit unlikely, step forward.

[i] See Rick Simon, ‘Passive revolution, perestroika, and the emergence of the new Russia’. Capital & Class 34(3): 429-448, 2010 .

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