Socialist Alternative

Russia: Preparing for the Fall-Out From the Presidential Election

Published on

Rob Jones, Socialist Alternative (CWI Russia)

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia, this world-historic event is largely being ignored by the Putin regime and mass media. If the revolution that ushered in the first workers’ state in the world is mentioned at all, it is usually to condemn it as an historic “tragedy” or “mistake”. This should come as no surprise given character of the pro-capitalist regime, authoritarian Putin government. Nevertheless the legacy of the socialist October revolution hangs over the regime today and poses stark questions about life in capitalist Russia today.

Rob Jones looks at these issues, the prospects for new protest movements and the struggle for a new socialist society.

First published on

The date for the next Russian presidential election has been put off for two weeks to 18 March 2018, to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the incorporation of Crimea as part of Russia.

The youth protests across Russia on 26 March 2017 in response to the call by Aleksei Navalnii, the liberal anti-corruption campaigner, struck like a bolt of lightning, electrifying society. They brought to an end the political stagnation that had been the main feature of Russian society since the 2011-12 Bolotnii protests, which were triggered by the falsification of elections to the State Duma (Parliament).

This stagnation followed the failure of the leaders of the Bolotnii protests to offer any strategy for developing opposition to the regime. This, combined with arrests following the brutal police attack on the 6 May 2012 demonstration, the flight into exile of the various leaders and even the murder of liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, served to create the mood that such struggles were pointless. Almost all opposition groups from both left and right were affected by demoralisation and decline following 2012.

Having made radical promises about the need to defend workers’ rights at the beginning of the global crisis, the independent trade unions failed to participate in the Bolotnii protests. When the government launched its widespread cuts to the budget, they dispersed the early protests by health and education workers by turning the street demonstrations into management-style workshops. Every day another hospital closes and by 2020 only a third of the 10,700 hospitals that existed in 2000 will still be operating. There will be fewer hospitals than in 1913 and an extra 24,000 deaths a year, due to the inaccessibility of proper treatment.

Workers pay the price

The Russian working class, and particularly the youth, have borne the brunt of the continuing economic crisis. The authorities do all they can to hide its extent. Delays in wage payments, according to official statistics, are declining and only affect a small proportion of the workforce. Yet social surveys report that “23% of all respondents who work confirm that they personally have, in the past 2-3 months, experienced a cut in wages or delays in their payment”. Real wages have now been falling for four years in a row – in 2014 by 0.7%, in 2015 by 3.2% and in 2016 by 5.9%. Workers who protest face widespread police harassment. Miners from the village of Gudkova, near Rostov on Don, have now been without wages for many months. They are met with detentions and arrests, and when they recently decided to march on Moscow, over a thousand kilometres away, the riot police blockaded them in their homes.

If, for a period many tolerated the cut-backs in the hope that the golden years of economic growth of 2000-2008 based on high oil prices and a devalued currency will return, there are now signs that patience is wearing out. In part, this explains the huge anger at corruption and the inequality of wealth that inspired the youth protests. But there is no longer light at the end of the tunnel: the government has to even step in to bail out the private banks – nearly a trillion rubles (13 billion euros) has been used this year – whilst official forecasts predict that GDP growth in the next three years will not exceed 1.5%. This figure is likely to be the norm for considerably longer.

Patriotic wave

The regime has been fortunate in that the international situation has diverted attention from the crisis by creating the image that Russia’s position in the world is strengthening. The Ukrainian crisis provoked a huge wave of patriotism that the ruling elite is still trying to exploit with films such as “Crimea” and by holding the Presidential election on the anniversary of the take-over of Crimea. But now, this is backfiring on the regime. This was typified recently when a new statue of Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the famous weapon, who died recently, was unveiled in Moscow. The sculptor engraved an image of a weapon on the statue, only to discover later that he had copied a German Sturmgewehr rifle and not the Kalashnikov. To add insult to injury, a worker sent to correct the mistake was then arrested by police!

The stalemate in east Ukraine has helped to take the gloss off the patriotic mood. Numerous failed ceasefires have failed to stop the continuous armed clashes. The stepping up of an economic blockade by Kiev has meant Russia has to bear more of the cost of supporting the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, a factor further straining the federal budget. The latest rumours are that the Kremlin may replace the leadership of the two republics with “figures more capable of compromise” to allow the introduction of “peacekeepers”. This is linked to the need to find more money for the Crimea and Baltic Kaliningrad region at the expense of the two enclaves.

The start of the conflict in east Ukraine quickly polarised the Russian opposition into pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian positions. Even the anarchists split and fell into decline. This was another factor driving the political stagnation of the past few years. Now, there is another danger. Many oppositionists, who went to fight on behalf of the pro-Russian forces in east Ukraine, with weapons in hand, are returning as battle hardened reactionaries available for use against popular protests.

The “victory” of the Assad regime against rebel forces in Syria gained through the direct intervention of Russian forces has been portrayed as strengthening the Kremlin’s role in the world. It undoubtedly dealt a blow to US interests in the country. However, the victory has been ‘pyrrhic”, stability has barely been restored and recent events demonstrate the danger of more open clashes between US and Russian troops. The Syrian intervention has never been widely popular in Russia and surveys show declining support. At the same time, events in the latest international hot-spot – North Korea – directly threaten Russian interests. The introduction of sanctions will directly impact Russian and Chinese economic interests and maybe even escalate into a world trade war, and if the dispute escalates further, the whole region will be more destabilized.

Processes under the surface

A superficial analysis of the situation in Russia today leads to only one conclusion: the ruling regime is still strong, the liberals have been side-lined, the economic situation, although difficult, is still being managed and international events have strengthened Russia’s position and therefore Putin’s popularity. Putin, if opinion polls are to be believed, still has overwhelming support. But this analysis is undialectical, ignoring the processes taking place in society, which, when they come to the surface will completely undermine support for the regime and demonstrate, like the child in the fairy-tale, that the “emperor has indeed no clothes”.

Recent regional elections demonstrated how support for the institutions and Putin’s United Russia party has declined. If United Russia managed to maintain control of all the regional governors in stage-managed voting, the results for Moscow district councils were much more revealing. The city is divided into 62 districts, each with a local council (albeit having no real power except oversight). But opposition candidates, almost all of them pro-capitalist liberals, won outright 17 of the districts and came close in another 29. In Putin’s district, the opposition won all seats. The fact that the turnout was very low, at 15%, demonstrates that the ruling United Russia party has real difficulties mobilising support in the capital and other large cities.

This reflects the accumulation of problems and contradictions over the past period. After correcting for inflation, real incomes have fallen to below the level of 2009. Discontent at falling standards of living, city renovation plans, non-payment of wages, new taxes and the general lack of freedom is creating the danger of a social explosion. Yet the regime has no answer for any of the problems. Instead any attempt to resist or protest meets unprecedented harassment. Repressive measures against the youth who protested on 26 March are on a scale not seen for decades: in Moscow, alone, 64 people spent an average of ten days in jail and a further 469 have been fined from 10-20000 rubles (150-300 euros). Over 150 investigators are pursuing five people on criminal charges, some of which carry life sentences. Since then hardly a day goes but without further reports of arrests, detentions and sentences.

The “official” opposition

In a “normal bourgeois democracy” the ruling elite faces opposition parties and organisations that can divert social discontent into safe channels. But the Russian elite have done everything possible to neutralize even the safe opposition forces, as represented by the four parties allowed into the Duma (Parliament). Apart from United Russia party, they are the pro-Kremlin Just Russia, Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats and the inept Communist Party.

Token votes in the Duma against some of the worst laws – most recently new taxes on lorry owner-drivers, laws restricting the internet and making residents pay for capital repairs – by some, not always all members of the fractions, do no more than disguise the fact that these parties have little life outside of the Duma corridors. A recent example is the decision of the Novosibirsk Communists to organize a demonstration in support of North Korea while Aleksei Navalnii was speaking in town. They mobilized less than fifty, while Navalnii attracted thousands. So close are the communists to the Kremlin there are even discussions with the Presidential administration over who will represent the party in the coming presidential election to ensure a high turn-out and increase the election’s credibility.

It is to the shame of Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the so-called ‘Left Front’, just released from a five year prison sentence for his part in the Bolotnii protests, that he has not learnt any lessons from that period. He repeats that one of the strengths of the Bolotnii protests was the alliance between liberals, the left and the far-right Russian nationalists. In fact, it was this alliance that limited wider support from the working class and non-Russian populations, and his uncritical support for the liberals allowed them a free hand to disperse the movement.

Trying to reclaim his mantle as “leader” of the left forces since his release, Udaltsov argues that the “left-patriotic” forces should present a united candidate for President. Amongst possible candidates, he names Russian-chauvinist opponents of the punk-band activists, Pussy Riot, far-right chauvinist, so-called “national Bolsheviks”, pro-market politicians, oil industry lobbyists and the mayor of Novosibirsk, Anatolii Lokot (the same Lokot who organised the demonstration in support of North Korea!). Udaltsov also includes regional governor Levchenko on his list, who is also one of the people being discussed by the Kremlin and Communists to be their candidate.

Navalnii’s populism

The absence of any real opposition forces, including even genuine trade unions, has created in Russia an almost unique situation. As in many other countries, there is in Russia the basis for an explosion of discontent. In some countries this has been channelled through left populist forces, such as Syriza, Podemos, Sanders and Corbyn. In Russia, however, the explosion of discontent has been channelled through Navalnii, a liberal with Russian nationalist leanings. Not through personal conviction, but in the spirit of classic populism, he reflects anti-corruption demands and also some ‘left’ demands, such as calling for a minimum wage, free education and healthcare. Navalnii even criticised the take-over of the Crimea, not in principle, but because of the way it was pushed through by the regime using the military.

It was not Navalnii who determined the mood of the youth on 26 March, but the youth who determined his position. At present, youth are concerned with issues that directly affect them – the quality and cost of education, job opportunities and housing – which have fuelled the more generalised campaign against corruption. This is confirmed by the results of one opinion poll and another survey found that 28% of youth consider themselves “socialist”. It concluded that 13% describe themselves as “conservatives” and just 20% as “liberals”. Whether or not these figures are accurate, they give an indication of a general trend and confirm that those who think that it is necessary to water down a socialist programme are deeply mistaken.

Youth reflect a wider mood

It has to be underlined that the youth protest was just the first act in the development of a wider opposition movement. It may be cut across by different events – international issues, for example – and will not develop in a simple straight line. But the general trajectory is clear. Nevertheless, it started as many youth protests across the world have done, as nebulous, with no clearly formed ideas or slogans. As the protests continue, they will give new life to those political trends and we can see the growth of the anarchists, liberals and far-right, who have not been particularly active over the past few years. This makes it all the more important that the socialist, internationalist left, puts a clear and radical programme from the beginning of the protests, so they are not squeezed out in the way the Ukrainian left was at the start of Maidan protests.

Five years ago, the Bolotnii protests demonstrated anger at the way the election results had been manipulated. Although the CWI in Moscow ran an effective campaign, gaining 10,000 votes in the election to the opposition coordination committee, the protests were dominated by leaders of the liberal opposition, who were loyally supported by the likes of Udaltsov and the far right. Outside of a few major cities where the liberals still had a layer of support from the rich and the middle class, Bolotnii had little support. This allowed Putin to lean on the working class in the regions – the famous Uralvagonmash factory, in particular – in an attempt to whip up a mood against the “Moscow intelligentsia”. Since then, workers at Uralvagonmash have suffered periods of lay-offs, with no pay, and the threat of bankruptcy.

At the time, Putin could still rely on the support of the regional elite and a large section of big business. With the former suffering from serious budget restrictions and the latter concerned about increasing international economic sanctions, if a serious social conflict were to break out, Putin could no longer rely on these sections. Even attempts to resurrect “Nashi” following 26 March – the pro-Kremlin youth organization – have had no success. Putin’s power base has narrowed to such a degree that he concludes he is left with no option but to step up repression. This is often based on knee-jerk reactions to events and on the more reactionary-clerical layers of his supporters, who are not easy to control.

The religious right

Events around the film ‘Matilda’ have shown that the Kremlin can no longer control the situation. The film, financed by the Ministry of Culture, tells the story of the affair between the last Tsar Nicholas “the Bloody” and a ballerina. Sections of the Russian church, led by Duma Deputy Natalia Polonskaya, have come out in vigorous opposition to the movie. Polonskaya, at just 24, became the State Prosecutor in Crimea and is renowned for her Russian-chauvinist persecution of opponents.

The religious right object to the film because they believe it sacraligious that anyone could suggest that the Tsar, who they consecrated as a saint last year, could be involved in an affair. A series of threats and car bombs outside cinemas were organized by an organization calling itself the “Christian state” (after Islamic state). Hundreds of anonymous bomb threats were made against universities, airports, stations, government buildings across Russia, causing major disruption. Polonskaya, a leading figurehead in the United Russia party, denies any involvement with these actions.

Unfortunately for the Kremlin, they have few social forces they can still rely on except for this reactionary, religious layer and, at the same time, they are terrifed that a “Russian Maidan” will develop. However, the Kremlin mischaracterizes what caused the Maidan protests in Kiev and the other so called “coloured revolutions”. It believes they were artificially induced by the liberal opposition, with the support of western governments. They can be prevented, the Kremlin hopes, by stepping up anti-western rhetoric and using more repressive measures. But the driving force behind each of the ‘colored revolutions’ was the huge discontent at poverty wages, economic crisis, corruption and the increasing use of authoritarian measures. Liberals and pro-western pro-capitalist forces were only able to take control of these movements because of the absence of left and trade union forces.

Given the continuing economic stagnation, increasingly clerical reaction in social life, corruption and the authoritarian response of the government, it is practically inevitable that, at some stage, there will be a social explosion of the type that led to the coloured revolutions. The question that faces the genuine internationalist left is whether it can succeed in building a force, and intervening in that process effectively, to offer a serious alternative to that put by the liberal and nationalist groups.

Presidential election and Navalnii

The next six months will be dominated by the presidential election. The election promises to be almost a non-event: the standard list of the same four candidates, with a few other token candidates for decoration, a decreased turnout, the “systemic” opposition parties losing more votes and leaving the main candidate with a victory allowing him to rule for another six years. By 2024, no-one under 30 will be able to remember life under any other president than Putin.

The Kremlin still has to decide whether it needs other “spoiler candidates”. Perhaps former liberal oppositionist, Kseniya Sobchak, will be chosen. She is close to the Putin family (her father was mayor of St Petersburg when Putin was climbing the ranks and befriending oligarchs in the city). Running Sobchak would be used to give the impression that women have a voice and to try to undermine the support for liberal candidates. It is possible that the Kremlin may even allow a safe “left” candidate, such as Levchenko, to run.

But the crucial issue around the election is the role that will be played by Navalnii. On the left, only the CWI predicted that Navalnii’s campaign could take off, as it has. Only we saw the anger building, particularly amongst youth, and understood that Navalnii’s turn, in a populist way, to left slogans would get an echo. Navalnii’s campaigning, although conducted in a top-down manner, with no attempt to build any democratic structures, offers an opportunity for left forces to intervene, if they work in a correct way. After the presidential election, there may be new protests against their undemocratic nature.

It is unlikely that Navalnii will be allowed to register as a candidate. Nevertheless many young people and a section of the working class regard Navalnii, at the moment, as the only realistic leader of the opposition. It is vital that the left energetically intervene amongst these supporters and in a constructive way show to those looking for a left alternative the fundamental differences with Navalnii, including on wage demands, trade union rights, on the rights of women and the LGBT community, and against authoritarianism. Socialists stress the need for self-organisation and democratic structures of protest movements, which will be of particular importance in any protests after the election.

Need for an energetic socialist intervention

As we move towards celebrating the immortal 1917 October socialist revolution – predictably largely ignored by the regime and media – and beyond, the CWI in Russia will instill urgency into our work. We will increase our publications and develop our website. We are committed to providing a principled socialist alternative as mass protests and class conflict develop in the coming period.

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