Eastern Europe: The Bitter Fruits of Capitalist Restoration – Russia

By Rob Jones, Editorial Board of Workers’ Democracy, CWI Affiliated Newspaper in Russia

Since the introduction of market reforms in the late 1980’s and the mass privatization program that in Russia has gone probably further than in any other country, production has dropped by 50 percent and investment by 65 percent.

The war in Chechnya has, at the very least, led to 30,000 dead. Russians are being shot every day as the Mafia activities, corruption and simple crime has spread beyond all imagination.

In this situation it is difficult to understand how Yeltsin, the President who caused all this, could win the election with 54 percent of the vote. Undoubtedly Yeltsin had a huge advantage in that he controls the state apparatus and, in reality, the whole of the mass media. Some regional governors promised to mobilize for Yeltsin a large proportion of the electorate in their regions. For the whole course of the election campaign, all the TV channels and probably, without exception, all the major newspapers pushed pro-Yeltsin propaganda at every possible moment. On election night on one of the main TV channels, the presenters were leading the applause every time a good vote for Yeltsin was announced.

But media coverage is only a secondary factor to explain why Yeltsin won the election. The main reason is to be found in the political and organizational bankruptcy of his main opponent – Zyuganov. Zyuganov started the election campaign as the candidate of the Communist Party and finished it as the candidate of the National Patriotic Block. The Russian Communist Party has no analogy in Western political parties or even in some of the reformed Communist Parties of Eastern Europe.

With the present economic position in which there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers not getting paid wages on time and with unemployment growing there should have been a huge potential for the Communist Party to mobilize the discontent. One opinion poll in the week before the election explained that only 20 percent of Russians approve of the fact that Russia has gone down the road of capitalism. 58 percent, including 30 percent of youth, disapprove. But the Communist Party has an economic program based on almost classic protectionism. They [were not only unable to] offer an alternative to Yeltsin’s economic program but many of their points had already been taken up by Yeltsin.

One of the main authors of the Communist Party program was a certain Glazev who is General Lebed’s main economic advisor. The Communist Party and Zyuganov were completely incapable of offering any alternative to the electorate. Massive rock concerts were organized for Yeltsin in Moscow about 2 or 3 weeks before the election. There were very few hard-core Yeltsin supporters at these concerts. The youth that were there at first said they were going to support Yeltsin but then said: “We don’t have any proper housing” and “I can only work as a porter”, “There’s no work for someone with my special training” and “We’re afraid of conscription because of the war in Chechnya”. Although they had no real confidence that Yeltsin could solve these problems or would do anything about them, Zyuganov made absolutely no attempt to say anything about these problems. Even worse, Zyuganov – whose supporters are largely older people – during the course of the campaign, even contrasted the responsibility and discipline of the older population to the irresponsibility of the youth, dividing the generations.

Nevertheless just over 40 percent of the electorate did vote for Zyuganov. That includes 51 percent of the Kemerovo Region which covers the huge Kuzbas mining area. Zyuganov also gained a majority in the whole “red belt” of cities and industrial regions across the south of Russia and Siberia. The main reason is that these cities have gained nothing from the reforms that have taken place in the last 5 years except devastating economic catastrophe. Many living in these areas have barely seen even some of the minimal democratic rights and freedoms that people in Moscow are now used to. The factory and regional chiefs who were in power before are still in power in many places. They just have different philosophies of life. And so, in many ways out of desperation, people in these areas voted for Zyuganov arguing: “Things cannot be any worse and maybe with Zyuganov it will allow a few things to change for the better”.

Another important factor is the war in Chechnya. 58 percent of the population says they are in favor of an immediate end to the war and many of them say “at any cost”. But Zyuganov refused to offer a solution. When he was interviewed on television he said that he would leave any decisions up to the military chiefs in Chechnya and that it should remain part of Russia. This gave Yeltsin the opportunity to cobble together a cease-fire, at least temporarily, and to form an alliance with Lebed (who has even spoken in support of the right of independence for Chechnya) in order to give the impression that he would be more likely to end the war than Zyuganov.

In the week before the election, in an event which must be unprecedented on a world scale – the widow of General Dudayev (the Chechen President killed in the war) and the leader of the Chechen military, Basayev, speaking on central Russian television saying they wanted a Yeltsin victory!

The Communist Party is obviously incompetent. But that is not the whole story. The Communist Party has a dual character. There is said to be a small section in the leadership of the Communist Party who are attempting to make it more like one of the reformed Communist Parties of Eastern Europe by rejecting some of its Stalinist past. The overwhelmingly dominant tendency in the Communist Party, however, is the former Stalinists who have retained all the worst reactionary aspects of Stalinism including Russian chauvinism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and patriotism. They have rejected anything linked with the idea of planning the economy and the right of workers to run their own lives.

As it became clear that Yeltsin was beginning to pull ahead in the election, Zyuganov and the leadership of the Communist Party moved further to the right. All that they were able to propose after the first round was that the Communist Party would form a coalition government if it won. In it they wanted to include pro-marketers like Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, Yavlinsky and one third of Yeltsin’s present government. They tried to attract General Lebed and a number of other reactionary activists. Not surprisingly nearly all of them said that they would refuse to serve in such a government. Their reactionary nationalism was then reinforced further by the comments of Zyuganov and one of his allies, Anpilov. Zyuganov said there was a “satanic plot” to build a fifth column to divide Russia up into little pieces. Anpilov, who is supposed to be a left or far left representative of one of the Communist Parties, said there were “too many Jews on television and too many (Western) soap operas”.

Such statements discouraged people who were going to vote CP because they wanted some economic improvement. They alienated a whole layer of people in the big cities. In the four biggest regions of Russia – that is Moscow, the Moscow Region, Leningrad and Ekaterinburg – Yeltsin won 75 percent of the vote. That is a higher level than those people who voted for the pro-market parties in December 1995. Undoubtedly, in these big cities there are people – a minority, but in some cases quite a big minority – who have benefited from the market reforms. But there also exist some of the biggest disparities of wealth. The difference between the richest and the poorest in Moscow is 50:1 compared to 14:1 for the rest of Russia. The paradox is that more people who voted for Yeltsin in these big cities were actually against what he stands for.

An opinion poll asking people who voted for Yeltsin their opinion on a number of things showed that between one third and a half disapproved of the ideas of democracy, capitalism, parliament and the markets. But, because Zyuganov had nothing to offer these people, they tended to vote for stability. “At least if Yeltsin stays in there won’t be big new upheavals” they thought: “Better to vote for the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” This was particularly true amongst the youth of the main cities. Only 8 percent of them voted for Zyuganov, many arguing: “Yes, things are bad, but you just cannot go back to the times of our grandparents and parents; you have to go forward somehow.”

Of course when, after the first round, Yeltsin sacked the hated General Grachev plus his own bodyguard and the head of the KGB, it helped to give an impression that a victory for Yeltsin would bring some changes for the better. There wasn’t time for people to realize that he sacked his corrupt Rasputin-like clique – the “Party of War” as it was known – only to replace them by an aspiring General Pinochet – Lebed.

There was a lot of discussion on how Russian socialists grouped around Workers’ Democracy would intervene and what position they would take in these elections. It very quickly became clear that the position of 1993 put forward by Workers’ Democracy of “Vote against all!” could not be repeated. This would have isolated Russian socialists from most people who felt this time they had to vote and they had to decide because they did not want to leave their fate in somebody else’s hands.

So the headlines in Workers’ Democracy in December said: “Vote against the Right!” But many workers asked who was “left.” Later, for the presidential campaign, Workers’ Democracy had a cartoon of a drunken Yeltsin and said: “Five more years, no way!” Many people naturally interpreted this as a call to vote for Zyuganov. Russian socialists grouped around Workers’ Democracy came under an immense amount of pressure to call for a vote for Zyuganov, particularly those who worked in factories.

While there are not very many politically active workers in Russia, a considerable number said that although Zyuganov would not improve their position, a victory for him would at least get rid of Yeltsin and allow new movements to emerge. It would also show workers that it was possible to defeat the open capitalists in Russia and maybe that would help to encourage them to take the very first steps in organizing.

Nevertheless Workers’ Democracy felt that it was very important to warn of the consequences of a Zyuganov victory and what it could mean for the working class and the unions.

Workers’ Democracy warned about the dangers of Zyuganov’s economic program, of the danger of increasing national conflicts and the danger of a backlash – a reaction against the Communist Party – particularly amongst the youth. Russian socialists did not call for a vote for the Communist Party in Workers’ Democracy. Instead the following position was put: “We understand why workers are preparing to vote for the Communist Party. We support their desire to kick Yeltsin out of power. But look at the Communist Party. Is it really capable of changing anything? Today the working class needs its own party, program, candidates. It needs international working class unity and not the Unity of Patriotic Forces. It needs the democratic planned economy and not a mixed economy under the control of the bosses. We need to start work on building such an alternative”.

In the move to the right of Zyuganov in the later stages of the campaign it became clearer and more understandable why it was correct to make those warnings rather than to succumb to the pressure. It is most likely that the CP, which is organizing a Conference of Patriotic Forces in August, will sink into this quagmire of patriotism and will disappear. It may even lose its independent structure as a Communist Party and merge into a Patriotic Party. Unfortunately although there could well be a split claiming to be ‘left’ from this organization it will be little more than a small Stalinist sect.

Yeltsin has won another four years (if he lives that long!) but he has created huge problems for himself. He has aligned himself with General Lebed who spent the first two weeks of his campaign demanding more and more power and authority for himself, making it quite clear that he considers himself the next president. As a result there have already been big clashes between Lebed and Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister, over who has what power. Supporters of sacked General Grachev and the other ‘Party of War’ members are not lying down to die but are attempting to provoke new struggles and new instability. It is quite possible that it is people like that who were behind the bomb attacks in Moscow. It is certainly true that it is people like that who have provoked the new fighting in Chechnya.

The economy, after several years of promises of growth, is still declining – although slowly as compared to the past. The idea that there is going to be any real foreign investment or growth or development does not have support even among the most ardent of capitalists. The Russian economy is going to be stagnant and incapable of developing in any real way to solve the problems of the workers. In answer to the question “Are they (the former Stalinist bloc economies) going to leap forward like tigers?” In Russia’s case it is going to be more like a dead bear!