Four years of Putin
By Boris Kagarlitsky
From the point of view of public opinion, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a strange phenomenon. Most people in Russia hate his economic policies, they are deeply suspicious of the way he handles international affairs, and they dislike the way he deals with administrative issues. All his ministers are simply hated. But when asked what they think of Putin as President of the Russian Federation, the same people in the same opinion polls say their view of him is positive.
The policies of the Russian president, or even his name, are not that important. The really important thing is that he is simply there. There is someone in power in the Kremlin, and he has to stay there, whether we like it or not. It is like the climate, or the landscape around us. It is an objective fact: take it or leave it.
That is what is called "patriotism". And really, it makes us feel safe. When democracy isn't possible, it's safer to like your rulers.
The first three years of Putin's rule were not particularly eventful. The second Chechen war continued, and turned gradually into a routine, senseless, but essentially normal slaughter. Every so often, terrorist acts took place; no-one claimed responsibility for them, but strangely enough, they invariably helped strengthen the authority of the regime and the ratings of the president, who once again promised to defend citizens and guarantee their security. Terrorism was the justification for continuing the war, and the war guaranteed that the terrorism would continue.
The official results of the presidential election of March 24, 2000, were no surprise. The victor in the first round was Vladimir Putin, who had been proposed to the people by the outgoing president, Boris Yeltsin, as his successor. Everything went ahead as scripted by the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the elections were accompanied by a serious scandal, which could not be hushed up despite all the leadership's efforts. The main sensation was not the outcome of the election, but the discussion that followed. The election of 2000 was no dirtier than the constitutional referendum of 1993 or Yeltsin's second election win in 1996. On those occasions, however, none of the opposition politicians had the resolve to declare openly that the results had been rigged. This time, the polling figures announced by the Central Electoral Commission were so dubious that to avoid talk of fraud was impossible. People started talking openly of this on the very night of the election count.
If we are to believe the official figures, Putin, who had promised to wage war on "Chechen bandits" and "Islamic terrorism", received especially strong support in the Muslim autonomous regions, including Chechnya itself. Some eighty per cent of the population of Chechnya was supposed to have taken part in the voting, even though official figures indicated that more than a third of the residents of the republic had fled from its territory. Someone observed slyly that the Chechen fighters must have come down from the mountains, gone to the polling stations and, after voting for Putin, resumed fighting against him.
According to the electoral commission, around twenty-four million electors had cast their votes in the last hour of polling, even though the polling stations were physically incapable of accommodating so many people. The Communist Party, which had tens of thousands of scrutineers, announced that Putin had indeed come out on top, receiving forty-five per cent of the votes. This, however, had not been enough to secure victory in the first round, and the Kremlin officials were simply unable to permit a second round of voting. And so, they proclaimed the victory of the "candidate beloved of the entire people", without waiting for the people to give him their support.
Putin was essential to the elites if they were to overcome the political crisis from which Russia had failed to emerge throughout almost the whole duration of Yeltsin's rule. In the period when the new clans that had arisen on the basis of the old bureaucracy were dividing up state property, continuous crisis was unavoidable, and in its way advantageous; in the general disorder, putting through one's deals was simpler. By the end of the 1990s, however, powerful oligarchic groups had appeared in Russia, seizing control of the country's natural resources and emerging onto the world market. The winners needed order, and guarantees that their property would be inviolable.
The chaotic ultra-liberalism of the early 1990s was doomed to be replaced by national conservatism. The lexicon of the nationalist opposition now suited the Kremlin perfectly. The remodeling of the political space began in 1999, when the Yedinstvo ("Unity") party was set up, uniting large numbers of state officials. After Putin's victory, Yedinstvo merged with the Otechestvo ("Fatherland") party, which represented another section of the bureaucracy, located mainly in the provinces. There were no ideological differences between these groups; the only question at issue was whose acolytes would hold the key posts in the leadership.
After the "party of power" had been consolidated under the name United Russia, it was time to take on the opposition. Parties that criticised the government in the Duma had never been a serious problem for the Kremlin. The opposition in Russia was totally corrupt; the taking of bribes by deputies and whole fractions in return for voting in the "right" fashion had ceased long ago to be a secret, and the sale of positions in the party electoral lists had become the main method of financing election campaigns. The view in the Kremlin, however, was that this form of control was too costly. Hence, the Communist Party began to be persecuted. United Russia took control of all the Duma committees, promising the president that with the help of the ever obedient Central Electoral Commission, it would deliver an overwhelming majority of votes in the 2003 elections; in this way, the passage of laws through the parliament would be accelerated and made cheaper.
As a former member of the state security apparatus who did not belong to any of the competing clans, Putin organised everything. The weaker his own political base, the better. The less prominent he was as an individual, and the less experienced he was in state matters, the easier it was for the Kremlin administration to work with him, and the easier for the numerous propaganda specialists, who could mould the image of the nation's leader as they wished.
The purpose of the propaganda campaign was not to explain to the people who Putin really was, but to conceal this, creating an image that not only differed from reality, but which in many ways was its direct opposite. Putin was depicted as a "strong leader" and a "resolute politician", whereas in fact he had been a middle-ranking bureaucrat, forever carrying out the orders of others, devoid of his own will or strategic initiative. If Putin had possessed his own will and his own political ambitions, he would never have become president. Yeltsin never tolerated politicians around him who had presidential ambitions. He had an unerring animal instinct in these matters. In 1999 he simply assigned the job of president to Putin, in the way people entrust a task to a subordinate.
Putin's weakness as a politician was concealed with arguments about his strength, his lack of self-confidence with talk of his firmness, and his fear of the future with shows of courage before the television cameras. In Russia, where television is the main instrument of political and social control over society, to have this kind of virtual president seems quite natural. Whoever rules the airwaves rules in politics as well. Democratic procedures merely provide an appearance of legality for a power at whose base are endless varieties of manipulation, beginning with the falsification of opinion survey results and ending with the rigging of elections. At the very beginning of Putin's rule, however, two symbolic events took place. The first was the sinking of the submarine Kursk, which provided a sharp contrast with the declarations about the rebirth of the armed forces. Then came the fire in the Ostankino television tower. Virtual reality had collided with the prose of daily life, and cracks were beginning to appear.
No-one would call the Russian state weak. In the number of its bureaucrats, in the endless ramifications of its police and paramilitary structures, and in their readiness to resort to force, present-day"democratic" Russia not only concedes nothing to the ussr, but has long since surpassed it. These structures, however, are relatively inefficient, and their corruption is appalling. All this flows naturally from the social and economic system which we created during the "great capitalist reforms". In the course of ten years, Russia was transformed from a superpower, with a vast if inefficient industrial economy, into a "raw materials appendage" of the West. The clans that seized control of the country need stability, but after depriving two-thirds of the population of property and of guaranteed social welfare, they cannot put any particular trust in democracy. Open dictatorship does not serve their purposes either; they have to present a "civilised face" to the West. Meanwhile, the contending clans need certain guarantees with respect to one another. The most suitable compromise is "controlled democracy". The state respects freedom of the press, but the opposition press encounters problems on the one hand with the tax authorities, and on the other with the health inspectors. The government does not interfere with the activity of political parties, but registering new organisations is made exceedingly difficult. Elections are completely free, but the results are corrected. There is a parliament, but it has no power.
The trouble is that the authoritarian tendencies within the Russian state machine are gradually increasing. The unending war in Chechnya and the "struggle against international terrorism" provide the setting for this. The war, begun in 1999 as part of Putin's election campaign, has turned into a chronic disease of Russian society that seems impossible to cure. From the past, Russians have inherited not just an army, but also a powerful propaganda system that has grown even stronger as the old Soviet brainwashing methods have been combined with modern us advertising techniques. The privatisation of the mass media has not made them free, so much as subjected them to the control of a handful of oligarchs, most of whom have close links to the Kremlin. Putin has become the propaganda symbol of the bureaucracy, the emblem for supporters of the police state.
The search by the oligarchic elites for stability has stirred a new wave of internecine struggles within the regime. When they replaced Yeltsin with Putin, the Kremlin team thought they were exchanging an old and increasingly enfeebled autocrat for an energetic young leader. At the same time, they wanted this leader to be devoid of initiative in everything that affected their interests. Unfortunately, there is no way that the same person can be expected to display completely opposite qualities. The Russian elites received a president who is not only too weak to accept responsibility for his own actions, but who is also dependent on the influence exerted on him by the members of his entourage. Following a brief pause in 2001 and 2002, the struggle within the elites over power and property flared up again with new force. Russians had the sense that whoever controlled Putin controlled the country.
Though without ties to any of the oligarchic or bureaucratic clans, Putin did not become a neutral figure either. He began to establish his own clan. A native of St Petersburg, he summoned former coworkers in the secret police and the city administration to the capital. Before long the members of the "Peter group" were waging a furious battle against the old clans, not only for power but also for property. The Kremlin set about imposing order within the elite, which by the end of Yeltsin's term had split into warring factions. The "crisis of the elites" had been one of the main problems of Russian capitalism during the Yeltsin epoch. The oligarchs, who by the late 1990s had turned completely savage as a result of being allowed to operate unchecked and with impunity, suddenly found that they themselves had become the main obstacle to the development of the bourgeois order in Russia. A consolidation of the ruling class was thus objectively indispensable if the system were to be strengthened. The Putin team set about achieving this through the crude methods of official coercion, which they understood perfectly as veterans of the provincial KGB.
The "old" oligarchs began to feel what it was like to be turned from predators into prey. The first victims were Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, who had earlier thought of themselves as king-makers. Of these, it was the media magnate Gusinsky who was devoured first. In 1999 he had been incautious enough to support the Otechestvo party instead of Yedinstvo, and although these parties had long since merged, his sins were not forgiven. Finding a case in which he had violated the terms of the privatisation process was not difficult. The Russian business empires had been founded through plunder, so assembling the material for a dozen criminal cases was a simple matter of pointing out the object of the hunt to the prosecutor's office. Gusinsky fled the country. His property was confiscated and divided up among the victors. The juiciest morsel was the television company NTV; this went to the corporation Gazprom, in which, after a purge of the executive suites, the "Peter group" had begun to play a prominent role.
Gusinsky had been involved in an unsuitable business. Instead of oil and gas, he had dealt in words. It is possible to introduce a police state without infringing on the interests of oil corporations, but it is more difficult to impose television censorship without violating the interests of a giant media holding company. One has to interfere in an established system, in the relations between professionals and their bosses. Moreover, state censorship undermines the system of private censorship which the owners of the television studios and heads of programs introduced long ago to their broadcasts. A delicate system of tacit political coordination is destroyed. In place of a television industry which permits criticism of the authorities in small matters, but which propagandises the same values as the country's ruling groups, you have dull propaganda. The offended journalists, meanwhile, become hostile to the people in power.
After the fall of Gusinsky, another well-known oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, also fled Russia. The de facto owner of the television channel ort, organiser of the Yedinstvo party, and one of the Kremlin's "grey cardinals", Berezovsky had played a considerable role in bringing Putin to power. In the manner of a Shakespearean tragedy, this was why he was doomed. His property was not confiscated, but he was forced to sell large parts of his shareholdings. The buyer was Roman Abramovich, once Berezovsky's junior partner, who had managed to prove his loyalty to the Kremlin team. The Kremlin, meanwhile, made no move to stop Abramovich when he decided to make himself governor of Chukotka. This sparsely populated territory in the far north now idolises its ruler, who transferred the registration of his companies there and pays taxes to himself. Chukotka, it seems, is the only Russian province where corporate taxes are paid in full.
The fall of the "first wave" of oligarchs worked to the benefit of the "second wave", the most important of whom was Mikhail Khodorkovsky. His company YuKOS grew stronger, began actively financing political parties from the Communists to the Union of Right-Wing Forces, and began spreading its influence, earlier limited to oil, to other areas of the economy. The "Peter group" managed to take control only of Gazprom, and that only in part, since the state has a share in the company. Elsewhere, their successes were insignificant. It is not surprising that Khodorkovsky's growing business attracted the Peter group's attention.
Three years into Putin's rule, conditions were relatively prosperous thanks to high prices for oil. The Russian economy had finished up basically de-industrialised and de-modernised, and the country's development had come to depend totally on exports of raw materials to western Europe. So long as energy prices were high, a stream of oil dollars flowed into the country, feeding the rise in gross national product. Even four successful years, however, had not brought Russia anywhere near solving its strategic problems. The gap between rich and poor had not diminished. A highly educated nation was tied to a primitive, semi-colonial economy. The degradation of the knowledge-intensive sectors of production was continuing. The efficiency of the large corporations that formed the basis of the oligarchic economy remained grotesquely low. In a country where the main source of profits is the extraction of raw materials, distinguishing efficient from inefficient management is practically impossible. The only important things are the quantities produced and world prices. So long as sales prices are high and extraction is going ahead, even the worst managers will do business successfully. If prices fall, no management genius can prevent things turning bad. The viability of the remaining sectors is directly proportional to the amount of funds flowing from the energy economy.
High oil prices have allowed the Russian rulers to rest on their laurels. The elites still survive on the basis of productive potential that was created in the Soviet Union. Russia's equipment and infrastructure, of all types, are wearing out at a catastrophic rate. The machinery that remains is being exploited in ruthless fashion. The state is acutely short of funds, and private business finds it more advantageous to invest abroad, where profit rates and managerial competence are greater. This trend can be observed even in the oil sector; throughout the entire period since the collapse of the ussr, not a single geological expedition has been mounted to search for new deposits.
The oligarchs have lived at the expense of the Soviet reserves, and the bureaucracy has lived at the expense of the oligarchs. Bribes are more important than taxes, and direct understandings are more significant than laws. For business, however, this state of affairs has become less and less attractive. During the years of economic upturn, the largest oligarchic formations accumulated substantial financial reserves. By mid-2002, a clear trend was apparent: the largest Russian firms had begun turning themselves into transnationals. First, they began buying up shares of former partners in "socialist productive cooperation" on the territory of the former ussr and Eastern bloc. Russian corporations appeared in Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine, and then in Poland, Slovakia and Serbia. Before long, the expansion of the Russian oligarchs had reached western Europe, starting with oil refining in Norway, and ending with the purchase by Roman Abramovich of the English football team Chelsea.
At the same time, Russian corporations had begun actively seeking Western capital. The prominent companies Lukoil, Sibneft, Norilsk Nickel and Gazprom followed this course. As a strategy of development, this had little bearing on the task, dwelt on at such length by Putin's associates, of restoring the country's economic might. Nevertheless, it required that business display a certain "openness", conducting its relations with the state more or less in accordance with Western norms. Companies could pay their taxes to the government, and then legally export capital.
At the heart of the issue was the customary bureaucratic rent on which, during the Yeltsin period, the very existence of the state apparatus had depended. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and YuKOS had not only become too influential in political terms, but had also acted as pioneers of the "cleaning up" of business. Moreover, they were doing this not in collusion with the authorities, within the framework of some common agreement on new rules of the game, but on their own initiative, throwing down a challenge both to the bureaucracy and to their business colleagues. These actions aroused fury in government circles, and YuKOS became the target of arrests and prosecutions. Khodorkovsky took retaliatory measures, from alliances with other oligarchs to financing the opposition press. As a result, the "era of stabilisation" proclaimed by Putin turned into an epoch of inter-clan struggles.
Newspapers close to YuKOS began frightening their readers with warnings of a return to totalitarianism, explaining that the main guarantee of political freedom was the inviolability of Khodorkovsky's property. This had no relation to the truth. To paraphrase the words of the well-known commentator Akram Murtazaev, while the oligarchs were thieving, the state had kept watch. A law-governed state cannot guarantee the inviolability of stolen property, and democracy presupposes the right of the people, by a majority vote, to review the outcomes of privatisation. In post-Soviet Russia, capitalism and authoritarianism were thus indissolubly connected. In such circumstances, unfortunately, the defence of the institution of private property may be combined with the total vulnerability of individual property-owners in relation to the authorities.
The demand raised by the oligarchs is that the outcomes of privatisation be irreversible. Here the Putin team, however paradoxically, is in complete solidarity with the bankers and oil barons. The police state is needed to guard the power of the property-owners. The more dubious the rights to the property, the more repressive the state needs to be. The police defend business in general, not any particular entrepreneur, who can always be sacrificed. Meanwhile, the defenders—the bureaucracy and security services—legally demand their share, and justly punish anyone who refuses to pay.
In preparing for a new round of reforms, the authorities were forced to wage war on two fronts. On the one hand, they dealt blows to undisciplined oligarchs of the "first draft" who were unwilling to abide by the rules of law-abiding capitalism. On the other hand, they attacked the Communist opposition, which might be tempted to exploit the growing dissatisfaction. In the Duma, the leaders of the Communist Party and the heads of YuKOS in their turn began to collaborate. With Communist support, Khodorkovsky planned to carry out a political reform that would have limited the power of the president and, in the process, placed him under threat. It is understandable that as a result, the administration could not wait until the beginning of a new presidential term. Even before the parliamentary elections, Khodorkovsky was jailed, while on December 7, 2003, the Communist Party was routed, losing its influence in the Duma.
Since the president had made a point of stressing that he stood "above parties", a new political organisation, United Russia, was chosen as the weapon for the struggle against the Communists. At first glance, this might have seemed like another hurriedly assembled "party of power", like "Russia's Choice" in 1993 or "Our Home is Russia" in 1995. Almost under duress, the Duma fractions of Yedinstvo, Otechestvo and Regions of Russia were merged into the new formation. After the elections, the remaining "centrist" deputies who remained outside the various fractions were also joined up. But this time, despite the haste shown by the Kremlin's political fixers, the structure has proven relatively effective. The unification of all the groups in one party has objectively reflected a new phase in the life of the regime, a phase in which the various groups of the bureaucracy and business are consolidating themselves around the president.
On the surface, the United Russia election campaign was a curious affair. A whole host of historical personalities—right wing and left wing, revolutionaries and conservatives, liberals and statists, nationalists and Westernisers—were enlisted to promote the party. Images of tsarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov were interspersed with portraits of Stalin. The whole eclectic mix was crowned with a quote from President Putin.
United Russia maintained that all Russian rulers, past and present, were good by definition. Dissidents were also good, but only if they paved the way for the new rulers. The ideologies and policies of the rulers were unimportant. Russians were required to love their rulers and their heroes—perhaps even their criminals—simply because they were Russian.
Whether ridiculous or merely postmodern, strangely enough this propaganda worked. The political aesthetics employed by United Russia were not conjured out of thin air. The pompous celebration of Moscow's 850th anniversary in 1997 marked the first step along the road. It was then that Russia's history was for the first time presented to an astonished public as a seamless and conflict-free series of leadership changes. It was not, however, officials of the mayor's office who played the key role in devising this new ideology, but theoreticians from the opposition newspaper Zavtra and the Communist Party leaders imbued with their ideas. It was they who proclaimed the "red-white union". Communist Party of the Russian Federation leader Gennady Zyuganov in his numerous books argued that to be a real Communist, one had to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, love monarchy, and derive inspiration from the works of Michael Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. Orthodox fundamentalists who lobbied for the canonisation of Tsar Nicholas II were supposed to unite with the political descendants of the red commissars who had executed the tsar and his family. Differences were to be brushed aside in the name of "statehood". The main thing was to have a strong state—irrespective of its political complexion or the interests it represented. The state had to be strong and to instil fear in people. The homespun postmodernism of the "red-white union" therefore does not lack a unifying idea. Both reds and whites used authoritarian methods of rule, and ultimately formed a bureaucracy that became their mainstay. Those aspects of the Soviet past that it shared with tsarism are played up, while all the rest are discarded. The end result is Soviet traditions, stripped of communist ideals, the slogans of class struggle and the democratic principles of the early years of the revolution. Such an ideology is inevitably conservative, antidemocratic and anticommunist. United Russia emerged as a party of former Soviet bureaucrats turned ardent supporters of capitalism, and was therefore the complete embodiment of the "red-white union".
The reformers of the early 1990s all came from families of the old Soviet elite. While destroying all that had been created in the previous decades, they remained proud of their forebears who had executed tsarist generals or taken part in the Stalinist repressions. There is no contradiction in this.
Although it was the opposition that formulated the principles of the "red-white union", those principles in fact suit the opposition poorly. On the other hand, they are ideal for the "party of power". The red-white ideology only worked really for a brief period in the early 1990s, when the opposition was conservative and those in power looked radical. Now that a new order has emerged, the authorities are interested in stability, and are happy to borrow the formulas, ideas and images that the opposition has so kindly prepared for them. The current crop of bureaucrats are lucky to have the opposition's assistance, as they are incapable of generating ideas of their own.
United Russia's victory in the Duma elections was logical and deserved, just as the Communist opposition earned its crushing defeat. The Communists prepared the ground for the new party of power to triumph. They sweated over the creation of a new "national" ideology which would reconcile Russians with capitalism, as well as with corruption, police arbitrariness, the oppression of national minorities and other homegrown traditions. The authorities make no secret of the fact that they regard elections as tools for punishing the opposition. Any and all means will be used, including the falsification of results. Meanwhile, the Communist Party meekly awaits its fate. The loyal opposition of the 1990s did everything it could to make the Kremlin happy, but what the new ruling elite really needed was not just opposition parties that did not seek to win power, but also a consolidating ideology for a society deeply divided between rich and poor, winners and losers, capital cities and depressed provincial backwaters. For ten years, the Kremlin theorists were unable to develop such an ideology. Now that the job has been done, the Communist Party is doomed to depart the stage.
The parliamentary elections of December 2003 were a triumph for United Russia. Unlike the earlier variants of the "party of power", United Russia not only managed easily to win a majority of seats, but also complete control of the Duma apparatus. The party now had a constitutional majority, enough to enact any law, including laws to prolong the presidential term or to repeal the prohibition on a president being elected to office more than twice.
Putin's political victory has opened the way to changes in the rules governing the economy. The Yeltsin system, under which rules were decided by the largest property owners in line with their own interests, and were just as arbitrarily changed when the relationship of forces in the leader's entourage altered, has been replaced by the classical capitalist practice. The rules have become the same for everyone.
In essence, the Putin team has realised the ideal of the bourgeois state; business entrepreneurs do not meddle directly in the affairs of the government, leaving this to state officials and professional politicians. Nevertheless, the government takes pains to provide favourable conditions for business, guaranteeing that however the owners might change, the principles of private entrepreneurship and the free market remain secure. The business journal Vedomosti stated with enthusiasm about the forthcoming implementation of the "Putin program":
Its essence is well known. The state should not so much intervene in the economy, as formulate clear and sensible rules for private business, and monitor their operation. The key thing is raising the attractiveness of the Russian economy to investors, and securing the growth of private capital investment in sectors that are chosen by the market itself. To this end, reforms are planned in the areas of administration, pensions and communal services, as well as a thorough restructuring of natural monopolies, in order to encourage the appearance of elements of competition in this sector of the economy.1
Translated from the language of liberal experts to that of human beings, this means that everything in Russia that has not been appropriated during the past decade needs to be privatised, divided up, and subjected to the logic of profit-making. From the point of view of the newspaper, the fact that the implementing of these measures would "circumvent democratic procedures" is "of secondary importance".
In full agreement with the canons of liberal theory, the state has taken on the role of a "night watch". True, this guardian is malicious, authoritarian and vindictive, but under Russian conditions he could not be otherwise. Individuals must be sacrificed in order to strengthen the power of the corporations. The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, after a certain amount of grumbling, has given its support to the president. The reason is not fear of repression, but a clear understanding of where its interests lie. Foreign capital has also responded calmly. The government has stressed that this capital is outside the sphere of conflict; whatever the fate of Russian businesspeople, foreign investments are considered sacred and inviolable. Not surprisingly, this has had the effect of dramatically strengthening the positions of foreigners in the domestic market. One example has been the disgraced (but still prominent) YuKOS, which has appointed foreign managers to its leading positions; they have proven far easier for the Kremlin to deal with than Russian nationals. The lesson has been learned; every corporation has sought to find a foreign companion. In exchange for giving up a share of property and control, the Russian firm has received a guarantee of inviolability.
During the Yeltsin years, the oligarchs looked on Russia as their private hunting estate, and sought in every way possible to deny entry to stronger foreign predators. They energetically plundered the country and exported capital, but did this as independently as they could. This was an important difference between Russia and the neighbouring countries—for example, Kazakhstan, where a national bourgeoisie did not come into being, but where the bureaucracy directly served foreign investors. The Russian oligarchs, by contrast, jealously defended the banking sector from any foreign presence, and kept watch to see that Western companies did not gain control of deposits of oil, diamonds or metal ores.
By the first years of the new century, the situation had changed. As a result of economic growth, local business felt more confident and hence was now ready to enter partnerships with transnational capital, without fearing that it would be totally swallowed or excluded. Meanwhile, Western investors and speculators were ready to exploit the possibilities that had opened up in Russia, and which were especially valuable in a context of depression in Europe, uncertainty in the economy of the us, and a general downturn in the capitalist world system.
It is thus understandable why foreign investment in Russia, despite the protests by disgraced oligarchs and complaints by the intelligentsia, did not diminish at all, and why state figures in the West refrained from seriously criticising Putin. Russia's investment rating remained high and stable, the demand for Russian bonds grew, and foreign speculators eagerly bought up the securities even of disgraced companies, knowing perfectly well that there was no danger of nationalisation.
The arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October 2003 caused a short-lived fall on the stock exchange. Soon afterward, stock-market speculators greeted the success of United Russia with a wild rise in prices. The stronger Putin's position became, the stronger the confidence which Western finance capital felt in Russia. Literally everything rose in price, including shares in the disgraced YuKOS During the first five weeks of 2004, foreign investors poured $440 million into Russian securities (the influx of money during the whole of the preceding year had amounted to $728 million). Surveys of the international business community "put Russia among the most attractive countries for foreign direct investment". Financial consultants explained to their clients that in Russia, ideal conditions had come about for "building factories and taking over companies to tap a cheap, educated labour pool".2 Still greater enthusiasm was to be found on the pages of the Washington Post. Referring to us business people in Moscow, the newspaper observed that no-one had such a rapturous view of the Russian president as the "small but influential class of Western investors, investment analysts and stockbrokers based in Moscow". To them, Putin was "a true reformer, `the one ally' of Western capitalists who have come to Russia to create a new market economy but have found themselves adrift `in a sea of corrupt bullies'".3
Just as optimistic were the characterisations by representatives of German capital. "Russia has seen the appearance of a so-called `controlled democracy', which some critically minded observers regard with extreme caution", noted Andrea von Knoop, the Moscow representative of the Union of the German Economy, "but in the area of economic collaboration the changes of the past few years have essentially all been positive. One may not believe in a bright future for Russia, but under Putin foreigners have gained permission to acquire land, while the income tax and profits tax have been reduced."4
Needless to say, the economic growth that has evoked the optimism of foreign investors rests on an extremely fragile basis, since Russia's economy depends as before on the export of raw materials, while the internal market, despite all the growth, remains alarmingly narrow. It is true, however, that the Putin regime has been seen by foreign investors as a guarantee against political risk. Human rights violations, the war in Chechnya, and terrorist acts have clearly not entered into such calculations, since they have had no impact on the profits of Western companies.
Despite its patriotic rhetoric, the Putin administration has presented a whole series of valuable gifts to the us administration. Russian military bases in Vietnam and Cuba have been closed, with the latter move seeming like a direct invitation to the us to invade the island. With Moscow's agreement, us military bases have been established in central Asia. The Republican administration of George W. Bush is viewed in the Kremlin as an ideal partner, unlike the Democrats with their tedious importunings about human rights. Putin's tough declarations concerning the us invasion of Iraq brought an outburst of nostalgic joy to the patriotic community; for several minutes, in fact, it seemed as if Russia was opposing the us. Strangely, however, the angry speeches resounding in Moscow made no impact whatever on Washington, and were not even reflected in US-Russian relations. The members of the Bush administration understood not only how weak Putin's Russia really was, but also how dependent it was. The source of the problems was quite justifiably seen in France and Germany, which were trying to present their own ambitious project as an alternative to us hegemony. What might have seemed at first glance a struggle between Russia and the us was in fact a struggle over Russia, waged between the us and its western European rivals. For precisely this reason Washington, which reacted with extreme irritation to the position taken by Paris, displayed only condescension with regard to Moscow.
In the struggle for influence on official Russia, the conservative leadership of the us has had one very serious advantage over the liberal Europeans. us public opinion has showed far less interest in the subtleties of its country's foreign policy than is the case in western Europe. Support for dictators abroad has never become an internal political issue in the us, so long as it does not lead to the death of us citizens. In European countries, by contrast, governments have been forced by the "post-imperial syndrome" to recognise that public opinion is conscious of the human rights position in friendly states. The greater the problems with human rights in Russia, the more freedom of speech is restricted and the cruder the rigging of elections, the more the Putin administration has created difficulties for itself in Europe, and finished up hostage to Washington.
Putin has proclaimed a new "national idea"—competitiveness. Patriotism has finally been placed at the service of capitalism. This totally bourgeois view of life contrasts with the orgiastic embezzlement of the naive Yeltsin epoch, which perceived capitalism exclusively as a consumer society. The people who make up the "Putin draft" have been denied the earlier scope; pragmatic through and through, they are thus completely anonymous. The triumph of greyness and pettiness that is evident at all levels of the Russian state and business is also clear proof that the country's elite has finally learned the rules of bourgeois behaviour.
Taking the place of the oligarchs has been the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, collaborating closely with Western capital. This collaboration, moreover, has become much more fundamental and long term, just as Russian capitalism has also become more mature.
The crushing of the oligarchs does not in any way signify a rejection of oligarchic structures in the economy. Structural reforms have had no place whatever in the plans of the changing elite. The oligarchs were persecuted as individuals—and the more prominent the individual, the worse for him or her. The corporations kept their positions, while becoming anonymous. The bureaucracy imposed its conditions on the entrepreneurial class. Its success, however, was guaranteed from the very beginning by the fact that one section of the elite could not get by without the other. Without state coercion and control, the entire social system of the new Russia was at risk of collapse. The "normalisation" of Russia capitalism naturally demanded the creation of a more ordered, but at the same time more authoritarian state. On the one hand, a re-division of property was occurring; from the oligarchs of the "first wave", who had put together their empires under the protection of Yeltsin and his "family", companies were being transferred to new owners from the entourage of the new president. But on the other hand, and much more importantly, the Putin administration, when it undermined the positions of the "old" oligarchs, was beginning to impose new rules of conduct that were advantageous for business as a whole and for the transnational corporations in particular.
The problem for the oligarchs lay in the fact that they were not really bourgeois. They had merely learned to make money by ransacking the Soviet inheritance. Now, along with achieving economic growth and political stabilisation, it was necessary to begin instilling capitalist relations into the depths of Russian life, refashioning the whole system of management, labour relations and social behaviour in line with bourgeois principles. Entrepreneurs were given firmly to understand that the time for direct interference in politics had ended. The oligarchs who had tried to control the Kremlin directly had been driven from the country or arrested. Colourful and extravagant bosses had been replaced by anonymous corporate structures, intertwined in the us manner with the state bureaucracy.
The people who understood the new rules were able to take advantage of the new opportunities created by the government's economic policy. During Putin's first term, a new labour code had been adopted that reduced the rights of trade unions to a minimum, and in effect banned strikes. Legislation on the exploitation of forests had been drawn up that evoked horror in environmentalists and delight in corporate executives. By Putin's second term, a whole packet of new measures had been prepared, measures which entrepreneurs supported enthusiastically. It had been decided to make the labour code even tougher. New water resources legislation had been prepared that foresaw the privatisation of reservoirs. Over the protests of experts, the liberal thinkers did not exclude from the draft even the privatisation of "shipping installations, including hydro-technical structures supporting the pressure of artificial lakes where the head of water amounts to 20 metres".5
Among the other ideas proposed by the experts of the Putin team as an economic program for the new term, one should note a return to the financing of the budget deficit by private banks. After the default of 1998, this practice had been ended by the Primakov government. Meanwhile, it was thought imperative to reduce the tax paid by employers; the losses to the budget would be made up by increasing the income tax paid by workers (there was no question of a return to progressive taxation, so the rich could sleep easy). Draft reforms were prepared for education and health that would open these areas definitively to market relations. Especially ruthless measures were planned for the field of medicine; the talk turned to abolishing the entire system of free children's polyclinics, gynaecological consultations and so forth. Communal services reform, which had been postponed for a time, returned to the agenda. Also set down for this period was Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation. In short, the economic program for Putin's second term matched the ideals of neo-liberalism.
This shift was perfectly natural. Once the bulk of industry had been privatised, the only remaining possibility for the expansion of capital was through opening up for market exploitation those aspects of social life that had so far been protected from it. There is no country in the world where this policy has been met with enthusiasm by the population, and precisely for this reason, the state became increasingly harsh and authoritarian. Meanwhile, responsibility for the unpopular measures would be placed on the government, while the "leader of the whole people", standing as if above the fray, would ensure the system's stability.
The trouble was that the government was not ready to carry out the role assigned to it. Without waiting for the presidential election, set for March 14, 2004, Putin on February 24 sacked his prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov. The removal of Kasyanov had been expected virtually from the moment he had been appointed to head the government in January 2000. He had been described as a "technical premier", likely to serve only two or three months in the job. Commentators were convinced that, since he had not been a member of the new president's team, he could not last for long. In the event, Kasyanov lasted for almost the whole of Putin's first term. His departure came at the moment when it had been least expected, since under the constitution the government would in any case have had to resign after the elections. The president's official explanation was confused and unconvincing. Putin stated that, in appointing a new prime minister before the elections, he was trying to give a signal to society and to show what the course of the authorities would be after March 14. Russian citizens were simply baffled by their leader's actions, especially since the process of re-organising the government would require several months. The president's signal, however, was not addressed to the country's population, but to business circles and Western investors. These were the people who needed to be convinced that neither the conflict with the oligarchs nor the crushing of the opposition would alter the liberal economic course but, on the contrary, would strengthen it. How persuasive the arguments of the authorities were would determine whether the business community supported the results of the election. Under these conditions, the president could not in fact postpone the re-organisation of his cabinet until spring.
Kasyanov's government had been criticised for passivity and inactivity, for seeking to rest on its laurels, for relying on the high prices for oil and for reaping the fruits of Primakov's eight months as prime minister. On the threshold of his second presidential term, Putin let it be understood that passivity would no longer be tolerated, and that a time of dynamic action was beginning. Nevertheless, it was precisely Kasyanov's passivity, sluggishness and reluctance to take decisions that made him perhaps the most successful prime minister of post-Soviet Russia. The rebukes were in essence deserved, since he had not taken advantage of the favourable conjuncture between 2000 and 2002 to make structural changes and solve long-term problems. The point, however, is that in Russia "structural reforms" are not understood as measures aimed at broadening the internal market, supporting industry, raising living standards, renewing the collapsing infrastructure or restoring investment in education and science. When the Russian elite talks of structural reforms, it means lowering taxes on property-owners., privatising and dismembering the remains of the public sector, doing away with free medical care and evicting from their apartments people who cannot pay "commercial" prices for communal services. In short, the elite has in view another package of neo-liberal reforms similar to those implemented by Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais in the early 1990s. The population looks on these plans with unconcealed horror, knowing from its own experience that nothing good can come from such experiments.
Kasyanov instinctively realised this. He was not an ideological opponent of neo-liberalism. He was simply a cautious man, disinclined to adventures, who operated according to the principle of letting sleeping dogs lie. Why take risks if everything was going satisfactorily? In this respect, the prime minister was like the great majority of his compatriots, who had been tormented by the shocks of the 1990s, when the words "reform" and "misery" had become synonyms. Within the government, a continuous struggle was played out between the pragmatists and the latest "team of reformers", now headed by the Leningrad natives German Gref (minister for economic development) and Aleksey Kudrin (minister of finance). The ambitious "Gref plan", triumphantly proclaimed in the early days of Putin's rule, was buried by the government. Nor did Kasyanov react to Putin's appeals for decisive measures to double the gross national product. He was not inspired by the idea of presidential adviser Andrei Illarionov that Russia should aim to catch up with and outstrip Portugal in the space of ten years. The pragmatists understood that in current conditions, "great leaps forward", "modernising bursts" and "decisive measures" would merely turn into a string of catastrophes that at best would bring about the fall of the government, and at worst would profoundly destabilise the country.
Preoccupied with the struggle against his political enemies, Putin watched through his fingers as the government sabotaged his policies. In a certain sense, the "slowing down of the reforms" was even to his advantage; so long as the outcome of the political struggle was unclear, it was desirable to keep the risks in the economy to a minimum. Now, however, the president's foes had been vanquished. The opposition had been reduced to political insignificance, the discontented oligarchs had been banished or jailed, and the remaining large entrepreneurs had been brought into line. The business leaders now knew that direct interference in politics was inadmissible, just as the theories of liberal political economy maintained. In line with the same theories, the state in its turn was supposed to remove all obstacles to the development of the free market, to reduce income redistribution to a minimum, and to hand over to the mercy of private enterprise any sector from which entrepreneurs might want to extract profits. The president would reserve for himself only an honorary role as "night watch"—that is, as head of the repressive apparatus, which indeed he is, in law and by vocation.
The pathway to this liberal idyll lay through a new wave of neo-liberal measures. However, an unexpected obstacle along the way proved to be the government itself, which was reluctant to provoke a new social crisis in the country it was charged with administering. The newspaper Vedomosti noted, "Many important draft laws, from amendments to the Tax Code to the new Forest Code, have been bogged down because Kasyanov has failed to push them through". The cautious prime minister was not entranced by the proposed new legislation, put forward by neo-liberals from the president's circle. For four years Kasyanov succeeded in blocking the plans of Gref and his team. Then in 2004, the situation changed. When the government sent off for revision the latest draft of a tax reform that had been agreed with the administration, "the president's cup of patience ran over".6 Kasyanov became the latest ritual victim to be borne up onto the altar of liberal reforms.
Nominated for the post of head of the government was Mikhail Fradkov, who had earlier served as Russia's representative in the European Union. The Russian elite interpreted Putin's decision as a gesture by the Kremlin in the direction of the West, while the stock exchange reacted with another rise in prices, "cheering the surprise nominee for prime minister as a `yes' man with feet in both liberal and hawkish camps who will unquestioningly follow Putin's orders to push forward reforms".7
As is the custom in Russia, the appointment of the new prime minister was shrouded in mystery, and in the end came to resemble an unfortunate practical joke. As the newspaper Gazeta observed, "Officials of the presidential administration and journalists vied with one another in putting forward suggestions as to whom Putin would nominate. Someone even tried to organise a totalisator. But the selection was made with such secrecy that the name of the correct candidate was never even uttered. It later became clear that not even the people who at that time were sitting at the same table with Putin knew the `correct' answer." When the name was announced, the mood changed in a matter of seconds. The scene that followed was in the spirit of Gogol. "They still hadn't managed to collect their wits when they began voicing approval", one journalist observed acidly. The officials and deputies "immediately set about praising Putin's decision, and boasting of who had known Fradkov the longest".8
The new prime minister learned of his appointment from a telephone conversation with the president. No-one even found time to summon him to Moscow from Brussels and find out his suggestions as to the composition, structure or program of the government. Indeed, this was not necessary. The program had already been formulated by Putin's advisers, in full accordance with the neo-liberal textbooks. Meanwhile, not one of the St Petersburg group close to the president had shown the resolve to take on the task of implementing it.
The new structure of the government left no doubt as to what the authorities planned to do in the coming five years. If we leave out of account a few faintly comic touches such as the establishing of a "Federal Inspection Service for the Rights of Consumers and for Human Well-Being" (in plain terms, a "Ministry of Happiness"), what was involved was a decisive acceleration of the market reforms that had been held up by the previous cabinet. The St Petersburg liberals around Putin celebrated their victory. The appointing of the tough and aggressive Dmitry Kozak as head of the government apparatus testified to the fact that "the jokes were over" and that any attempt to block the implementing of the newly approved plan would be swiftly dealt with. In any case, the president kept under his personal control the Federal Security Service, the Federal Protection Service, the foreign intelligence apparatus and other structures with which he was intimately familiar. It was also decided to reduce radically the size of the government bureaucracy. As a result of the energetic cuts, the number of ministries and departments increased from fifty-eight to seventy-three.
Putin received the expected seventy-one per cent of the votes, and his opponents were humbled once again. Even the relative success of the Communist Party candidate, Nikolay Kharitonov, who polled thirteen per cent, seemed bearable only compared to the catastrophe suffered by the Communists in the elections for the parliament. Putin's success, however, appeared nowhere near as impressive against the background of a low voter turnout and growing discontent. On election eve, the authorities did everything in their power to force the population to vote. According to press reports, not only were people refused admission to hospitals unless they had filled out ballot papers, but convicts were not allowed to be jailed. The vote-rigging was so blatant that it was obvious even to foreign observers. In Moscow, under the direct gaze of foreigners, "additional ballot papers were put into a ballot box", while in Khabarovsk, astonished observers in one of the polling stations found that "no counting of votes took place at all, and the voting tally was fictitious".9 One can only imagine what happened where there were no foreigners.
Together, the opposition politicians attracted just enough voters for the election to be recognised as valid. If the Communist Party's Kharitonov and the liberal candidate Irina Khakamada had joined with the supporters of a boycott and withdrawn their candidacies, the votes for Putin would not have sufficed to meet the minimum participation requirement. The opposition candidates, however, went no further than talking about the impossibility of taking part in such elections. As in 1993, when it was the Communist Party's call to people to turn out and vote "no" that saved Yeltsin's referendum on the constitution, the Communist opposition had once again saved the "anti-popular regime".
The main political outcome of Putin's first term as president was the ideological failure of liberalism. Throughout the 1990s, the liberals had argued to society and to one another that economic liberalisation would unfailingly create the conditions for political democracy. Even if authoritarian measures were required during the "transition period", the need for them would drop away as the market system developed, and freedom would triumph. What happened in practice was the complete opposite. As the market transformations went forward, democracy was curtailed. By the beginning of the new century, large sectors of Russian business, foreign investors and the informed bureaucracy agreed that authoritarianism would create optimum conditions for the progress of the liberal economy. An inevitable split had occurred between economic and political liberals. The former entered the government and reported triumphantly on the successes of the reforms, while the latter tried to play the role of an opposition, complaining hysterically about the smothering of democratic freedoms.
The liberal intelligentsia finished up profoundly demoralised, and a section of it, having realised on the basis of its own experience what the Russian variant of neo-liberalism. was like, began moving rapidly to the left. The mindset of the early years of the new century was in striking contrast to that of ten years earlier. In the 1990s the intelligentsia in Russia's leading cities had been overwhelmingly anticommunist, aggressively rejecting anything that even smelled of socialism. Now, any oppositionist met with sympathy, and even communists were not so terrible any more. Left-wing views started to come into fashion.
The "official" Communist Party of the Russian Federation failed to gain any advantage from this situation, since it was itself on the verge of collapse. The crisis of the Communist Party broke out long before the elections of 2003, but the elections revealed its depth. The party's traditional voters switched their support to United Russia and the Homeland bloc, the latter a hurriedly assembled coalition that brought together the well-known economist Sergey Glazyev, the Kremlin-aligned politician Dmitry Rogozin and a number of ill-assorted nationalist groups. The Communist Party vote fell by almost half, to 12.9 per cent of the total, and the number of Communist deputies to fifty-four. The party leaders tried to blame their failure on the falsification of the voting figures, but the Fair-game system of parallel vote-counting, developed by the party's own activists, showed that this time votes had been stolen not from the Communists but from small parties, the worst victim being the left-liberal Yabloko.
The activists of the Communist Party were demoralised and their leaders in total confusion. Accusations of corruption were heard quite openly. The problem faced by the Communist Party was not that its leaders had received sponsorship payments from YuKOS and other oligarchic sources. This was not the first time in history that the liberal bourgeoisie and leftists have joined in struggle against an authoritarian regime. It is well known that in the early twentieth century the Moscow industrialist Savva Morozov gave money to the Bolshevik Party, and this did not make Lenin and his co-thinkers supporters of capitalism. The problem that confronted the Communist Party of the Russian Federation was different. The party leadership had not simply taken money from oligarchic firms, but had done this while having neither firm principles nor clear policies. As a result, the collaboration with sponsors had turned into a vulgar commercial deal. Places in the Communists' electoral lists had been cynically sold off, and the Communist leaders, while taking the money, had contrived to break the obligations they had accepted. Most of the funds obtained in this fashion had not gone to the struggle against the "anti-popular regime", but had simply been stolen. This corruption had become obvious to rank-and-file members and supporters of the party, had become a topic of public discussion, and had once and for all demoralised activists and even members of the apparatus. The decay had penetrated all sections of the party bureaucracy.
Among members of the Communist Party, a grim joke went the rounds, to the effect that Lenin, like Zyuganov, had taken money from capitalists, but that at least he had not put up Savva Morozov and his henchmen as candidates to the State Duma. The list presented by the Communist Party for the 2003 elections was truly shameful. On it, or at least among the candidates who were likely to be elected, there was no room found for a single worker or for a single representative of youth. There were no opposition activists, and in the federal list party members were a minority. But the list was full of entrepreneurs and top-level managers, people not renowned for their Left-wing or oppositionist views, or even for their philanthropic activity. The collapse of the Communist Party resulted from elementary corruption, but the decay of the party's hierarchs was the logical result of the ideology they professed and of the place they had occupied in the political system during the second half of the 1990s.
One consolation for Zyuganov's party was the fact that the liberal parties suffered an even greater defeat. Neither Yabloko nor the Union of Right-Wing Forces gained any seats in the Duma. If the left-liberal Yabloko could declare itself the victim of fraud, the Union of Right-Wing Forces was definitively rejected by the voters. Immediately after the elections, the ill-matched careerists grouped together in the Homeland bloc also fell to bickering among themselves. Rogozin and Glazyev publicly pronounced anathemas on one another, only two months after their "victory" in the Duma elections. The disintegration of the Homeland bloc provided a certain breathing space for the Communist Party, but the struggle between the party's factions was now being conducted in the open. Zyuganov was incapable of suggesting anything new. The supporters of a rapprochement with the Kremlin were grouped around the businessman Gennady Semigin, who was sponsoring a considerable section of the party apparatus. Semigin had founded the weekly Rodnaya Gazeta, which was gradually supplanting the Communist press in provincial regions.
Supporters of a Left-wing course and of a renewal of the party were to be found mainly among younger members. The renovators had begun to group themselves around the party's Information Technology Centre, headed by Ilya Ponomarev, whom journalists soon dubbed the "leader of the party's youth wing". Soon after the elections the party leaders disbanded the Information Technology Centre, but this could no longer stop the growing revolt. After the parliamentary elections in January, the Union of Communist Youth, even without any particular influence from Ponomarev, refused to support the party's candidate for president, and called for a boycott of the elections. The Youth Left Front was formed, with dissident communist organisations and Trotskyists joining in.
The struggle for control of the "brand name" of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation paralysed decision-making. Zyuganov refused to run for president, and though Semigin came close to succeeding, he also met with defeat. Nikolay Kharitonov emerged as the compromise figure. Meanwhile, it was not only Zyuganov's party that was in a state of collapse. The small communist groups which throughout the 1990s had criticised the opportunism of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation found themselves in crisis as well. The Association of Marxist Organisations, which they had founded, and which heaped condemnation on the "fruitless experience" of Zyuganovism, was forced to acknowledge that "in many ways, the other communist parties and organisations are also living in the past".10
Meanwhile, the decline of the "left opposition" in the form it had assumed during the previous decade was in no way connected to any loss of public interest in Left-wing ideas. Quite the reverse: a demand for coherent Left-wing ideology was awakening, reflecting the class interests of workers, and hence cleansed of nationalist rubbish, nostalgia and bureaucratic demagogy. Four years of economic growth had changed society, helping people to recognise their social interests. Work forces had stabilised, and this had been followed by a revival of the labour movement. Since the new Labour Code made striking virtually impossible, the most popular trade union leaders went into politics, scoring successes in local elections. The best known case was the victory of Valeriya Melnikova, who after a fierce battle with the corporation Norilsk Nickel became mayor of the mining city of Norilsk. "Russian leftists are rapidly growing younger", the liberal journal Profil lamented. "At their meetings, students are taking the place of grandmothers. They are fighting against the `dictator' Putin, unmasking the `revisionist' Zyuganov, and from one day to the next are awaiting an anti-capitalist revolution."11 For all the journalistic irony, it is impossible not to sense a genuine alarm. Only a few years ago, the liberal press was insisting to its readers that the time of the left had gone forever and that only old people nostalgic for the Soviet past could support anti-capitalist ideas.
The reconstructing of the opposition was on the order of the day. The time had come for "normal" leftists, basing themselves on a socialist, internationalist and democratic ideology. The absurd and contradictory nature of the slogans of the old opposition was now obvious. Instead of the earlier "national" and "anti-oligarchic" opposition, there was a need for a new one, democratic and anti-capitalist With a bourgeois-bureaucratic authoritarian regime established in Russia, the left was proving to be the only consistently democratic force. But in order to carry out their role successfully, the leftists themselves needed to change. The youth organisations felt the call of the epoch quickest of all. Just as the anti-globalist actions in the West became possible thanks to the radicalisation of young people who had grown up during the years of neo-liberalism., the new left movement in Russia will be founded to a significant degree by the generation that has grown up since the fall of the Soviet Union.
When people receive formal freedoms in conditions of lawlessness, they cannot fail to regard democracy with scepticism, to say the least. For all their formal liberties, people in Russia now feel they have fewer rights than in the Soviet epoch. At that time the ordinary citizen could go and complain to someone, insist on something. Moreover, people understood that system and knew how to work it to their advantage when necessary. Civil rights, after all, cannot be reduced to the opportunity once every two years to drop in a ballot box pieces of paper bearing the names of corrupt politicians. Even freedom of movement has now turned into a fiction, since two-thirds of citizens do not have the money for tickets, and the humiliations inflicted on people who come to the capital have now surpassed all bounds.
In Russia in the 1990s, the only people who had real democratic rights were the new middle class. Against this class, right now, an offensive is beginning. In the early 1990s, when Russia was entering the capitalist world, and the new middle class was only taking shape, it stood solidly for liberal reforms. These reforms gave it not only freedom, but also material opportunities it had never seen before, access to a Western standard of living and a European way of life. The fact that this came at a price that included the collapse of Russian industry, and that all these benefits remained inaccessible to two-thirds of the population, did not trouble the winners. The new middle class realised that it was the strategic ally of the oligarchy, even if it did not admit this publicly. The situation changed fundamentally in 1998, when the rouble collapsed. It was precisely the middle class that was forced to pay for this debacle. The middle class then realised that its place in the system was far more vulnerable and dependent than it at first seemed, that in conditions of crisis the ruling elite was quite capable of solving its problems at the expense of the middle layers of society.
A police state will force the aggrieved middle class to understand what the oppressed masses have felt for more than a decade. A sort of cultural equality is taking shape, an equality of the majority in the face of police batons. Of the majority, but not of everyone. An exception is made for the people at the very top, who are beyond the reach of the batons. The batons' reach, however, is becoming far broader. The toughening of the political regime is pushing the intelligentsia, or at least its younger generation, to the left. Under such conditions, critically thinking liberals are being turned into radicals and revolutionaries. The authorities are having to grapple with an increasing number of problems. The administration is like a skilled juggler, keeping a growing number of balls spinning in the air: just one mistake, and everything will fall on the juggler's head. Russian history teaches that in our country, rulers are forgiven a great deal. The one thing that is not forgiven is weakness.
The evening of Sunday, March 14, was notable not just for Putin's triumph in the presidential elections. As soon as the results of the voting were announced, at the gates of the Kremlin in the very centre of Moscow, a huge fire broke out. The Manezh building, erected by Tsar Aleksandr I to mark the fifth anniversary of the victory over Napoleon, burned down. "This was at once a horrifying and entrancing spectacle", observed Gazeta. "Seized by the flames, the Manezh looked like a giant set for a disaster movie on which no expense had been spared. In the space of seven hours, before the gaze of hundreds of often exultant onlookers, the fire destroyed one of the main symbols of Moscow."12 Two firefighters died trying to put out the blaze. The flames rose so high that the glow was visible above the Kremlin from the opposite bank of the Moscow River, and it appeared that the Kremlin itself had been engulfed.
It was difficult not to see a grim omen in this. The collapse of the opposition, and the administrative and propaganda success of the Kremlin, had created the feeling in many Russians that Putin's new order had arrived in a serious way, and would be here for a long time to come. For significant numbers of those who until shortly before had been "fighters against the anti-popular regime", this served as a signal "to reconcile themselves to reality". After all, was Putin not trying to build a strong state, that would act as the heir of the Russian Empire? And was this not what the orators at nationalist meetings had dreamt of? "Realistically minded" activists of the official Communist Party, and radicals tired of waiting for a quick revolution, hurriedly re-categorised themselves as admirers of the president.
On more sustained examination, of course, it was evident that the regime's social base was extremely narrow, that the economic growth had extremely limited prospects and that the country's dependence on exports of raw materials and imports of capital made a joke of any arguments about imperial greatness and even of an "independent foreign policy". Ultimately, however, that is not what the question was about.
If someone is genuinely certain that capitalism will be with us for centuries; if that person is firmly convinced that the workers' and left movement is powerless to vanquish capital or even to force reforms on it in the popular interest; if he or she does not see democratic freedoms as having value for us in and of themselves; and if, finally, that person sees Russia as a country for which enlightened absolutism is the ultimate dream—then, unquestionably, he or she will have every reason to support Putin and his program of bourgeois modernisation and authoritarian order.
Those ladies and gentlemen—and comrades—who think in this fashion can indeed relax and take their ease. For people who think differently, there is no other road but struggle.
[Links contributing editor Boris Kagarlitsky is well known for his many books and articles on Soviet and post-Soviet Russian society. Translated by Renfrey Clarke]
1 Vedomosti, March 10, 2004, p. A4.
2 Moscow Times, February 12, 2004.
3 Washington Post, February 26, 2004, p. A14.
4 Deutsche Welle, February 26, 2004. Internet site: <http://www.dw-world.de/russian/0,3367,2214_A_1123470_1_A,00.html>.
5 Finansovye Izvestiya, February 20, 2004.
6 Vedomosti, February 25, 2004.
7 Moscow Times, March 2, 2004.
8 Gazeta, March 2, 2004.
9 Gazeta, March 16, 2004.
10 Golos Kommunista, No. 1, 2004.
11 Profil, February 23, 2004, No. 7, p. 14.
12 Gazeta, March 16, 2004.