Russia since the elections: the calm before the storm?
More than 15,000 protesters marched from Pushkin Square to the Chistye Prudy metro station in Moscow on May 13, in support Occupy Abay. Photograph: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.
By Aleksandr Buzgalin in Moscow, translated by Renfrey Clarke
May 30, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In Russia, the winter of 2011-2012 was unusually stormy in the political sense. The results of both the parliamentary and presidential elections were clearly worked out in advance, and everything went as foreseen. Both the United Russia party and President Vladimir Putin were confirmed in power. But the meetings and demonstrations of many tens of thousands of people that took place regularly in Moscow and elsewhere over months placed this order and simplicity in doubt.
Still more significant was the fact that even after Putin’s victory the political struggle continued, and in May even intensified; the demonstration and bloody clashes with the police on May 6 were the most glaring testimony to this, but not the only one. Arguably, more important from a strategic point of view was the first successful continuous protest action to be held in Russia, an action which young people dubbed “Occupy Abay”. This involved protesters maintaining a constant presence on the Moscow boulevards, engaging in dialogue and demonstrating in favour of their views, and proved most enduring in the Chistie Prudy neighbourhood. In this context, the naming of a new cabinet of ministers was of little importance to the opposition, since the appointments were as everyone had expected.
Russia’s “political class” responded to the new appointments with far greater interest, which is not surprising. What the “political class” found important were the details of who was allotted which position, since these details bore heavily on the personal political future of each member of this class, and also indicated possible gains or losses for the economic and political clans that stand behind the various individuals within the regime. As an analyst studying developments from the standpoint of democratic socialism, I do not find these personnel reshufflings particularly interesting, but the overall composition of the government and the trends it suggests require at least a brief commentary.
However strange it might seem, the make-up of the government and the future strategy of the opposition are phenomena much more closely interrelated than might appear at first glance.
First, on the government. It is striking that in the great majority of cases the ministers have either kept their posts or have been replaced by their deputies, who are generally punctilious executives with little record of independence. The ministers of foreign affairs, defence and so on have kept their posts, while the deputies have replaced the ministers of education, health and so forth.
On the whole, the government has thus been constructed according to the principle spelt out in a classic comedy by the character Famusov, making use of people who are close-mouthed, industrious insiders.
What does this indicate? It confirms what the author of these lines and his comrades have been saying for many years.
Putin’s course is dictated by the same economic and political forces (the bloc between the most powerful clans of top bureaucrats and oligarchs) that brought him to power years ago. This course cannot undergo any radical changes so long as the alliance involved retains its might and does not have any serious competitors.
Since this bloc is connected primarily to the security forces within the state apparatus and to the resource industry clans within the economy, the strategy and tactics of this alliance will on the whole maintain their previous thrust of a moderate Russian state paternalism. This means that the priorities of Putin’s domestic policy will include territorial integrity and the “power hierarchy”, along with the symbolic gifts to the population that are essential for maintaining this course. In geopolitical terms, the bloc will show a moderate opposition to NATO. The stance will be oppositional because the national-state interest forms the basis of the bloc’s power and economic prosperity; it will be moderate because Russia is too weak to seriously intervene in world processes, and because the dependence of its raw-materials economy on foreigners is by definition too great for the country to show excessive independence. Putin therefore has been and remains someone whose team combines patriotic “strong state” rhetoric with a pro-globalist geo-economic line.
During Putin’s new term this rhetoric will strengthen (shown indirectly by the appointment as culture minister of Vladimir Medinsky, known for his historical-patriotic utterances), and the economic subordination to global capital will remain; proof of the latter is provided by Russia’s decision to join the World Trade Organization.
As the present writer has explained elsewhere, the discourse to the effect that Putin, with his resistance to comprador capital and to the pro-Western liberal intelligentsia, is the sole worthy representative of the Russian people and the defender of their interests is a myth. But this myth is not accidental; people who are unable or unwilling to defend their civil and social rights for themselves are anxious to believe in it.
The social aspect of the president’s strategy is especially important, since on the eve of the election and during the campaigning Putin made frequent use of socially oriented slogans borrowed from the opposition (these slogans are voiced systematically by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and by A Just Russia). On this basis, a certain number of commentators hastened to conclude that in 2012 the future president of Russia would radically alter the policy approach he had followed for more than a decade, and which had led to a boom in the number of dollar millionaires; to an increase in social differentiation; and to the continuing commercialisation and degradation of education and many other social provisions.
It was clear from the very beginning that these hopes were baseless. Consequently, it was no great surprise to the author of these notes that the first act by the new education minister was to set the goal of making education even less widely available to the population. Unfortunately, the fears voiced by pessimists — that the “fursenko.net” campaign would end with this odious minister, notoriously unacceptable to the educational community, being replaced by a figure even more dangerous to Russian education—are being borne out…
In this regard, the process that has seen the boulevards “occupied” by young leftists is proving extremely interesting. Unlike various “red” professors and leaders of the official opposition, these young people understand perfectly well that the tale of the good tsar (the president) and the evil nobles (the ministers, oligarchs and so on) is no more than a myth. Meanwhile, the myth is a dangerous one, above all for Russia, for whose welfare these experts and leaders show such (perhaps sincere) concern. It is dangerous for the reason that unless steady popular pressure is applied to Putin’s political regime and to the oligarchic economic regime that provides it with backing, in order to win consistent respect for the social and civil rights of our country’s population, there will be no progress in Russia.
It is possible, on the basis of a moderate, bureaucratically corrupt authoritarianism and a criminal-oligarchic capitalism, to continue pursuing resource-intensive growth and even in part to restore industry, along the lines of what was already obsolete 50 years ago in the USSR. Ensuring innovative, socially oriented development in a huge country, however, is only possible through relying on conscious creative initiative and through liberating the potential of a broad creative class. Importantly, and unlike the liberal intelligentsia, the leftists engaging in dialogue on the boulevards understand that this has to be a class that is not made up of “office plankton”, or even mainly of people from small business and management, but of teachers and engineers, of young scientists, artists and programmers, and of working people who are not indifferent to what is happening around them.
For these people to become the main economic and political force in the country, a radical change of strategy is essential, and this requires bringing to power qualitatively new economic and political forces whose interests will lie in giving priority financing to education and medicine, not to expanding the state apparatus. It requires the development of universities and of science-intensive production, not of oil and gas exports. It requires a progressive income tax and a radical increase (by several times) in the minimum level of wages and pensions, not winning first place in a world competition for the number of billionaires per head of population …
The campaigning by the young activists who are continuing their peaceful acts of civil disobedience has to be viewed not as “rocking the boat”, but as the defence of Russia’s strategic interests. Their movement thus deserves every possible support, since strategically it is far more important for Russia’s progress than minor reshufflings within the government.
[Aleksandr Buzgalin is professor of political economy at Moscow State University, editor of the independent democratic left magazine Alternatives, contributor to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal and coordinator of the Russian social movement Alternatives.]