Russia’s elections: views from the left

By Volodya Vagner March 29, 2018
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Virtually all the candidates running in Russia’s recent presidential election openly admitted that what they were participating in was a circus. And as expected, the circus director won. After gracefully skipping the televised debates that saw profanity-laden shouting matches and physical confrontations between his opponents, Russian president Vladimir Putin was re-elected by a landslide on March 18. The real question in the run-up to the vote was never who would win, but how legitimate Putin’s victory would be. After more than 18 years in charge, the Russian autocrat’s grip on power seems as firm ever. Having fine-tuned a system of “managed democracy”, with only caricatures of opponents — either hopelessly unpopular or Kremlin-loyal — allowed to run against him, Putin has been able to rule without needing to worry about the outcome of elections. For good measure, official election results have also routinely been falsified, boosting the president’s lead even further. After widespread and apparent fraud during the last election six years ago, the country saw the biggest opposition protests since the early ’90s. This election too, followed the conventional script. The country’s leading opposition figure, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, had been barred from running, leading him to call on his supporters to boycott the vote and volunteer as observers instead. The candidates allowed to run in the election included several recurring characters. Putin-loyal nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose trademark tantrums have channelled frustration on the political right for the past several elections, received just under 6%. Veteran liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, also known from previous appearances, got just over 1%. There were also some fresh faces: liberal TV-celebrity Ksenia Sobchak and the Communist Party’s candidate Pavel Grudinin. While Sobchak was involved with the protest movement six years ago, her campaign has been widely discredited as a Kremlin-ploy. The daughter of Putin’s late political mentor, the former mayor of Petersburg, Sobchak is part of the establishment. She received less than 2%. That the Communist Party (KPRF) did not field their eternal chairperson and recurring presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov, was perhaps this election’s most notable diversion from the usual script. The KPRF’s candidate in this election, Grudinin, came in second, receiving just shy of 12%. Can this be considered a hopeful sign for Russian politics? Not if you ask the Russian Left. “No-one within the Left sees the KPRF as a leftist force”, Aleksey Gaskarov said to Green Left Weekly at a Moscow café. The 32-year-old is one of the most prominent representatives of the young Russian left. Already well before the protest movement of 2011-12, he had established himself as a skilled organizer within the environmental and anti-fascist movements. When Russia’s fragmented opposition, in the spring of 2012, elected a joint coordinating council, Gaskarov was the leftist candidate who received the broadest support. After Putin’s crackdown against the opposition later that year, Gaskarov spent three and a half years in jail. Gaskarov advocated a boycott this time around. “The KPRF are shameful clowns, whose only achievement is having slowed down the development of an actual Russian Left”, he says with contempt. For Gaskarov, as for the majority of the Russian left, the KPRF does not constitute a positive force. According to political scientist Ilya Matveev, the KPRF also simply plays a role within the Kremlin-directed spectacle of fake democracy. At 29, Matveev is one of the Russian left’s leading young intellectuals. While he usually teaches at a Saint Petersburg university, this spring he is holding a free lecture series about the economy of Putinism at a socialist venue in the city. In front of an attentive young audience he discusses, among other things, how Russia’s regressive tax code benefits the oligarchs and contributes to the country’s brutal class divide. He explained to Green Left Weekly why the Russian Communist party, despite the name, is no threat to Russia’s extreme inequality. “The party has basically nothing to do with leftist politics”, he clarifies. “Their program is conservative, based on Soviet patriotism, with elements of Russian nationalism. They use vague populist rhetoric, criticizing the oligarchs, but without ever questioning Putin or his system.” During the street protests of 2011 and 2012, the KPRF remained passive, even though their results was likely cut down the most to manufacture the official tally. That the party now put up a new candidate is, according to Matveev, no sign of renewal. He believes that the party’s iron-fist boss Zyuganov had simply become too unpopular to fulfil his designated role. “I believe they got a nudge from the Kremlin to put up someone new. The regime was afraid that Zyuganov would not even be able to reach the result they were willing to let him have, which would have undermined the election’s legitimacy,” Matveev explains. The solution was Pavel Grudinin: a rich businessman, once convicted of racist hate speech, who had previously been a member of the Kremlin party United Russia. While some nationalist groups supported his campaign, the left was much less enthusiastic. “The overwhelming majority of leftists boycotted these elections, only the Left Front was for Grudinin”, says Matveev. The Left Front, led by Sergey Udaltsov, was one of the most visible leftist factions in the protest movement six years ago. When the protests were repressed, the Left Front was crushed and Udaltsov spent several years in prison. While serving his sentence he then cozied up to the Kremlin, especially through enthusiastic support for Putin’s jingoist foreign policy. Once out of prison Udaltsov relaunched the Left Front, but this time with close ties to the Communist Party, and public support from Kremlin-loyal spin-doctors. For activists like Alexey Gaskarov, the whole affair smells suspicious. Instead of backing the KPRF, Gaskarov got on board the boycott campaign led by anti-corruption activist Navalny. Since Navalny comes out of the liberal camp, and earlier in his career often used nationalist rhetoric, this was not an easy decision for Gaskarov. Under the circumstances, however, he felt it was the right choice: “Since all forms of genuine leftist organizing are being brutally repressed, it’s now resistance as such that counts”, he justifies his decision. “Navalny has built a formidable and effective network. Plus, his positions have slowly become more progressive with time.” In terms of organizational infrastructure and mobilizational capacity, Navalny’s movement is certainly the most significant oppositional force in Russia. However, with Putin having officially won 77% of the vote, at a turnout of 67%, more or less meeting the Kremlin’s stated goal of achieving around 70% of each, Navalny’s boycott campaign was not particularly successful. At the same time, those who did follow Navalny’s call to monitor the electoral process report widespread fraud, which certainly boosted the official result, both in terms of turnout and Putin’s vote. The true degree of support for Putin thus remains more ambiguous than the official result would suggest. Meanwhile, the political shift in Navalny’s program noted by Gaskarov, is something that political scientist Ilya Matveev has also noticed: “Navalny understands that pure liberalism does not appeal to the majority, and has thus formulated increasingly left populist positions, demanding, for instance, a redistribution of wealth and a significant minimum wage increase.” Matveev believes that Navalny remains a force to be reckoned with. “We are nearing the end of the Putinist era. By the end of this term, in 2024, Putin will be 71, and according to the constitution he will not be able to run for another consecutive term. This is a problem for the regime. Meanwhile, the economy is stagnating and real wages are declining. This election was no game-changer, but Navalny is already planning for the next one”, Matveev says. Interestingly, in the shadow of the election circus, an entirely different development has been providing a glimpse of how fragile the Putinist system may actually be. In the town of Volokolamsk, an hour west of Moscow, thousands of angry residents have for several weeks been protesting municipal mismanagement of a landfill. When children who had breathed in poisonous fumes from the garbage dump got so ill they needed hospitalization, riot police had to be called in to protect the visiting governor from furious parents. With the country’s infrastructure decaying, it’s economy stagnating, and it’s elites corrupt, instances of like this are sure to increase. If the opposition, be it in the form of Navalny or otherwise, succeeds in convincing the Russian people that systemic change is needed to address them, Putin’s current term may even end sooner than 2024. Volodya Vagner is a journalist based in Saint Petersburg. He can be reached on Twitter at @VolodyaVagner