Jan 5, 2012
Today, the different states that came out of the Soviet Union are in different situations. But they have one thing in common: they have all suffered from the USSR’s dismemberment.
First, because their production and enterprises were brought into existence and developed within a unified and planned framework and were meant to be complementary and interdependent. Except perhaps for Russia, these separate countries could hardly constitute viable national economies all by themselves.
Second, because hundreds of different peoples and ethnic groups living in eastern Europe, Russian Siberia and Asia had been displaced and mixed inside the same huge country. According to the Soviet constitution, all these peoples were equal, at least as equal as they could be under the boot of the bureaucracy. Stalinism in this field, just as others, had carried out the height of abominations. From 1936 to 1951, the policy of terror led to the deportation of many peoples or minorities to other regions of the USSR. These included Poles, Germans of the Volga, Koreans, Baltic peoples, Karathais, Kalmuks, Chechens, Ingouchans, Balkars, Tatars and Greeks of the Crimea, Moldavians, Armenians. These peoples faced frightening conditions. “A giant, murderous transfer had poisonous consequences throughout the existence of the ex-USSR,” wrote J.-J. Marie, in the 1995 book, The Deported Peoples of the Soviet Union.
But the situation grew even worse when the administrative borders of the different republics were transformed into national boundaries. Officials at the highest levels of these new independent entities often played the majority of the population off against one or the other minority. Often, the same people who constitute a majority on one side of a border are in the minority on the other side. Officials have stirred up calls for recovering lost territory and nationalism, encouraging the hatred of neighboring peoples.
When the Kremlin negated the right of people to self-determination, it resulted in two horrific wars fought by the Russian Army against the people of the tiny republic of Chechnya seeking independence. The Kremlin, or rather certain cliques fighting for power, stirred up tensions, especially nationalist tensions, in this region where Stalin had deported many peoples. The so-called Chechen war has spread to the entire Russian side of the Caucasus.
Even in the most Western regions of the ex-USSR, the national question has continued to reappear with violence directed at people. Large Russian minorities in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania today suffer discrimination and sometimes are deprived of their rights, a reversal of the situation produced by the policies of Stalin and his successors, trying to Russify the Baltic countries. The leaders of the European Union, to which these states now belong, had nothing to say. The Baltic states, having grown dependent on West European capital, especially Scandinavian capital, were among the hardest hit in Europe when the financial crisis struck in 2008. All the nationalities – wage earners in private industry, public sector workers, retired people – faced falling income and growing unemployment.
Of the 12 other former republics of the Soviet Union, those of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and to a lesser measure those of the Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan) saw their ancient conflicts reignited and supplemented with new ones. During the time of the USSR, the economy of these regions developed more slowly compared to that of the rest of the country (even if, compared to their neighbors in countries outside the USSR, the Soviet system allowed them to progress economically, culturally and socially). They also suffered from a vestige of the old clan relations, combined with cronyism on a grand scale and the system of cliques from the Brezhnev period. Some of the most memorable scandals concerning the diversion of state property took place in the Central Asian part of the Soviet Union.
Since the fall of the USSR, this region witnessed corruption and nepotism pushed to extremes never before seen. The clans, often based on family ties, took power, in some cases well before the fall of the Soviet Union (in Azerbaijan and even earlier in Kazakhstan, whose current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was already prime minister in 1984 and first secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party in 1989). These regimes are dictatorial and generally outlaw all organized opposition. Religion often serves as the official ideology and as a means to control the population. Women have been crushed and pushed back to the Dark Ages. These regimes do not even pretend to respect a minimum of democratic decorum. No problem for the powers that control them today, whether Western or Russian. For the military, commercial and energy strategies of the Western and the Russian powers, these countries, rich in hydrocarbons or well situated for pipelines, are treated as mere pawns.
The immense majority of the people in the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus live in terrible misery. Generally, they live under dictatorial regimes that are corrupt and reactionary to their bones. But the media and government officials of the supposed democratic countries don’t make this an issue. Their oil companies and other big exporters have too much at stake. The barbarism of these regimes guarantees order for the exploiters and especially for their profits.
By contrast, Western officials condemn the regime of Belarus for being what they call “the last dictatorship in Europe.” Its head, Stanislav Levchenko, tramples on all forms of opposition, imprisons competitors during elections he feels he must organize, and leads his country with an iron fist. But the West doesn’t blame him for that. In this field, he is no different than many other rulers with whom the Western governments have good relations. The real problem for these governments is that while certain parts of the economy have been privatized, the regime maintains a large public sector, within forms like those that used to exist in the USSR. For those who rule the international capitalist order, this is what is unforgivable.
When it was part of the interdependent framework of the Soviet economy, tiny Belarus’s economy had been very specialized. When the USSR disintegrated, Belarus’s economy became much more fragile than that of other ex-Soviet republics in the face of international competition. The bureaucracy at the head of Belarus saw that its only salvation was to maintain an economy that was largely state-owned. Of course, that was not a protection for the economy, especially after the crisis of 2008. During the crisis, trade with the West was reduced, and Belarus’s principal economic partner and semi-political ally, Russia, imposed draconian commercial and financial conditions. But even if the Belarus population continues to suffer under a dictatorship, it no doubt also must have the impression that until recently, it had escaped the much worse social and economic fate of the Russian and Ukrainian populations.
In Ukraine, as in Russia, the standard of living of the working classes collapsed with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The leading team in Ukraine tacked between making a rapprochement with the West, European Union and NATO and rejecting it, which led to warmer relations between Ukraine and Russia. But Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych has not gone so far as to adhere to the economic union that Russia recently constituted with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ukrainian leaders who are “pro-Russian” refuse to go very far in a rapprochement with their large neighbor, despite a great deal of interdependency between their economies, because most Ukrainian bureaucrats see no benefit in it for themselves. The Ukrainian leaders have their fiefdoms and sources of enrichment for their clans in the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine, where the principal economic power of Ukraine is located (mines, heavy industry). But this is exactly what they are trying to protect, and why they don’t want agreements that could submit their enterprises, their fiefdoms and their clans to any supervision outside the Ukrainian businessmen-bureaucracy.
Ukraine flatters itself for being the co-organizer with Poland of the next European championship soccer tournament. But the renovation of its hotels, sports arenas and transportation network for this event hardly moves forward. The state treasury has been empty for years, and it doesn’t even have the means to offer either bread or games to the population. The rapacity of the bureaucrats and the successive teams of leaders, along with the effects of the 2008 crisis, have left the country on its knees. What was supposed to be the second largest soviet republic has to depend on IMF loans to balance its budget.
Russia is by far the largest republic, and, with 143 million people, it is the most populous. Economically, it is the richest republic of the ex-USSR. Certainly, it is not as bad off as Ukraine. As opposed to Ukraine, Russia has much more petroleum and even more gas, making it the largest exporter in the world. This assures it a comfortable flow of foreign currencies. Russia’s subsoil contains all the raw materials used by industry worldwide.
If it weren’t for these raw materials, Russia’s finances would be non-existent, given the great extent of the pillage of the economy, which even Russia’s leaders bemoan as unfortunate. President Medvedev observed that, since the post-Soviet collapse of Russia’s economy, the country has been “in a humiliating state of dependence” on its exports of raw materials. From 1991 to 1999, or less than a decade after the end of the Soviet period, the index of Russian production dropped by half. In all domains, including armaments – which is a paradox for a country that was the second leading military power during the post-war period – Russia has now been reduced to importing a big part of what it consumes and what its industry needs. To pay for that, it can only count on the foreign currencies that it gets from exporting petroleum and gas – which have increased seven times from 2001 to 2008 – and to a lesser extent on what it brings in from its exports of minerals, precious stones and wood.
Even here Russia’s dependence is obvious. It may export a lot of wood, but it must hand it over to Scandinavian companies for production, and Russia imports wood products that have a high value added, such as wood pulp for paper. It is only one illustration, among many, of the fantastic drop in productive capacity that occurred over the 20 years since the disappearance of the USSR. In the field of agriculture, the effects of the destruction of cooperatives or state-owned structures (kolkhozes or sovkhozes) show up on store shelves. The big stores offer fewer products produced in Russia, and more imports from big Western European agricultural companies. This also is an indicator of desertification of the rural regions. The state-owned and planned economy had allowed “habitation points” to be implanted and developed, even in regions abandoned under czarism. But by 2009, nearly 10% of the 155,000 villages that had existed in Russia in 1990, no longer existed.
There is a huge gulf between reality and what the “specialists” and other “good doctors” of the market economy predicted during the 1980s. They descended onto the USSR to advise Yeltsin and his cohorts how best to replace the state-owned and planned economy, which they described as inefficient, by a system that was supposed to assure renewed growth and development.
This new system certainly allowed swindlers to get rich as quick as lightning. And it enabled Western companies to conclude enormously favorable contracts in petroleum and industry, contracts it took years for their Russian partners to free themselves from. But for all the rest, what they presented as a transition from a collectivized economy toward a supposedly market economy produced a nightmarish situation. The bureaucrats sold off state property for their own profit in a way that brought chaos difficult to imagine in all spheres of society, including at the political level.
Bureaucrats sold off enterprises at bargain basement prices to themselves and plundered them. Enterprises stopped functioning, depriving workers of their wages for months, and they stopped paying their suppliers, forcing cuts to the workers at those companies also. What Western advisors to Russian leaders called “shock therapy” was designed to empty the pockets of the population in order to fill the bureaucrats’ bank accounts in foreign countries. Prices exploded. In a few months, inflation hit 1,000% and continued to increase to 2,000%. The small savings of those who had some were reduced to nothing, throwing into poverty tens of millions of retirees, workers without wages, workers in the public or social sectors, which without subsidies stopped functioning. Then there were the “reforms,” the hypocritical name designed to legalize the transfer of as much state property as possible into the hands of bureaucrats turned businessmen. They hurriedly liquidated everything that didn’t seem profitable enough or immediately resold anything that could produce a big profit.
“Only 10% of Russia’s inhabitants profited from the collapse of the USSR and the reforms that followed,” was the title of a recent article on the first page of “One of RBK” (June 22, 2011), a Russian business journal, which commented on a study done by the Russian Academy of Sciences. These conclusions are so evident, no one in Russia questions it. Even the Western commentators and ideologues of the bourgeoisie have dropped their predictions of progress and promises of democracy, with which they once filled the media.
Twenty years ago, our tendency was part of a tiny minority which went against the current of these makers of public opinion, conformists and defenders of the established order. We said that nothing good could come for the people from the conditions that the USSR was sinking into, the race of those at the top to enrich themselves, the irresponsibility of the top leadership.
In the text concerning the USSR, dated October 27, 1990, which was submitted to the 1990 Congress of Lutte Ouvrière, we wrote, “Were workers to allow the return of capitalism in the USSR, even partially, they would not enjoy the affluence, however relative, of the West. Rather they would experience a lower standard of living, unemployment and the end of the limited social benefits they had before. The standard of living of the population of the USSR as a whole would not go up, quite the contrary. It would go back to the level of the Third World – even if shop windows were filled with Western goods unaffordable for the overwhelming majority. The ‘reserved shops’ would be open for all, but their customers would be just as exclusively selected... This would be a setback for the world proletariat...”
In March 1991, in an article of Class Struggle titled, “USSR: An Attempt at a Bourgeois Counter Revolution, Bureaucratic Zigzags – What Policy for the Working Class?” we again wrote, “The only thing that is certain is that if it leads to anything it can only be a society offering a greater possibility of accumulation and enrichment for a few and impoverishment for the majority if not the whole of the proletariat. This greater inequality could be sweetened by a small dose of ‘democracy,’ of a similar type to that offered to the poor by the big ‘democracies’ in poor countries like Brazil and India. But even this is not certain.”
For the Lutte Ouvrière congress of 1991, the text edited a few weeks before the implosion of the USSR affirmed: “A proletarian revolutionary organization in the Soviet Union should include in its program the struggle against privatization and against the restoration of capitalism. It should use the price which the masses are being made to pay in the current situation, in order to mobilize them on this issue.
Similarly, it should defend planning, both ideologically and, if possible, in practice. This is one of the few means, at the present time, of opposing, among the masses, the break-up of the Soviet Union, by showing that there are interests common to all peoples in the former Union which need to be preserved. Only the proletariat can simultaneously defend freedom and diversity and also the broadest possible federation benefitting from common planning.”
Two decades have passed and this assessment has been verified. The Soviet economy collapsed. Just after the end of the USSR, its revenue was so low that enterprises were practically reduced to bartering between themselves.
The economy may have partially revived after the Russian state stopped making payments during the crash of 1998 because its treasury had been ransacked; but the economy remains extremely weak. Russian authorities themselves admit it. Certainly, a layer of small business people has emerged alongside the mass of bureaucrats and millionaires who grew rich under the wing of the state. But this “new middle class” was ruined in 1992 to 1993 during “shock therapy,” and again in 1998, and once more in the period starting with the 2008 global financial crisis. But whatever the future holds for this “new middle class,” the general situation has in no way been stabilized.
Capital flight, which has continued for 20 years, attained new heights in 2011. According to the Russian Vice-Minister for Economic Development, “80 billion dollars in private capital was removed from the country” in 2011, or more than double the amount in 2010. And no one believes that it will return, wrote the business daily, Vedomosti (November 2, 2011), in an article entitled, “This Money Will Not Return.” For the last 20 years there has been no public or private investment in production. Nor has there been any development of the economy and reinvestment in infrastructure. Although President Medvedev launched a “modernization” of the economy and released colossal amounts of funding for a “Russian Silicon Valley” located near Moscow, nothing has been done. Public money disappears in the bottomless pockets of the regime’s privileged layers – not only because corruption attains ever greater heights, but because the well-off bureaucrats and new bourgeois have no confidence in their own system.
The Russian Academy’s statement that “90% of Russians” were losers over the last 20 years is no doubt a statistical reality. But it hides the social reality. Because the workers in the cities and the countryside had the most to lose from the collapse of the USSR under the blows of the leading caste.
The petty bourgeois who believed, or wanted to believe that this collapse would bring them happiness and material comfort and who accepted to play the role of foot soldiers for the so-called democratic camp – what did they lose, besides their savings, or perhaps some illusions in the affair? Even that remains to be seen.
But the workers lost both materially and socially, much more than anyone else, from the disappearance of the USSR.
At the material level, workers bore the shock, the full whip of the “shock therapy” of Yeltsin, Gaider, and their Western advisors. Workers, retirees, technicians, employees, teachers, nurses – they all had their wages and pensions gutted by inflation. They also had to face mass unemployment, something unknown when the Soviet Union existed. Auctioned off and dismantled, enterprises laid off or, more commonly, simply stopped paying their workforce for months. And when workers finally received their salaries or pensions, they weren’t worth anything, given the hyperinflation of 1992-1993.
With the disappearance of the USSR, tens of millions of workers were impoverished and reduced to permanent destitution in regions where there were no jobs. Millions of Moldavians, Tadjiks, Uzbeks, Ukrainians were forced to emigrate in order to survive. Often, they went to Russia, where they were treated like pariahs, fleeced by the police, and employed in the most laborious and worst paying jobs.
How could anyone be surprised that alcohol and drug addiction ravaged the population! In Central Asia, the many low-paid jobs linked to drug trafficking were often the only way to make a living. But everywhere, many searched for a way to forget the daily hell in an artificial paradise. And since public medical and social services ceased functioning – because they were no longer subsidized and were privatized and unaffordable – the state of public health took a huge leap backwards for the laboring population. Diseases like tuberculosis returned with a vengeance. Other diseases, such as AIDS, spread. Nothing was done to fight against any of these diseases. Life expectancy fell steeply to 62 years, a level that had been surpassed more than 50 years before. The world had never seen such a drop before, except in times of war.
In a situation of wide unemployment and impoverishment, the birthrate in Russia and Ukraine fell with the end of the USSR. And the population continues to shrink rapidly, reversing the long-term trend upwards. Despite the influx of millions of Russians and immigrants coming from “neighboring countries,” that is, ex-Soviet republics, the Russian Federation’s population fell from 149 million in 1991 to 143 million in 2010.
Since Gorbachev, social inequalities have exploded. They form a yawning gulf between a privileged layer (three to four million bureaucrats and bourgeois) and the rest of the population, with more than 21 million people living below the official poverty line. Unemployment officially is eight percent of the active population. But in reality, it is much higher. Many of the unemployed with tiny benefits or no benefits at all prefer to manage on their own as best they can. Certainly, except in a few places, the worst misery of the Yeltsin era has disappeared. But the worsening job situation due to the world crisis, the new attacks against public services, the increasing erosion of wages by inflation, the privatizing of social services (health and education) which now have to be paid for – all this means that even in the big cities, the misery is so rampant, the population has to struggle to survive.
Beyond the individual fate of millions of workers over the last 20 years, the fall of the USSR has collective consequences for the working class. In the time of Brezhnev or of Gorbachev, the working class not only was the largest class in the USSR; it existed throughout the country, often concentrated in giant enterprises. There were hundreds of metallurgy or chemical complexes, such as Uralmach in Sverdlovsk-Ekaterinaburg, where there were 40,000 workers. And they were found in all the large and medium-sized cities.
The privatizations and the destruction of the economy by the pillage of the bureaucrats for 20 years reduced a great deal of this industrial network. In the giant old factories, there are only a few thousand or just a few hundred jobs left. And with the end of planning, the rupture in relations between the ex-soviet republics has left the enterprises without suppliers or markets.
Of course, in Russia there are still dozens of “mono-towns” where life revolves around one large factory – towns that were constructed during the industrialization of the 1930s. During explosions of workers’ anger one or two years ago in some of these towns, the entire population was in solidarity with the workers. In a city at the center of power this could create problems for the government. Now it says that it wants to dismantle some of these cities.
This only underlines that what the privileged and the owners have gained from the disappearance of the USSR is the disorganization of the industrial base of the working class, diluting it in the population, reducing its numbers and weakening its social weight. This is in spite of the fact that new enterprises, such as auto companies, which are often owned by Western companies, have been built, creating new industrial centers, like at Kaluouga near Moscow, to take advantage of the low cost of the workforce.
But as far as the working class is concerned, the determining factor remains its combativity and its political class consciousness. In 1917 in the Russia of the czars, a tiny working class, limited to a few big centers, succeeded in bringing down the autocracy and bourgeoisie and to shake the world.
At the end of December 2011, Russia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) after 18 years of negotiations. The WTO is made up of 153 countries that represent 94% of world trade. Until it joined, Russia had been the only big country that did not belong to the WTO.
Apart from vetoes by Ukraine and Georgia, two members of the WTO that had their own bones of contention with Russia (for Ukraine it was over gas, and for Georgia, over territory), what blocked these negotiations for so long? Russia itself. More exactly, its leaders didn’t want to accept the conditions set by the WTO for granting favorable commercial relations. Russia’s exports continued to be taxed at a higher level than those of WTO member countries, and it did not receive financing for what it imported. The WTO used these unfavorable conditions as a bargaining chip against the Russian government, which refused to give up its own massive subsidies to its economy (in the industrial and agricultural sectors especially); which continued to protect its banking and insurance sectors (the Russians restricted foreign financial groups from opening branches on its territory that would not be ruled by Russian law); which protected its telecommunications industry; which taxed agricultural and industrial imports that would harm local industries that have higher production costs; and which subsidized the prices of some consumer goods (in energy, food).
In brief, Russia did not want to give up the way the economy it had inherited from the USSR continued to function, notably certain state controls over foreign trade. That may have created a handicap in Russia’s foreign dealings, but it assured income protected by the public authority for numerous sectors of the bureaucracy.
The Russian state finally ceded, but not because it had given up defending the bureaucrats’ interests. The Russian press insists that the Russian bureaucrats were able to obtain measures that can be managed, and that the power will find the way to compensate the losses to certain protected sectors. The authorities are more discreet in what they claim. In any case, the media pushes the idea that the government had no other choice but to accept these measures; that if the government wants to attract foreign investment in the most advanced sectors or even for industry, it had to accept the WTO’s conditions imposed by the global industrial and financial groups. Everyone knows that Russia is at a dead end, that the well-off practically don’t invest in the country, and have only one motto: “Take the money and run.”
Thus Russia ends up being reintegrated into the world market. But very slowly. And not by the front door, as the great partisans of capitalism promised 20 years ago. It is reluctantly admitted, as with the WTO, and only as an “emerging country,” in other words, not as bad off as some other countries, but economically weak. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that the USSR was considered one of the two super-powers. Now when a big door is opened to it, it is always the door of the Western investment banks or rather one of their subsidiaries set up in tax havens. While the pillage of the economy and the exploitation of the Russian working class serve to balloon the bank accounts of the “new rich,” they also serve American and West European financial capital.
It took less than a decade of unlimited pillage of the economy and continual weakening of the central power for the country to default on its payments in 1998. The state under the alcoholic President Yeltsin was a picture of ruin and powerlessness.
It was against this situation that some ruling Russian circles wanted to respond with Putin. A product of the KGB, Putin tried to restore the authority of the state by pushing down regional barons of the Russian bureaucracy, who behaved as independent powers. He also brought the “oligarchs” to heel, who had made fortunes controlling entire sections of the economy and profiting from the complicity of the weakened central power and the support of the big apparatuses of the bureaucracy.
Among these ruling circles who looked to Putin were the leading bodies in the various military services (ex-KGB, the army, police, etc.) – the so-called “force” ministries. They decided that they had not been well served by the scramble for control of the economic resources of the USSR. They took advantage of the situation to get their revenge on some of the social climbers who lost their connections in the government when Putin came to power. Vladimir Gusinksy, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky fled abroad or were put in prison after being cut off from the part of their fortune they not could take in their baggage – such as their oil companies. Other “oligarchs” did not have to be told twice. Aven Petr, Mikhail Fridman, Vladimir Potanine, Roman Abramovich, Alexander Smolensky returned to the state (for a good price) most of the enterprises that they had stolen from it. Leaving for a semi-voluntary but golden exile, they live a parasitic high life in more or less retirement in France or Great Britain.
The sweep of the broom wielded by Putin and by the men of the KGB “unprivatized” the Russian economy somewhat, starting around 2000. But it was not re-nationalized, because the enterprises that returned to the bosom of the state are today found under the personal control of very high bureaucrats.
There are private bosses in Russia, even capitalist billionaires like one finds elsewhere. But much more numerous and with much more power are the heads of public companies, which often issue some stock – they owe their positions to high functionaries close to power, if not heads of various departments.
The central power took back control of the jewels of the Russian economy, first of all the energy sector which provides foreign currency. The men of the “force” ministries were propelled into all the levels of the economic-administrative machinery of the state where decisions are made.
According to a former advisor to Yeltsin, the privileged caste is composed of three and a half million bureaucrats holding responsible positions in the “vertical power” dear to Putin: in the numerous organs of control, inspection, as prosecutors, in the hierarchy of the police, military, in the information service, customs.
When they are not at the head of a semi-public enterprise, or even really private ones, these bureaucrats serve as a protection without which no enterprise of any importance could function in the ex-USSR. Regularly denounced by the central power, corruption rots all economic and social life. According to some media, the cost of corruption represents one-third of the state budget! And this pillage of the state, the economy and the population continues to grow. According to the minister of justice, 225 elected local officials were convicted, but only two deputies to the Duma, because deputies are covered by legal immunity. In 2010, 120 investigators, 12 prosecutors, 48 advocates and three judges were convicted of corruption. As for the general of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) who controlled the public institution in charge of the internet, he was just “replaced.” He is in prison for being mixed up in trafficking stolen smart phones.
Bribes, the kind of corruption that most affects ordinary peoples’ daily life, have also increased greatly because the lower levels of the bureaucracy don’t usually have the means to directly extort money from the state or the enterprises. “Everyday Corruption – 164 Billion Roubles [or $52 Billion] Were Spent on Bribes Last Year in Russia” was the big headline in RBK, (June 15, 2011).
Millions of bureaucrats, who are the backbone of the regime, constitute at the same time, its social base, representing an estimated 12% of the active male population. Having control over the principal sources of revenue, they can leave “free enterprise” for others. Small business owners know not to extend their business to the point of drawing attention from those in power, and the problems that could cause. The smallest problem could result in having to give their business to one or another group of bureaucrats in league with judges who could find a legal pretext to expropriate a business. As for the bloody settling of accounts between businessmen, even if they are less covered by the media than during the time of Yeltsin, they have not disappeared.
At the beginning of 2000, when Putin succeeded Yeltsin, promising to bring stability to a state that was in the process of sinking, many bureaucrats applauded. The rest of public opinion was also tired of a decade of deprivation and scandals of all kinds in the name of “democracy.” The middle classes, which amount to 20% of the entire Russian population and which had been upset, accepted, according to a Russian journal (Gazeta.ru, December 15, 2011), “stability in exchange for the monopolization of power,” by Putin. Since that deal coincided with economic improvement the petty bourgeoisie gave it credit for its improving income. But, the journal continues, “the deal expired mainly because of the economic crisis [beginning in 2008], but also because of the actions of those in power.”
In 2008, Medvedev succeeded Putin as president of the Russian Federation. Some people in the petty bourgeoisie scrutinized the smallest disagreement between the two of them. Disappointed by Gorbachev, then by Yeltsin, and finally by Putin, they put their hopes in Medvedev. Medvedev, they said, was modern, younger and seemed reluctant to make the kinds of decisions made by Putin. He even declared that he would run for president in 2012. Against Putin? They had their champion!
Alas! It was Medvedev who, in October 2011, enthroned Putin as candidate of Russia United, the ruling party, probably making Putin the future president. What’s more, Medvedev led this same party during the legislative elections in December. This crystalized the frustrations and disillusionment of the “middle classes,” leading them to punish the party. And then, when people didn’t know anyone who voted for Russia United but the party still “won” the elections, it was too much.
As soon as the legislative election results were announced, disgust was so great that people took to the streets in big demonstrations. Rather than becoming discouraged by the arrests and convictions of the first demonstrators, even more demonstrators took to the streets crying,“No to the party of crooks and thieves!” There were youth who were demonstrating for the first time and older people also, who said that they hadn’t seen such large demonstrations since the fall of the USSR. Much of the crowd was made up of representatives of what are called the intelligentsia (journalists, lawyers, artists, architects, actors, students), as well as the owners of small businesses. And all of those who had been pushed out of power were also there, including former ministers from both the Yeltsin and Putin regimes, liberal politicians, right-wing parties, extreme right-wing nationalists, center-left formations, and finally a few far-left groups.
From what is known, workers have been largely absent from the demonstrations up until now. Undoubtedly, they don’t identify with the well-known people in the demonstrations, who are generally from the right-wing and usually criticize Putin for not installing a bourgeois political system as quickly and completely as they would like.
The workers may have had good reason for not mobilizing in these demonstrations. But they had just as good reason as the petty bourgeoisie – even if they do not have the same reason – for being indignant about the system and to want to combat it.
The effect of the demonstrations during the upcoming presidential elections appears to worry the regime. In a speech, Putin denounced “extremist provocations” which would push the state “toward chaos, like in 1917.” In playing the “me or chaos” song, he perhaps hopes to frighten a big part of public opinion – including some of the demonstrators – who well know that he had restored order in the beer garden, which is what the country had become under Yeltsin.
Putin just pulled out of his sleeve billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov to run as a right-wing opposition candidate for president, which is acceptable to the Kremlin. Prokhorov had already been asked to take the lead of a right-wing opposition linked to the Kremlin. As Prokhorov jumped into the game, Putin took umbrage and had him kicked out of his part just before the legislative elections. Right away, the puppet won a small aura as an oppositionist who Putin can now profitably recycle. Will this gain some public support? Or will Putin demand that Medvedev resign and let Putin return immediately as president, posing as the country’s savior in the midst of the crisis, a scheme that had worked during past elections? Finally, it isn’t very important.
It is much more important that these events that are shaking the Russian political landscape bring forward a new generation that engages itself politically, understanding the meaning of the defeats, the successes and the past struggles. Within this generation, it is necessary that workers learn to orient themselves facing their current enemies and their “democratic” predecessors who are partisans of a bourgeois society just as hostile to the workers as the current regime. And don’t forget, the well-to-do and the regime keep the nationalists in reserve as a breeding ground of an extreme right that is racist and xenophobic – “just in case.”
What is more than ever necessary is that militants, revolutionary organizations, socialists and communists worthy of the name find a way during these events to address the workers; that they convince the workers not to remain spectators, nor support one or another camp, equally opposed to the working class, as they did during the events two decades ago, but to fight as workers for a policy conforming to their own class interests. A policy that fights for a future not under the rule of the bourgeoisie, big or small, flanked or not by the bureaucracy, but for a future rid of exploitation of human beings by human beings in Russia, as everywhere else. It is a communist future that their ancestors opened the door to nearly a century ago with the victory of October 1917.