The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Putin, the Demagogue Navalny, and a Persistent Social Discontent

Mar 7, 2019

The following article is translated from an article in Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary workers group active in France.

On February 20th, 2019, just like every year, Russian President Vladimir Putin put on a big show for the media: he addressed a combined session of deputies and senators of the Federal Assembly in front of the cameras of all the major television networks. Judging by the content of his “State of the Nation” speech, he had his mind, and perhaps also his eyes, on the results of a recent poll conducted by the independent institute Levada-Center. Carried out in 52 regions, the poll made clear that a majority of the people surveyed were for the dismissal of the government, an unprecedented result. It also revealed that 57% of those surveyed pointed to the inability of the government to stop the rise in prices and the decline of incomes and that 46% denounced the lack of jobs.

A Crisis of Confidence

This speech was intended as a “direct response to the serious crisis of confidence in the government that affects the population,” according to the February 25th edition of the French economic magazine Expert. Putin focused the first and main part of his address (70 minutes out of 90 minutes total) on the fight against poverty and what he called measures of social support. He also insisted: “In the shortest possible delay, people should be able to feel real changes that will improve their lives,” while reproaching his government for not having done this earlier. This is a posture that he has feigned for the past 2 decades: that of the “good Czar” who listens to his people, whom he protects against the “Boyar merchants,” whether these be certain ministers, high functionaries, or oligarchs....

The problem for Putin and for the current Russian regime, which rests to a certain extent on the aura of its leader, is that although he still benefits from the confidence of a majority of the population, according to the same polls, his popularity ratings have clearly fallen. And this only happened in the space of several months. Less than a year ago, he succeeded in getting himself triumphantly reelected to the presidency of the Russian Federation. But in the meantime, there were 3 months of protests in the streets against a series of measures that the government took against the population: raising the value-added tax and especially pushing back the retirement age for wage earners, with women being hit harder than men. Since then, the regime and its leader have still not succeeded in getting back on their feet from a relative but lasting unpopularity.

The Weakness of a “Strong Regime”

The discrediting of leaders is a fact of political life in almost every major country. It can be observed everywhere, and this phenomenon has grow stronger with the crisis, with the wealthy and ruling classes demanding from those in charge that they put ever more pressure on the working classes. French President Emmanuel Macron has crystallized the anger of the Yellow Vests against his personality, just like Hollande, Sarkozy, and the rest, who were thrown out for the same reasons. There is nothing exceptional about this. But in all of the developed capitalist countries, the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie has long set up mechanisms that allow it to replace those among its leaders who get worn out in the service of the ruling class, without causing too much friction for the system. This is even the very essence of bourgeois democracy.

In Russia, the discredit of the man who exercises supreme power poses a problem of a different nature and magnitude than in the West for the regime. This is true for a whole series of reasons linked to what the Soviet Union was and what it passed on to the Russia of Yeltsin and then Putin, and to the functioning and organization of the state that came out of this. It can be summed in one word: state control. Under Stalin, the state and especially its police were strong enough to suffocate and crush any conflicting voice. Despite his authoritarianism and strong-arm methods, Putin obviously does not have the same means to impose silence in the ranks.

In 2000, after Russia had been left in ruins by the collapse of the USSR followed by the decade of shameless plunder under Yeltsin, Putin had appeared as the man of the hour: he would bring the country out of chaos. By restoring what he called the “power vertical,” he was determined to reestablish the functioning of the state apparatus which guarantees a position to vast quantities of bureaucrats. Because these bureaucrats each claim a small part of state power for themselves, they form the country’s main ruling and privileged social layer.

In order to reassure the bureaucracy, its new leader built up a public image as the protector of the nation, severe but just, in whom the population was supposed to place their confidence that he would improve their fate. Moreover, Putin was able to profit from favorable circumstances, since the end of chaos within the state coincided with a small economic upturn in between two shocks of the global crisis. By boosting the revenue that the state got from exporting oil, gas, and raw materials, Putin was able to somewhat improve millions of workers’ living conditions.

But this rediscovered omnipotence of the Russian state rests on a public image of Putin which fills the media: he intervenes on every front, here to order an oligarch to pay his workers, there to scold a minister, or even at the helm of a fighter jet. He was recently shown driving a truck across the newly constructed bridge connecting Crimea to the motherland.... In order to maintain this quite fragile equilibrium, there can be no exterior shock, and there can be no challenge to the man who embodies the regime, other than in a very contained manner. And yet, this is precisely what is threatening to happen.

When the Global Crisis Strikes

On February 20th, Putin boasted that he settled the Russian government’s foreign debt. Even if this were true, the fact remains that his state is chasing after money. There have of course been the effects of five years of Western sanctions after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Apart from targeting high-ranking officials and filthy rich bureaucrats, these sanctions increasingly hinder the financial and commercial operations of Russian companies abroad. But what is more serious are the repercussions of the global crisis on Russia, which occupies a marginal and subordinate place in international economic exchanges as a supplier of raw materials.

This can be seen in figures for direct foreign investment in Russia, an indicator which is supposed to measure the influx of capital invested in industry and major infrastructure. In 2017, they appear to have been quite low: $27.1 billion. In 2018, however, they had dropped to practically nothing: $1.9 billion. And, for various reasons, but often due to lack of outlets, several factories, especially those of foreign auto companies (Ford, Peugeot) have closed or are on the brink of closing.

It is in this context that the following sentence that Putin uttered in his annual address must be understood: “An honest business cannot be under constant legal pressure, and constantly feel the risk of a criminal or administrative charge.” This is a criticism of the security services that Putin came out of and which he relies upon, and of the justice system. These forces just threw the U.S. head of the investment firm Baring Vostok and one of his assistants in prison, on the request of their Russian partners with government connections, in an affair involving huge sums of money and offshore accounts tied to a leading bank.

Will the President’s words lift the spirits of foreign investors in Russia, even though they have been turning away? This remains to be seen. As for getting the bureaucratic sharks to stop acting like predators entitled to do whatever they like, that is easier to predict: he might as well get blood from a stone.

The Baring Vostok affair shows the methods, and not just local, of the business world. It also casts an indirect light on the weakness of the Russian state in its global economic relations. In the propaganda intended for its own population, the Kremlin can play up its actions in Syria, pose as the protector of Maduro’s Venezuela against U.S. imperialism, and puff up its chest about having supplied “Made in Russia” planes, helicopters, and missiles to both the Pakistani and Indian armies at the same time in order to attack each other in Kashmir. But in the global economic war, Russia is out of its league.

It may well occupy the first rank of oil and natural gas production in the world, but it is the markets, and not Russia, which set the prices. In other words, this is done by the huge companies of the imperialist countries. And it has even less control over the demand for oil and gas, which depend on the status of the big powers’ economies, on the global crisis, and on speculation. And so, the Russian state’s revenues, 80% of which depend on its exports of raw materials, have been declining for years. The ruble keeps depreciating compared to other currencies like the dollar and the euro which dominate international exchanges, and the Russian population pays the cost, since imported products get more expensive and public spending continues to contract.

It is in this framework that the political leadership of the bureaucracy, in unison with the small and big bosses, has been carrying out more and more attacks on the living standards of the working classes. All of these groups throw the whole burden of the crisis and its consequences on the workers, and more generally on the whole poor and laboring population, with the sole objective of maintaining their incomes or increasing them if possible.

For years, Putin has restrained himself from directly attacking the working class. He allowed the crowd of bureaucrats, among others, to enrich themselves from the exploitation of millions of workers, but he did not hesitate to intervene from time to time in order to seem to defend workers in the occasional situation where public opinion might have become troubled or have taken on an explosive turn.

With the exacerbation of the global crisis, the incessant flight of capital created by the wealth that workers in Russia produced, and the near-disappearance of Western investment in Russia, the ruling summits of the bureaucracy have made their choice: to intensify the exploitation of the workers in all its forms, in order to assure that the caste of parasites in power gets what it wants, which is the continuation and growth of its revenue.

Discontent Makes Itself Heard

All this is what mainly explains the retirement “reform,” a deliberate attack on future retirees, who, at least as far as men are concerned, will often be forced to work until they die. One should therefore not be surprised that this has provoked the anger of the working classes, and, last summer, a movement that publicly rejected the government’s anti-worker policies. This rejection is very widely shared, far more so than one would be led to believe from just the several tens of thousands of people who came to participate in the demonstrations and marches, coming out despite the World Cup that the Kremlin organized and hoped to profit from politically, despite the ban on demonstrating in city centers, and despite the summer vacation.

This open protest may well have withered away after several weeks and then stopped due to lack of perspectives, but the government’s popularity has not recovered. The job of acting as a lightning rod has often fallen to the Prime Minister, with Putin waiting in the shadows and pushing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the center stage so that he could absorb all of the unpopularity from having announced the retirement reform. However, this was no longer enough to completely prevent the population’s lightning from striking the President as well. He was booed in the summer demonstrations and he is having more and more trouble pulling off the posture that has worked for him until now: that of the Czar who listens to the people.

There is therefore nothing surprising that the circles of power have been asking themselves (and that this has been echoed in the media) what solution would best allow them to keep their privileges and sources of revenues in case the Kremlin should not succeed in preventing a certain discontent from expressing itself.

This discontent continues to rage against a government which is literally poisoning the population, as in Greater Moscow, where people have remained mobilized for months against the negligence of the local and central authorities, who have allowed giant open-air garbage dumps to form where all sorts of waste accumulate with no sorting or recycling, and with no respect for any sort of sanitary practices. When the population of a given place reacts with force – by blocking public traffic, for example – the government ultimately responds. Or rather, it shifts the source of the problem to somewhere that had been spared up until then, which opens up another field of struggle with the authorities in that area.

There are also strikes for wage increases, even in the gold mines of distant Kamchatka and Central Siberia. This is not surprising, since prices continue to rise, including those of basic food staples: milk, bread, eggs, and cereals.

These strikes for wage increases are still rare. Moreover, they generality do not win their main demands, and the authorities help the employers rid themselves of the workers at the origins of the movements. But what is new is that it is no longer only defensive strikes which break out. These strikes might include actions to recover unpaid wages, which still motivates many strikes in the construction industry. They might also include strikes to force the bosses to respect minimum rights, as in recent weeks in the case of cleaning and security workers in Moscow buildings, who are often immigrants from the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan and find themselves under constant threat from the police who shake them down or expel them as undocumented, and who are treated like pariahs.

Among other examples, there is also the case of workers in maternity wards and hospitals who have to defend themselves when the authorities decide to close these establishments. This happened recently in Moscow and Kemerovo, a city in the heart of Siberia’s coal mining basin, with the same false arguments used in other countries, and with the same goal: saving costs on operations and personnel on the backs of the population.

A Xenophobic and Anti-Worker Demagogue Creates His Own “Union”

It was in this context that in January 2019, the man whom the Western media and politicians praise as the number one opposition to Putin, Alexei Navalny, launched his own “union.” He baptized it with his own name, tacking on the acronym of the organization that gives him a certain popularity: FBK (the Anti-Corruption Foundation).

Imprisoned multiple times for having called for unauthorized or banned demonstrations, Navalny became famous during the movement in late 2011 and early 2012 against Putin’s regime “of crooks and thieves.” He is a lawyer, businessman, and blogger known for his devastating videos about the most visible members of the ruling circles having possessions hidden abroad and the corrupt dealings in which they are involved. Forbidden from running in the 2018 presidential elections due to an arbitrary decision of the Kremlin, he had not been concerned with the fate of workers until now. Or when he had been, it was for the worse.

While he was running in the Moscow municipal elections, Navalny launched a national petition calling for the deportation of workers from the former Soviet Republics of Asia and the Caucasus. These workers often immigrate to Russia without papers to earn the equivalent of several hundred dollars per month, at the price of being ferociously exploited at construction sites, in markets, maintaining roads or apartment buildings, in retail, etc. This conduct is in line with how Navalny has acted for years, as a nationalist and a xenophobe, who paraded at the head of the Russian March, which every year unites those in the country who are nostalgic for Czarism, nationalists, and members of the extreme right.

Around 2014, Navalny created the Progress Party, but it did not differ from Putin’s party, United Russia, in any matter which had the slightest bit to do with social concerns. Like Putin, Navalny called for the continuation of the so-called “public-private” system of social security. This was only logical, since he held the same position that he had chosen in 2011 as spokesman for the small bosses and entrepreneurs who demonstrated in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. His denunciation of the “crooks and thieves” expressed the bitterness of the petty bourgeoisie over having to cede the biggest piece of the cake to the bureaucracy.

In 2018, just before his candidacy in the presidential election was blocked, Navalny limited his program to calling for a doubling of public healthcare spending. And that was it. On the other hand, he make sure to call for “the reinforcement of property rights,” which he continues to do today.

And so, what brought him to become interested in unions? Doubtlessly it was having seen some of them play a role in the initial mobilization against the government last summer, while he himself was reduced to chasing after them. Moreover, social discontent aimed at the government persists, and he wants to profit from it.

His partisans, who are making their rounds in the big cities to promote his project, insist on the fact that he is addressing the budgetniki, or employees of the public sector. This is a sign that Navalny is sending to the small and middle bourgeoisie: he has no intention of annoying them by organizing a union in their companies. Then, by saying that his goal is to force Putin to stick to his promises he made in the “May Decrees” of 2012 and 2018, which included the intention to bring the budgetniki’s pay in line with the average salary in each region, Navalny designates the current President as the workers’ main enemy, while he himself is on their side. He is not embarrassed to wear the false beard of unionism to play politics.

On these grounds, he is counting on a large level of support among public workers, given how disappointed they are. He also hopes to strike a chord with the union members in the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), which is subordinate to the regime, and with those in the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR), which, although it claims to be independent of the government, has finds little echo among the workers. For the same reasons, it is not impossible that the “Navalny Union” might see workers from the private sector turn their eyes towards it. In any case, its initiator declares that everyone must unite, that the unions must unite with him, or in fact, behind him.

It is of course disturbing to see a nationalist xenophobe who is for the market and for capitalism wanting to play on workers’ discontent. And it is no less so to hear so-called progressive circles or so-called radical unions consider collaborating with this individual, under the pretext that he will turn to the left and arguing for the need to unite against Putin. Such a unity would take place behind an enemy of the working class, as can be seen emerging and even taking power in a growing number of countries.

In Russia, the crisis is hitting the poor and working classes. The tragedy is that, in order to try to defend themselves, they must choose between a chief of the bureaucracy with a tarnished image and demagogues like Navalny. Yes, the Russian working class, like others, is slow to become conscious of the situation and what is really at stake.

But things can change. There exist in Russia militants, groups who still more or less identify with the rich traditions of the workers’ movement, with socialist, sometimes communist, or even Trotskyist ideas about the defense of the political interests of the working class, who could and should transmit this capital to it. In any case, this would be the best thing that could happen, rather than letting a nationalist and anti-worker adventurer like Navalny claim to represent the workers, including with the support of some on the left or in the unions.