Putin's purge

In a surprise broadcast address to the nation last Tuesday, just three weeks before the presidential election, Putin announced that he had sacked his government. The main aim was to get rid of the prime minister, and this has been accomplished. The short-term effect of these changes will therefore be to reinforce Putin and his Bonapartist regime. However, the “strong man” has feet of clay.

In a surprise broadcast address to the nation last Tuesday, just three weeks before the presidential election, Putin announced that he had sacked his government. In a terse speech announcing the move, Putin said his decision was "dictated by a wish once again to set down a position on how policy will develop after March 14." He added "I consider it right at this time not to wait for the end of the electoral campaign.''

The president can fire his cabinet ministers at any time, without giving reasons. But if he dismisses the prime minister, the entire government must resign. Nevertheless, there seems no clear reason why he should have acted in this way at this time. Under the constitution, Putin must appoint a new government after the election. Nevertheless, the timing of Putin's action has surprised observers. "This is a very strange and sudden development," Igor Bunin, director of the independent Centre for Political Technologies told Fred Weir in Moscow. "There are no immediate explanations for it."

Some observers have compared it to the actions of a feudal monarch dismissing his vassals out of personal caprice. Certainly no coherent reason has come from the President himself. The move was probably directed against Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, an appointee of former President Boris Yeltsin who has frequently clashed with Putin over Kremlin policy toward big business, including last year's arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The so-called democracy in present-day Russia is a farce. All power is concentrated at the centre in the Kremlin clique. This naturally centres on the strong man, Putin, who treats the government, the state and the media as if they were his personal property. It is, in fact, a regime of semi-parliamentary Bonapartism. Putin balances between the classes, now striking blows against the working class, now against the oligarchy, now against the bureaucracy. But all the time he has been concentrating power in his own hands.

Even before Putin made his announcement, liberal candidate Irina Khakamada - one of Putin's six challengers - threatened to drop out of the race, saying the President's refusal to debate and massive use of state TV and other "administrative resources" had made public voting irrelevant. "The presidential election looks increasingly lawless and false," said Ms. Khakamada. "The competition of ideas and alternatives is becoming impossible."

Should Khakamada quit, "the whole election will look a bit of a farce," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for International and Political Studies in Moscow. "It already is very much a one-horse race, but if there are not even any theoretical alternatives, then what is the point of elections at all?" (Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 2004)

For the moment, anyway, Putin's position seems secure. The result of the Presidential election is already a foregone conclusion. Putin could win about 80 percent of the vote, according to a poll conducted by the Moscow-based All Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion from February 13 to 16. The survey of 1,600 people in 100 cities had a margin of error of 3.4 percent.

The only apparent threat to Putin's re-election prospects is the danger that less than 50 percent of voters might turn out, which would invalidate the polls under Russian law. According to the All Russia poll, as many as 15 percent of voters said they wouldn't vote, and another 9 percent didn't know if they would. It has even been suggested that Putin's action was intended to breathe some life into a lifeless campaign, where tedium and cynicism about the whole electoral process are prevalent. The apathy revealed in the latest opinion poll is not surprising. People are cynical about politics because they see no fundamental difference between the main political parties.

"Firing the government is just a PR move to attract people to vote on the eve of elections, just a cynical manipulation of power," concluded Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov. But the CPRF itself has contributed to this apathy by consistently failing to pose an alternative to Putin. It has shamefully imitated his nationalist policies and has accepted capitalism and market economics. In the last elections it had more tycoons in its lists than any other party. It even criticised Putin for his attacks on the Russian oligarchy. Not surprisingly, it was soundly defeated. This has now provoked a crisis within the Party.

The present move therefore represents yet another step in the consolidation of Putin's regime of personal power – a Bonapartist regime. Bonapartist tendencies arise when the class struggle reaches the point of deadlock. The movement towards capitalism in Russia over the past decade has been a stormy one. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 opened up a stormy period in which the nascent bourgeoisie fought with the bureaucracy for state power. This struggle for power at times assumed a bloody character, as shown by the assault on the White House ten years ago. The result was a repulsive hybrid regime that combines all the worst features of capitalism with all the worst features of the old Stalinist bureaucratic regime. The main loser was the working class.

It is the temporary inertia of the working class that has determined everything. The struggle for power was reduced to the struggle between the nascent bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy, with the working class as mere onlookers. As a result, politics in Russia are reduced to the struggle of different cliques for control of the state, which is the source of power, wealth, influence and patronage. This struggle does not take place in the open but in the dark corners of the Kremlin, where rival cliques of businessmen fight for power and positions like ferrets in a sack.

It is impossible to make sense of all these intrigues, backstabbing and manoeuvres that remind one of the politics in the age of Machiavelli. Under such conditions even personal factors like jealousy, ambition and so on can play a disproportionate role. Most likely, however, Putin decided to show who is master in this house, and that he no longer needs the "family" (former President Yeltsin's inner circle). It is just another expression of the clique struggles between rival groups and personalities that are what constitutes Russian politics today.

This is really only a continuation of what has gone before. Boris Yeltsin regularly dismissed governments and prime ministers. He sacked the Russian government headed by Viktor Chernomyrdin on March 23,1998 and appointed Sergei Kiriyenko first vice-premier who performed the duties of prime minister. The State Duma approved Kiriyenko as the head of the cabinet only at the third attempt. He held the premier's office till August 1998.

Then the president announced the resignation of Sergei Kiriyenko's government on August 23, 1998 and appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin acting prime minister. But the State Duma rejected his candidature twice. Yeltsin signed a decree on the appointment of Yevgeniy Primakov to the post of prime minister on September 11, 1998 after the approval of his candidature by the Lower House of Parliament at one dash. Primakov headed the government for nine months.

The president dismissed Yevgeniy Primakov's government on May 12, 1999 and appointed First Vice-Premier and Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin acting prime minister. The majority of deputies approved his candidature on May 19 and Yeltsin signed a decree on Stepashin's appointment as prime minister on the same day. Yeltsin signed a decree on Sergei Stepashin's government resignation in less than three-months' time on August 9, 1999 and appointed Vladimir Putin first vice-premier and entrusted him with the temporary performance of the duties of prime minister. Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin prime minister on August 16 after the approval of his candidature by the State Duma in one move.

Kasyanov was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin and reconfirmed by Putin four years ago. He is close to the oligarchy and has attempted to defend oligarchs against Putin. After the arrest of Khodorkovsky in October, Kasyanov was brave (or foolish) enough to publicly protest and warn of serious economic consequences if foreign investors turned away from Russia as a result.

Despite this, Khodorkovsky was sent to prison, where he remains. His Yukos petroleum empire is being gradually dismembered by the prosecutors. After Khodorkovsky's arrest, Putin dismissed Alexander Voloshin - Kremlin chief of staff and a champion of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs. That left Kasyanov as virtually the last Yeltsin "family" member in the Kremlin. Now his hour has struck.

Marxists approach politics from the class standpoint. What we need to ask is not what different combinations in the Kremlin mean, but what class do the different political tendencies represent. Putin pretends to stand above classes, but in fact he stands for the Russian capitalist oligarchy as much as Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky or Kasyanov. In fact, he himself is one of the main oligarchs.

The sacking of the government therefore does not signify any real change. Putin has cracked the whip, and they must all jump. Those who jump with sufficient alacrity and fawn on the President with sufficient servility will be rewarded with a new job. "I think that the team of reformers headed by (Economy Minister) German Gref will keep their positions," said Sergei Markov, director of Russia's Institute of Political Studies. That is undoubtedly correct.

Putin will name a new cabinet before presidential elections in less than three weeks. This is not as difficult as it sounds. We can confidently expect to see many of the sacked ministers reappear in Putin's new administration. He has already installed Kasyanov's deputy Viktor Khristenko as an interim prime minister. Others will follow.

The main aim was to get rid of the prime minister, and this has been accomplished. Putin wanted to oust Kasyanov personally rather than his whole team, but under the constitution he had to sack the entire cabinet to get rid of a prime minister: "Kasyanov was not Putin's man," said Ian Hague, who manages more than $500 million in Russian and East European assets at Firebird Management LLC in New York. "Khristenko may not last that long either. It is possible that the role of the prime minister will be reduced, and instead you will have ministers reporting directly to Putin."

The short-term effect of these changes will therefore be to reinforce Putin and his Bonapartist regime. However, the "strong man" has feet of clay. There are several reasons for Putin's success. The first reason can be simply stated: the lack of any alternative. When the Russian economy collapsed in the summer of 1998, there was a widespread reaction against capitalism and the market. If the CPRF had given a lead at that time, the whole movement towards capitalism could have been reversed. But the CPRF leaders did no such thing. They have capitulated to capitalism, and this has left the working class without a political alternative.

Secondly, Putin has been very lucky. The collapse of the rouble in 1998 created the conditions for a revival of the Russian economy. Imports fell, since nobody could afford to buy them, permitting a revival of Russian industry. In addition, Russia has benefited from the high price of oil and gas on world markets. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the economy experienced a healthy growth rate of up to 8 percent.

There are signs that this growth rate is now falling. The U.N. European Economic Commission predicts a 5-6 percent growth of Russia's GNP this year, lower than last year's index of 7.3 percent. But to achieve the aim to double the GNP in ten years, more than a seven percent growth a year is needed. There are serious factors responsible for slowing the rate of growth. One is the erosion of the effects of the 1998 devaluation. Another may be a decreasing population, resulting in a smaller labour force.

More seriously, since Russia is more dependent upon world trade than at any time in the past, any fall in the price of oil will have a very damaging effect. The high rate of growth is mainly the result of favourable external conditions (particularly the high oil and gas export prices). But already EU economists are predicting that the Russian oil sector, the main driving force of Russia's economy in recent years, will experience a lower oil production growth this year -- from eleven to three percent. And it will inevitably have an effect on the GNP growth.

As a matter of fact, the growth of the productive forces is not a bad thing from the standpoint of the Russian working class. It will help to restore the confidence of the working class in its own strength. At a certain point it will result in upsurge of the economic struggle and an outbreak of strikes. The trade union leaders who have collaborated with Putin will be under pressure to come out in opposition.

The CPRF, as the only "opposition" force with an all-Russian base, will also find itself under pressure to abandon its class-collaboration politics and begin to organize a serious opposition to Putin and the oligarchy. The present crises inside the Party will grow, producing convulsions and splits. At a certain point the bourgeois elements will be vomited out of the Party.

Under the pressure of the working class, it can move to the left. New layers of workers and youth will enter, looking for the banner of Communism. The old, tired elements will fall away. Unlike the leaders of the CPRF the Communist rank and file want to change society. This will open up serious possibilities for the tendency of genuine Marxism-Leninism (Trotskyism), provided that the Trotskyists understand this and do not fall into the mistake of sectarianism and ultra-leftism.

Despite the temporary stabilisation, Russian capitalism remains a fragile plant. In order to consolidate itself it must make deep cuts in workers' living standards. The bourgeois "reformers" are demanding further structural reforms – that is, further attacks and cuts. These will necessarily be painful for the majority of Russians. An unbridgeable gulf will open up between the classes. The conditions are therefore maturing for a new upsurge of the class struggle in Russia. Putin would do well to savour his moment of triumph. It will not last long.