Parliamentary Elections in Russia - Putin consolidates his Bonapartist regime

On Sunday December 7th, Russians went to the polls to choose representatives for the state Duma, the lower house of parliament. The figures given in business daily Kommersant, based on 97.87% of the total vote, are as follows: United Russia 222 seats, the CPRF 53, LDPR 38, Motherland 37, independent deputies 65, and deputies from political parties who were elected on a first past the post basis 16. This result gives Putin a free hand in controlling the parliament. It is another step towards the consolitation of a bonapartist regime.

On Sunday December 7th, Russians went to the polls to choose representatives for the state Duma, the lower house of parliament. The figures given in business daily Kommersant, based on 97.87% of the total vote, are as follows: United Russia 222 seats, the CPRF 53, LDPR 38, Motherland 37, independent deputies 65, and deputies from political parties who were elected on a first past the post basis 16.

The Kremlin-backed party United Russia won 37% of the vote. In addition, two other parties which are loyal to the Kremlin, Vladimir Zhirinovski’s ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Sergey Glazeev’s Motherland, were also well supported, underlining Putin’s current domination of the political scene. On the other hand, Zyuganov’s CPRF saw its vote slump to just 12.7% of the vote.

This result gives Putin a free hand in controlling the parliament. Due to the voting system in Russia, in which MPs are elected both on a party list if their party receives more than 5% of the vote and on a first past the post basis, the actual base of the pro-Putin parties in the Duma is even stronger. Firstly, many parties, including the right wing liberal parties Yabloko and SPS (the union or right wing forces) did not get the necessary 5%. In this way 30% of the party vote was re-allocated to the parties that have made it to the Duma. For example United Russia now has 117, rather than 83 deputies from its party list. Secondly, due to the support of the administration United Russia won many of the first past the post elections.

Clearly, Putin has succeeded in reinforcing his Bonapartist regime. His allies could now control up to two-thirds of Duma seats – far more than their previous 40%. This gives Putin a strong base to win the next presidential contest, due to be held next March. And with the Duma in his pocket, he will have the leverage to push through new laws without much obstruction. 

An amusing comment that illustrates this is the complaint of a former Soviet film director that voting is no longer a festive occasion – in the old days even if there was only one candidate to choose from at least there was music and flowers and colour at the ballot box. This is a joke, of course. The old “elections” were festive occasions only for the privileged bureaucrats whose careers and incomes were defended by the one-party state. But at least in the nationalized planned economy the workers enjoyed certain benefits that have now been abolished by the capitalist regime.

Why Putin won

Putin called the poll “another step in strengthening democracy”, which shows that the Russian president does not lack a sense of humour. The new parliament will be dominated by pro-Kremlin parties (parties, indeed, created by the Kremlin) and devoid of ideology apart from various degrees of nationalism. All this has little to do with democracy and everything to do with power. These elections are therefore part of a process whereby Putin has steadily consolidated his grip on the Russian state and government.

At least for the present, Putin has got the result he was looking for: creating a big enough parliamentary bloc that will enable him to change the constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority. The significance of these elections is precisely the increase in power of the President and the reduction in power of the Duma. This is the exact opposite of parliamentary democracy. The Duma has now lost any semblance of independence it may have had as an institution. 

The reasons for Putin’s success are several. He was also undoubtedly helped by a favourable economic situation. With economic growth approaching 6.5% for the year, rather than the expected 4.5%, Putin has benefited from a temporary softening of social tensions. After a decade of collapse and misery, the present situation appears to be at least a bit better than before. The president plays on the relative improvement of the economy to cultivate the view that things aren’t too bad now, the pensions are being paid, etc. 

In addition, the state apparatus used its considerable resources (such as state television) to manipulate the electorate and increase the support for the pro-Kremlin parties. An example of this is the publicity given to the Motherland party, which managed to gain nearly 10% of the national vote even though it had only been founded as a party a few months beforehand.

The political process is completely one-sided, with power running from the top down. The Kremlin has organized a series of parties that support the President to create a “managed democracy” in Russia, in which political parties pretend to challenge each other but keep their disputes within the limits established by the Kremlin. As a result, everyone knew in advance that Putin would win these elections easily, whatever the correlation of forces existed between the various parties that supported him. 

However, the main reason for Putin’s success is the lack of any clear alternative. Apart from their links to the President all the pro-President parties are united by their nationalism, which is typically used by Bonapartist regimes to create the illusion that they represent the Nation. Another clear indication of the Bonapartist character of President Putin’s leadership in the context of these elections is the manoeuvring of the President between different parties and layers of society in order to play them off against each other and increase his own popularity. In this context the weekly journal Kommersant Vlast (which means power) described President Putin’s strong position at the top of Russian politics by equating the rival power factions as four suits in a pack of cards. These suits were the Yeltsin family clique, the St Petersburg reformers, the Liberals and the siloviki (the representatives of the security forces), with Putin being the ace in each suit. The current elections furnish further examples of his links with all these groups.

Putin’s Bonapartism

The Putin regime is trying to identify the nation with the state apparatus, appealing to Russians to unite under the leadership of a “strong state”. Such demagogic propaganda has a certain echo among backward sections of the population of a country that is still struggling to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The years of “market reform” have meant a humiliating dependence on the West that is resented by many people. But Putin’s trick of speaking for “all Russians” is a lie and a deception.

Putin is a bourgeois Bonaparte who stands for the interests of the crooks who have made themselves rich at the expense of the people. This fact is not altered by the arrest of Russia’s richest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In October, Khodorkovsky was arrested and charged with fraud and tax evasion in connection with his running of Yukos, an oil giant. We have naturally no sympathy with these oligarchs, who accumulated fabulous riches by grabbing state assets in the legally murky privatisations of the mid-1990s. But the jailing of Khodorkovsky was dictated, not by an opposition to the oligarchy, but only by Putin’s fears of his potential as a political challenger.

Some of Putin’s support can be explained by his demagogic “attacks” on Russia’s oligarchs, who have lost key allies in the elections. But this stance does not represent an attack on Russian capitalism, only an attempt to redistribute the spoils won through plundering the nationalised economy and the wealth of the Russian people. Nor will Putin’s victory signify a reversal of the pro-capitalist market policies. The economic reforms will continue, only they will benefit a different group of gangsters. Having a strong majority, Putin will be encouraged to move towards more centralised control and authoritarianism. The result will be an even more repulsive mixture of all the worst features of capitalism and all the worst features of the old Stalinist system.

This fits into the general process of Putin consolidating his presidential (Bonapartist) power by placing a question mark over the validity of the privatisations in the early 1990s, in which layers in the state, such as the security forces, missed out on. If these privatisations are taken to court decisions will inevitably be made in the interests of the state, which controls the judiciary. A re-allocation of property will strengthen Putin vis-a-vis the oligarchs, which is important to Putin since the oligarchs have the potential power, and a material interest, to oppose him. It would also strengthen his base yet further in the state since the spoils of earlier privatisations would be redivided among representatives of the state apparatus, who will have Putin to thank for their new ill-gotten gains.

Putin’s appeal to nationalism has been slavishly followed by all the other parties – including the CPRF. An astonishing feature of the election campaign was that even parties that are independent of the President presented themselves as loyal Partiots, from the CPRF to the right wing parties. Yabloko’s posters declared that “Russia will win!” Thus opposition parties did not distinguish themselves from the line of the President. This particularly applies to the CPRF, whose two principal slogans, nationalism and criticism to the oligarchy, were expressed more convincingly by the parties of power. 

Hypocrisy of the imperialists 

These results were not what the West wanted. For some time now American imperialism has changed its foreign policy. Instead of backing Bonapartist dictatorships, it prefers weak bourgeois “democracies” that can more easily be controlled. After the fall of Stalinism, they had calculated that a capitalist Russia would be a weak, semi-colonial state, under their control, which they could exploit for its oil, gas and other natural resources. A Bonapartist regime with strong nationalist overtones would represent a potential threat to the West. 

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitored the election, denounced it as “overwhelmingly distorted”. That is an understatement. The state-owned media was 101 percent in favour of Putin and candidates opposed to the president got far less television airtime than the president’s supporters. Government resources were mobilised in support of pro-Kremlin parties. By law, Russia’s president is not supposed to campaign for any political party; Mr Putin got around that by trumpeting the virtues of a “united Russia”. 

In the election campaign four years ago Putin supported Liberal parties like the SPS (the party of the business elite) and later made a pact with the oligarchs not to re-write their privatisation deals if they did not interfere in politics. This time round Putin and his henchmen attacked the right wing parties and the oligarchy, imprisoning Mikhail Khodorkovski, the former head of the oil giant Yukos, for tax evasion in October. All the presedential parties attacked the oligarchs. The LDPR had a slogan “for the poor, for Russians”, while leaders of United Russia declared that they were for order and justice. 

Despite all the moans of the OSCE about electoral misconduct, the reaction in the West has been muted. America—which has assiduously courted Russia as an ally in the war on terror—kept its mouth firmly shut. The unease of the West is also not dictated by any love of democracy or concern for the fate of the Russian people. They are upset because their stooges in Russia - the “liberal” parties—Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) - were trounced. The Economist moaned: “They have clearly failed to make themselves appealing to Russian voters in the 12 years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Recently, they have been hurt by their support for big business, especially amid the popular crackdown on Yukos. But their defeat may contain the seeds of a much-needed rethink and relaunch. A more vibrant liberal movement, with younger and more dynamic leaders, could rise from the ashes.”

The complaints from the West reek of hypocrisy. The imperialists have spent more than a decade pressurising Russia to move quickly down the path of so-called “market reform”. Now they complain that the Russian people, who have suffered terrible misery and privations as a result of this policy, have turned against its authors. The crushing defeat inflicted on the pro-Western bourgeois liberal parties is, at bottom, a devastating vote of no confidence in the market and all its works.

The weakness of the opposition

Although it was false from beginning to end, Putin’s Bonapartist demagogy was quite effective in deceiving the masses. The right wing bourgeois “liberal” parties criticized Putin for his attacks on the oligarchy, and this undermined them, a fact that is shown by their electoral collapse. The most open advocates of “market economy” were smashed. The underlying mood of the masses is deeply suspicious of and hostile to capitalism. 

The anti-market, anti-capitalist, anti-Western mood of the masses could and should have been expressed in a massive vote for the Communist Party. But under the leadership of Zyuganov, the CPRF has not put forward a real Communist policy, but on the contrary has flirted with big business, including businessmen in its electoral lists. It has attempted to compete with Putin on his own ground – that is, Russian nationalism. But this was completely counterproductive. The people said to themselves: If we want a bourgeois nationalist, then we must vote for Putin. Why vote for a poor imitation when we can vote for the genuine article?

The CPRF actually criticized Putin for imprisoning Khodorkovsky. This was the height of stupidity from any point of view. The big majority of Russians know that his man is a robber baron and rightly think he should be in prison. A genuine Marxist party would be in favour of arresting not only Khodorkovsky, but all the oligarchs and Mafiosi who have plundered the wealth of Russia for more than a decade and plunged the Russian people into the most abject misery. But this task must be the task of the Russian working class, which must take power into its hands as the only way out of the present chaos. 

It is necessary not only to arrest the robbers but above all to restore the stolen goods to the people by expropriating the land, banks and industries under workers’ control and management. That is the message that the CPRF would be putting forward if it were a genuine Leninist Communist Party. This is the message the Russian people want to hear. Unfortunately, Zyuganov and the leaders of the CPRF do not defend a Leninist policy, but instead are basing themselves on those sections of the bourgeoisie that are opposed to Putin for their own reasons. They have accepted subsidies from these elements and even included them in their electoral lists. This is a recipe for disaster and explains why the party suffered a humiliating defeat in these elections. 

The crushing defeat of the bourgeois liberal parties testifies to the underlying opposition to the market economy in Russia, which people here rightly see as the root of the collapse in their living standards. Yet the potential support for the Communist Party that this opposition is the precondition for has been criminally thrown away by the opportunism of the CPRF leadership, which sold seats on its party list to the highest bidders and will now include more than a few business magnates in its parliamentary fraction. 

The conduct of the CPRF after the elections is no better than it was before them. It does not organize a serious campaign to challenge the manipulations of the Kremlin, and is reduced to complaining after the elections of a “shameful farce”, in the words of its leader Gennady Ziuganov. After the elections four years ago the Commuist Party fraction did a deal with Putin and played into his hands by allowing him to balance them off against the liberals. Of course, when the CPRF had discredited themselves they were then unceremoniously dumped.

Thus, the real strength of Putin is not so much the viability of his own rule and his far-sightedness of his vision but the fact that he faces no opposition.

Putin – a “giant” with feet of clay 

Despite the appearances, the reality is that Putin is not significantly more popular than he was before the elections. As we have already pointed out, the voting system distorts and exaggerates the popularity of parties that back the President. Instead of an increase in the President’s popularity the increase in the vote for United Russia, from 23.32% in 1999 (when it was called Unity) to 37% today can largely be accredited to its fusion with the Fatherland party, which was supported by many governors and won 12% in the previous election. 

Following the elections, Putin has continued his Bonapartist policy of balancing himself between different layers of the elite. He has called upon parties who did badly, i.e. Yabloko and the SPS, to consider where they went wrong (in not supporting him) and reassured them that his government will make the most of the talents that the country has to offer. On the previous Friday Anatolii Chubais, one of the leaders of the SPS, the current head of the electricity monopoly RAO UES and the driving force behind the loans for shares privatizations of the 1990s had a three hour meeting with Putin, where it is extremely likely the economic course of the future government was discussed. 

Some commentators suggest that Putin will incorporate members of the liberal parties into his government to “strengthen his reforming drive”. In fact in the previous Duma only the SPS consistently supported the government’s economic policy. In this way, he has immediately revealed his true (bourgeois) colours. After the electorate had decisively ejected the bourgeois liberals, Putin slyly offers to admit them through the back door. 

This immediately raises the question as to how parties such as the SPS were rejected at the polls for their economic agenda when the government, which was backed overwhelmingly, is pursuing precisely this agenda. The answer is very simple. There is no real difference between Putin and Chubais. They pursue the same market agenda, which will bring nothing but more misery, unemployment and oppression to the people of Russia. When this fact becomes clear to the masses, the stage will be set for a violent reaction against Putin. 

Contradictions in the Bonapartist regime

These results reflect the general drift towards growing Presidential power. And having gained such power, Putin naturally wishes to hang onto it. The constitution states that a President can serve a maximum of two terms. But now Putin has the opportunity to amend this law and give himself more time in office. Why not enjoy the fruits of power for as long as possible? 

At first sight, it seems that Putin’s position is unassailable. The Russian parliament will now be completely subservient to the President, something former President Yeltsin could only dream about in the days when Yabloko backed the demand of the CPRF to impeach the incumbent President. However, the difference in parliamentary politics then was a reflection of the acuteness of the contradictions in society, which have not disappeared and which will re-emerge with renewed violence in the coming period. 

Instead of resolving contradictions however this merely drives them underground and therefore gives them an even more acute and irreconcilable character. We can predict in advance that Putin’s “strong state” will be a regime of crisis, riven with contradictions, antagonisms and conflicts at all levels. The fights between different sections of the bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie will produce one crisis after another. 

So far, Putin has managed to portray himself as all things to all people. But this illusion cannot be maintained for long. The problems for Putin will be multiplied if the economy stops growing, which is inevitable given the current impasse on the world market and the possibility of a sharp fall in the price of raw materials which would hit the Russian economy hard. The relative improvement of the Russian economy was only possible due to the high oil and gas prices on the world market. But there is no guarantee that this will continue. The fundamental weakness of Putin is apparent in the fact that it does not have a clear economic programme. The “programme” of the new legislators is to do whatever the government asks them to do. 

None of the parties that back the President are independent entities with a structure rooted in the population. Such parties are purely artificial creations, relying for their existence on support from the political elite in the Kremlin and their roots are shallow. They will disintegrate and disappear in the future as rapidly as they appeared. 

Motherland approached the electorate with one key policy - namely to put a tax on the extraction of the natural resources of the country, the absence of which is allowing the oil and gas monopolies to obtain super-profits while ordinary Russians see nothing of this wealth. This was undoubtedly a popular demand. But it remains to be seen how far it will be carried into practice now that the elections are out of the way.

Apart from Glazeyev, who was a member of the counter-reforming government of the early 1990s but resigned in protest against Yeltsin’s attack on the parliament in 1993, Motherland also includes the former governor of the central bank, Victor Geraschenko. Putin therefore has the choice of cooperating with this party. However, the role that Motherland will play in the future parliament is one of the unknowns. So far the interests of the Kremlin and Motherland have coincided in creating a party to split the vote of the CPRF yet whether these interests will continue to coincide is another matter. 

It is one thing for political parties associated with the administration to be backed when the authorities are delivering on their promises of supplying cities with water and electricity, but if the money dries up and promises are broken not only will there likely be splits within these parties, the parties themselves will be discredited. It is most unlikely that United Russia will hold together as solid parliamentary bloc under such conditions. More likely, it will tend to break up into its constituent parts as the crisis develops. 

What now?

All this will be closely observed by the working class. The masses will give the new government a little time. There will be a period of “wait and see”, but this will not last forever. The relative economic improvement will not last either. To the degree that the masses do not see the promised improvement in their living standards and conditions, the stage will be set for a new upswing of the class struggle. This will take place initially outside parliament, through strikes, protests and demonstrations. But sooner or later, this must seek an organized political expression. The question is: what form will this take? And how must the small forces of Russian Marxism relate to it?

The potential still exists for a strong left wing opposition to Putin in the future. That is shown by the massive vote against those parties that were most openly associated with privatization and market economics. In these elections the potential vote for the Left was distorted by the fact that it was split by Motherland, whose leader Glazeyev was a prominent figure in the CPRF. But this formation has no future. It will be shattered and disappear as a result of its clear connections with Putin and his clique.

Despite everything, the CPRF remains the only viable party of the opposition The CPRF by contrast is the only party with a mass base in Russia. Inevitably it will express the active opposition of the working class against the regime and the capitalist system in the future. It can therefore recover from the present debacle and become the focal point for the anger of the workers and youth of Russia against Putin. This fact is, of course, a sealed book for the sectarians who do not understand the way in which the working class moves or thinks. 

It is impossible for the masses to express themselves through the medium of small groups (and in Russia the sects are not only small but miniscule). The smaller Communist Parties have all collapsed and now represent a negligible factor in Russia’s political life. For the masses, therefore, the CPRF is the only alternative. This fact must be recognized if the Marxists of Russia are to succeed in breaking out of their isolation and linking with the movement of the masses. Impressionism and empiricism are no guide here. What is necessary is a Marxist understanding of the dialectical process whereby the working class develops. 

In spite of themselves, the CPRF leaders will be forced to come out in opposition and at least partially give an expression to the discontent of the masses. At a certain point, the masses will take these leaders by the collar and push them into power. This will bring to the surface all the internal contradictions within the CPRF, with the emergence of a mass left wing, demanding real Communist policies. It is essential that the Marxists should participate in this process and find a way to the leftward-moving and critical elements in the CPRF and SKM. 

Russia is facing a new period of storm and stress. These elections have solved nothing but only opened up a new and even more convulsive page in the history of Russia. Sooner or later, the Russian working class will present the bill. In the great class battles that lie ahead, the ideas of Bolshevism and the October revolution will find a mass audience. The Communists and workers of Russia will rediscover their real traditions. Once that happens, no force on earth can stop them.