Russia: Putin's plebiscite

In Sunday’s elections in Russia Putin won a “landslide victory”. No one was surprised at this. It was a foregone conclusion, as it was not really an election but a plebiscite in the tried and tested tradition of all Bonapartists. Putin had tried to eliminate all opposition parties. The only opposition party, however, that managed to muster a sizeable vote was the Communist Party. Fred Weston looks at the implications of this.

In Sunday's elections in Russia Putin won a "landslide victory" gaining 71.2% of the votes cast. No one was surprised at this. It was a foregone conclusion, as it was not really an election but a plebiscite in the tried and tested tradition of all Bonapartists. Putin had gagged all opposition media. In the build up to the elections Putin refused to debate with any of the other candidates. When any of the other candidates were mentioned by the media it was simply to denigrate and attack them. Putin had at his disposal the whole state apparatus and the media.

They were worried that in these conditions they might not get the 50% turnout required by Russian law to make an election valid. Different methods were used to make sure this didn't happen, not all of them exactly very democratic. Students, hospital patients, soldiers were all ordered to go and vote and to vote for Putin. The point was not to get people out to vote on the basis of a genuine choice of different candidates, but simply to get a mass approval of Putin, so that he can concentrate even more power in his hands. In the end they managed a 64% turnout.

Parliamentary Bonapartism

What Putin is building in Russia is a regime of parliamentary Bonapartism, i.e. a regime with the external trappings of parliamentary democracy, but where real power is not in the parliament but in the hands of the President.

Why is this happening? Some western "liberal" commentators expresses surprise at what to them seems a contradiction. An article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 15, states the following: "Vladimir Putin's landslide victory in Sunday's presidential election leaves him with more power than any Russian leader since the Soviet Communist Party general secretaries. Still, it is unclear just how he intends to use it."

"Will he use his strong mandate to push through painful reforms aimed at modernizing Russia's creaky economy and allow a civil society to grow? Or will he place priority on building a strong army and state, even if it risks a slide toward Soviet-style stagnation and authoritarian rule?"

"The Kremlin itself sees no contradiction between those two aims. Mr. Putin's first four-year term was defined by a mix of liberal economic policies and illiberal politics: He began opening the economy and shutting down major political opposition. That blend looks set to continue."

From such comments it seems that some in the West see "neo-liberal" economic policies as going hand in hand with "liberal" parliamentary politics. However, the fact that the Kremlin sees no contradiction between applying the so-called "reforms" [i.e. privatisation and cuts in social spending] and parliamentary Bonapartist methods should not surprise us. It is the only way Putin can even dream of implementing his economic policies.

We should not forget that back in 1991, many former Stalinist bureaucrats who supported Yeltsin the "democrat" were of the opinion that what was needed to establish capitalism in Russia was a "Russian Pinochet". Popov, a key Yeltsin supporter, who was elected mayor of Moscow in 1991, had no doubts about what needed to be done. In a work under the title "Dangers for Democracy," he wrote that "…we must create a society with a variety of different forms of ownership, including private property; and this will be a society of economic inequality. There will be contradictions between the policies leading to denationalization, privatization, and inequality on the one hand and, on the other, the populist character of the forces that were set in motion in order to achieve those aims. The masses long for fairness and economic equality. And the further the process of transformation goes, the more acute and more glaring will be the gap between those aspirations and economic realities."

Putin the ex-KGB Colonel is not a Pinochet, but he understands what Popov meant. The introduction of capitalism into Russia is incompatible with genuine parliamentary democracy. Putin's Bonapartist tendencies have alarmed some of the bourgeois commentators in the west. They have denounced his undemocratic methods. Putin rebutted that the US politicians cannot give the Russians any lessons in democracy, referring to the fraudulent methods used to get Bush elected.

Hypocrisy of the West

Today they are denouncing the lack of genuine democracy in Russia, but only a year ago they were praising Putin as a democrat. As late as last September Bush had no criticisms of "Russia's democracy" and even emphasised its "respect for the law". Bush described Putin as "trustworthy" and Blair said he saw him as "someone who wants to do the right thing for himself and his country". That was when they were trying to get Russia's backing for the invasion of Iraq.

In reality, Putin was as much an aspiring Bonaparte one year ago as he is now. So what has changed? Russia lined up against the USA and Britain in their attempts to get UN backing for their war, and in the meantime Putin's Russia has been flexing its muscles on the international scene. His "assertive foreign policy" in relation to Russia's neighbouring countries has worried western leaders. This and Putin's attacks on the oligarchs are what the capitalists of the west are worried about. What determines the attitude of the west is not Putin's "undemocratic methods". They are not worried about his attacks on the Russian workers. On the contrary, they welcome this. What they are worried about is Russia emerging as a contending power in the region.

At home Putin is fully aware of the fact that the Russian working class has enormous potential power. If it were to move seriously it would upset all of Putin's plans. That is why he has tried to completely eliminate all opposition parties. He needs a free road ahead without any form of opposition to slow down his plans.

In the past period Putin clamped down on the "oligarchs". Last October Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest oligarch was imprisoned by Putin. This did not represent opposition to capitalism on the part of Putin. It merely represented a struggle for which group of gangsters should come out on top. It also represents the need of the old state bureaucracy to have more control over the process of restoration of capitalism in Russia. Some call Putin's system a form of "bureaucratic capitalism" run by the police and security agencies.

There is a logic in all this. One fifth of Russia's 144 million population live below the official poverty line. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened. The transition to capitalism has been an absolute disaster for the bulk of Russian workers. This has stoked up enormous anger beneath the surface of society. Huge subterranean currents are developing. The problem so far has been that no political force has proven capable of giving an expression to this anger. But there is more to come. Putin promises "change". He demagogically attacks the "corrupt civil service", but the other side of this are his plans to force Russians to pay for healthcare, education and housing. Thus things are going to get worse.

In the recent period Putin has benefited from the high price of oil and gas on the world market. This has allowed him a certain stabilisation of the situation. But by 2005 all experts expect that to change. The price is expected to start coming down. This shows how the fortunes of Russia are inextricably linked to the world market. Thus Putin does not have long before people realise what his programme means for them.

Putin has been able to push ahead with his plans so far because of the passivity of the working class. This has had no lead from the trade unions or the CPRF (Communist Party). The Communist Party has tried to compete with Putin on his level. They have played the nationalist card and have not posed a genuine alternative. They have accepted the transition to capitalism. In last December's elections they actually had more capitalists standing as candidates than any of the others. They complained about the arrest of the oligarchs! This explains its electoral debacle in the parliamentary elections. If the CPRF leaders had been genuine Communists the party would not be in the state it is in. On the basis of a genuine Leninist policy the CPRF would now be leading the workers against the oligarchs, the robber capitalists and against Putin.

Internal crisis in the CPRF

Because it has not developed such a policy it failed miserably in the December parliamentary elections. That is what provoked an internal crisis in the CPRF, which could even lead to a split in the next period. Such a split would see a break with the more openly pro-capitalist wing of the party. The bourgeois elements would be vomited out of the party and this would prepare the road for a turn to the left on the part of the bulk of the party.

It is important to note that in spite of everything the CPRF candidate, Nikolay Mikhailovich Kharitonov, came second in Sunday's Presidential elections. He received 9,440,860 votes, or 13.74%. In the polls carried out prior to the elections Kharitonov seemed to be stuck at 4-5%. So all commentators were surprised at his result. He is a relatively anonymous figure in the party. And, most importantly, the Kremlin has at its disposal all the media and was clearly aiming to eliminate all opposition forces. Putin has failed to do this, and it is significant that the only force that was really able to muster any significant votes was the CPRF. As The Economist (March 15) pointed out, "Mr Kharitonov's strong showing was a sign that the Communists' support base is still kicking".

This is important for any serious understanding of how things will develop in the near future. The Russian masses will be waiting to see what Putin will achieve. As we have explained above, his policies will hit the Russian workers hard. Developments in the world economy will also seriously affect Russia.

Putin may think he has now established a regime totally under his control. He has in fact been temporarily strengthened. He has a parliament which is an obedient stooge in his hands. He can even change the constitution now if he wishes. He seems all-powerful. But what he has not taken into account is the Russian working class. Up until now the Russian workers have been denied a voice. The CPRF has not played the role it should do. It calls itself Communist but it has abandoned the programme of Lenin and of genuine Communism. The tragedy is that there is no alternative to the CPRF on the left. That is what has allowed the present situation to emerge.

However, the fact that Putin was not able to totally eliminate the Communist Party means that it remains a point of reference for millions of workers. For now the attitude of the masses will be one of "wait and see". But this won't last forever.

When the masses lose any illusions some of them may have in Putin, and when they begin to mobilise against his policies there will be a violent swing to the left. The workers will begin to mobilise and take their destiny into their own hands. This will have to find a political expression and thus the workers will turn to the CPRF. This party will come under enormous pressures from the workers. New layers of workers and youth would be attracted to it. This would rejuvenate the party and inevitably a left wing would emerge within it at some stage.

Thus the conditions would be created for the growth of a genuine Marxist tendency. The workers and youth who will inevitably turn to the CPRF at some stage will be looking for the genuine ideas of Lenin. It is the task of the Russian Marxists to prepare for this. If they build a powerful Marxist current within the Russian labour movement then the knot of history will be re-tied and the Russian workers will be able to return to the glorious traditions of the October revolution. Putin is preparing the conditions for this to become reality.