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Russian politics after Beslan – something brewing down below

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In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre President Putin has used the pretext of the fight against terrorism to abolish the direct election of national deputies and regional governors. He has also introduced other measures which are an attempt to gain tight control over the state apparatus. But he is doing this as a growing disillusionments spreads among the Russian masses. At the moment this remains below the surface, but it must emerge in one form or another at some point.

In the aftermath of Beslan President Putin has used the pretext of the fight against terrorism to abolish the direct election of national deputies and regional governors. According to the changes deputies will stand on party lists under a system of proportional representation. Governors will be nominated by the President, who will have the power to convene new elections if regional assemblies do not endorse his choice.

More recent changes include increasing the minimum membership for political parties from 10,000 to 50,000 and allowing cabinet ministers to belong to political parties. In both cases the aim here is to consolidate the strength of the Kremlin project United Russia, the main party in the Duma.

With the exception of appointing governors, these changes are not on paper “undemocratic” – in the sense that many western democracies have a similar set-up. The difference is that here parties have no independence and all decisions will be made, as usual, behind closed doors in the Kremlin. In other words, they are another example of President Putin’s disdain for the caricature of bourgeois democracy he inherited from Yeltsin.

None of these measures, which were in the pipeline before the hostage crisis, have anything to do with the threat of terrorism.

The ease with which President Putin has introduced these laws has misled some analysts into thinking that he has complete control of the political scene. The reality is that the threat of terrorism shows just how limited this power is.

On the surface President Putin has almost unlimited control over the country. The underlying crisis in legitimacy of the elite as a whole is disguised by Putin’s high popularity ratings. In fact the President is able to increase his personal power at the expense, for example, of the independence of the Duma precisely because capitalism and capitalist institutions are hated. But the more he extends his personal power over the political scene the more the hatred of the elite will erode his popularity.

The political clout of Putin is typical not of a thriving society in which the authorities are secure in their power but of an unsteady ship which needs a strong hand to keep order. And yet this is at a time when the economy is stabilising and Putin was re-elected President with an ease that certain friends of his can only dream of – namely George Bush in the US and Viktor Yanukovich in the Ukraine. The explanation for this paradox is that beneath the popularity of Putin and the surface calm in society there is tremendous volatility, which will explode when least expected.

Russian imperialism and Chechnya

Given that Putin dedicated his first four years in office to strengthening the vertical line of state power and winning the war in Chechnya, the recent events show that his previous policy was counter-productive. But Russian imperialism has no other answer than to step up strong-arm methods, which have already proved to escalate rather than reduce terrorism.

In an article on the Chechen elections we explained that the Russian authorities can control elections but cannot solve the nightmare that Russian imperialism has created in the republic. Continual night-raids and arbitrary attacks carried out against innocent civilians have sown despair and burning hatred of the Russian army in Chechnya. A journalist who has covered every election in the republic over recent years for the weekly journal Vlast admitted that only in the last elections did she realise that “even those who voted for Kremlin candidate Alkhanov hate Russia as strongly as those who didn’t vote at all.” In an interview with some Chechen women on the night of the election she was told that the Russian commanders would always find a reason to stay in Chechnya. “It [the war] will only finish when Putin wants it to finish. Chechens don’t decide anything here. Chechens want peace.”

Russian forces bully the Chechen people rather than fight terrorists like Basaev, while the FSB (the re-vamped KGB) uses the violence to place its men in key positions, including in Ingushetia. Instead of cracking down on terrorist networks in Ingushetia the repressive measures of the FSB have had the opposite effect. There has been a growth in terrorist activity in Ingushetia, not least the preparation for the Beslan atrocity.

After Beslan Putin appointed trusted apparatchik Dmitri Kozak presidential representative in the North Caucasus to coordinate the work of the security forces and improve the economy. But the economy will not revive.

Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, many more are crippled and suffer from the stress of war, homes and industry lie in ruins. As long as the war continues no progress is possible. Yet the bureaucrats talk about improving the economy and stepping up the powers of the security forces in the same breath.

The Russian occupation is inseparable from the enrichment of gangsters from the sale of Chechen oil and gas on the black market. According to official figures, oil production is now less than the 1.77m tonnes extracted in 1917!The actual level of output is unknown but it is clear that there has been a collapse in production and that what remains lines the pockets of a few. People live in hell and know that instead of bringing wealth to the republic the high price of oil on the world market has only strengthened President Putin.

Russian imperialism throughout the Caucasus

In North Ossetia in the second week of September as many as 10,000 gathered in the capital Vladikavkaz, which has a population of 50,000, to demand their leaders account for themselves. In the face of arrogant officialdom the mood grew bitter. There were calls for governor Dzasokhov to resign, and to appease the population he agreed to this, only to take back his words when the Kremlin told him to stay. For public leaders promises are cheap. A few days later a group of mothers whose children died in the siege came to Vladikavkaz to see Dzasokhov, only to discover that he was not there to meet them, as promised, but in Moscow at a meeting of the Federation Council. The message was clear: the official meeting is important, you’re not! This is their way of admitting that their power comes from the state apparatus, not from popular support.

The spontaneous opposition to Dzasokhov is more significant than just a temporary outpouring of emotion. It reflects frustration with his leadership in the previous period. Dzasokhov was a local leader in the days of the USSR and the papers reported people saying, “Dzasokhov betrayed the USSR and now he’s betraying North Ossetia!” The anger over Beslan was a catalyst to express an attitude that would have to come to the surface sooner or later, an attitude of disillusionment with capitalism that has only brought war and high unemployment.

Similar sentiments and processes are observable throughout the Caucasus (not counting Georgia where frustration with the authorities led to the overthrow of Sheverdnadze’s leadership last year). One protest against the local leadership’s ballot rigging took place in Kalmykia, a republic north of Dagestan. President Kirsan Iliumzhinov, who is also head of the international chess association FIDE, used special riot police to disperse an opposition protest on September 21. According to the chief magistrate over 100 people were arrested. And 500 gathered in a rural area in Kabardino-Balkarii demanding an end to police brutality after a Muslim youth was beaten to death during questioning. Slogans included “MVD [the ministry of internal affairs] are terrorists”.

More recently still in the republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessa Dmitrii Kozak had an emergency meeting with the families of men who have disappeared, and are presumed dead, over a conflict for control of a cement factory owned by a deputy from Putin’s United Russia party and the son-in-law of the President Mustafa Batdyev. Kozak met the family members after they stormed the parliament and only managed to get them to leave after promising the case would be investigated thoroughly. In all these instances there is at best an uneasy peace.

The latest, and perhaps the most acute, example of Kremlin pressure from above is the presidential election in Abkhazia, a self-proclaimed republic, which broke away from Georgia after a bloody civil war. Since Georgian President Saakashvili has made it his primary objective to reinstate Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia following a change of leadership in Adjaria, Abkhazia has sought closer ties with Russia to protect itself from Georgia. The Russian budget helps finance pensions. The railway line from Sochi in Russia through Abkhazia has recently been renovated.

Russian policy does have support. All of the five presidential candidates were pro-Russian. But even here the Kremlin imposed itself on a people jealous of their independence. Posters of President Putin meeting former Prime Minister Raul Khadzhimba in Sochi were pasted over the Republic. Other agitation included a concert where Russian musicians performed and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, deputy speaker of the Russian Duma announced that if voters didn’t choose the pro-Russian candidate Russia would close the border.

These heavy-handed tactics backfired, which didn’t stop Russian media from announcing that Khadzhimba (another politician from the ranks of the KGB) had won before all the votes had been counted. In fact a rival candidate Sergey Bagapsh won outright in the first round, with a majority of over 50%. Khadzhimba’s election team then claimed that the results had been manipulated (because the results had not been manipulated in their favour), and asserted that Bagapsh would return Abkhazia into the fold of Georgia. The President has appointed a new Prime Minister (who up to now served as a bureaucrat in the Russian government) to take the reigns while there is a power vacuum, and issued a veiled warning of introducing a state of emergency if there is instability.

The electoral commission declared the results valid but Khadzhimba’s supporters contested this. Then they stormed the Republic’s supreme court after it ruled in favour of Bagapsh and only left when a decision in their favour was announced at 3 in the morning. Over the weekend they seized the parliament in case it also voted against Khadzhimba.

Many Abkhazians still have weapons left over from the civil war. Such instability is potentially explosive but this does not bother the authorities, who are a clique of gangsters desperate to hold on to power to protect their lucrative ties with Russian capital, which is flowing into the Black sea tourist resorts of Gagra. Neither does the volatility of the situation seem to worry the Kremlin when it backs such unpopular cliques and foments discontent. It is not an accident that the Kremlin is linked with such people but an organic tendency, underlining the rottenness of the Russian elite as a whole. Kremlin officials only work with those they can identify with.

The contradictions within the state apparatus

Whether in Abkhazia, Chechnya or Russia as a whole the actions of the state have a destabilising influence. On paper the state is stronger, the main beneficiary of rising state revenue. Its prestige is growing. But on the other hand it is suffering from an endemic crisis. Putin himself outlined the scale of corruption in his address to the nation after Beslan, which reflects a deeper malaise of capitalism, whose parasitism and inertia find their expression in the flourishing of bureaucracy.

There is a stark contradiction between the resources and potential power of the state and its methods and aims. The psychology of the security forces leads not to a reduction in terrorism but to an increase in criminality. Police officers use their positions to extort money etc. The President can, and does, pass the buck to those beneath him but does not offer any vision or statesmanship to develop Russia. His logic is simply expressed on a presidential website designed to carry the message to children, which has a page that allows kids to compare their opinion with that of the President. We learn that according to the President if two boys fight the guilty one is not the one who started the fight but the one who lost – because you don’t condemn the winner.

Such open admissions of “might is right” satisfy the egos of top bureaucrats but they repel working people. At the same time as the security forces are gaining from higher spending, public confidence in their work has fallen noticeably since the previous hostage crisis at a Moscow theatre two years ago. This is significant. It shows that fewer and fewer Russians have illusions in the state apparatus because it is so obviously being used in the interests of the bureaucracy itself.

The fact that the state has no other justification for its actions apart from its monopoly on the use of force explains its lack of ideology. This weakness explains its lack of cohesion and its high level of corruption. In other words this ideological weakness goes hand in hand with organisational weakness. The real reason that the state authorities seem all powerful is not because of their inherent vitality. It is because there has been no organised opposition. In the future the state apparatus will face a problem of a different order – the working class, which is the most powerful force in society when it is organised and conscious.

The weakness of the left

At the moment there is not a strong workers’ movement. And the reason for this is the betrayal of the leadership of the CPRF and the trade unions. The hatred of capitalism has not yet overcome the scepticism in the power of the working class and the distrust in socialist ideas. Such moods are inevitable after a defeat, and the collapse of the USSR was a terrible defeat for the working class. But such moods reflect the reality of ten years ago rather than the needs of today.

The fact that the task facing workers and youth is to rebuild the communist movement, beginning with the trade unions and the CPRF, was obvious at the demo against terrorism in Moscow after Beslan. The authorities rallied ordinary people under official banners which read, “President Putin – we’re with you!” as if it was solidarity with the President rather than the victims and their families. Yet the manipulation of public opinion is not as straightforward to achieve as the paper reports suggested. When I arrived from work at 5 my impression was that the authorities were scared that the demo would grow beyond their control. Arriving from Manezh Square in a sea of people without placards or Russian flags (which the organisers gave out at the demo itself), we were directed not across Red Square, which would have led us to the meeting in five minutes but sideways, meeting a stream of people who had been given placards and Russian flags and were already leaving. By 5:30 we were told the demo had already finished, and not at 7 as was publicised. “Why did we come?” people asked, while others were more angry, shouting at policemen “it’s a disgrace!” It was so obviously a disgrace that even the police, who were also the stewards, agreed. There was complete confusion. As we walked back wave after wave of people arrived.

This hostility to the PR campaigns of the Kremlin is growing. It expresses a frustration that results from the vacuum on the left and the lack of organisations with roots in the working class. On the other hand the actions and character of the CPRF and the trade unions can lead to frustration among activists who try to radicalise them. The split in the CPRF following its July congress has led to infighting within the CPRF, illustrating how far removed it is from the working class.

At the recent plenum of the Central Committee of the CPRF Gennadii Ziuganov admitted that there has been a leftward shift in regional elections this autumn. Despite increases in its vote at the Duma elections the CPRF vote has fallen as a proportion of the left vote as a whole. The CPRF is not actively increasing its popularity through defending the interests of the working class but passively gaining from a reaction to pro-Kremlin parties, namely United Russia and Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats.

Together with the crisis in the CPRF the weakness of the left is indicated by the growth in support for Rodina, a populist party that also supports the President, and smaller parties such as the Agrarian Party and the Party of Pensioners. These smaller parties also back the President and could form a bloc with Rodina in national elections, giving the elite a second party in case United Russia becomes further discredited. Such a perspective is by no means certain but it underlines how the CPRF is currently not capable of mobilising under its banner the stirrings of opposition that have emerged this year.

The abolition of budget concessions to the disabled, veterans and the poor led to vocal protests in the summer and could develop further when these changes come into effect in the new year. Lower real wages due to inflation and the rising wealth of the rich has led to strikes in the provinces, which have often been victorious. October 20 saw a national strike by public sector workers. Though strike demonstrations were not well attended they are nevertheless symptomatic of a change in the situation.

Finally on October 28-29 there were joint protests by the liberals and the CPRF (and some other left groups) against the President’s proposed changes to the electoral system. These were also not well attended. Bourgeois reports noted that they were the first nationwide joint action, and that some communist protesters in Moscow still regarded the liberals on their demo as enemies. And rightly so!

Of course it would be wrong to exclude the possibility of certain collaboration with the liberals with the aim of exposing the splits within the ruling elite. However the current actions of the CPRF leadership focus more on the formal democratic slogans of the liberals (the free election of governors and so on) than the class demands that defend the workers. In other words, it seems that the liberals are exploiting the CPRF, its resources and support, to further their ends, rather than the CPRF using the liberals to undermine the authority of the ruling class as a whole. This is yet one more example of how the CPRF leadership are acting as a barrier to the leftward current rather than its organised expression. How long they can resist this pressure is another matter.

There is a limit to how much and how long the leadership of the mass organisation can hold back the working class once it seeks to find an organised expression. While the first mass actions may well take place outside of the mass organisations they will nevertheless find an echo within them at a certain stage. This is an inevitable stage. The bureaucracy at the top of the CPRF will attempt to stifle any radical currents, but when these become a mass phenomenon they will not be able to hold it back. The mass movement will inevitably have an impact on the CPRF itself at some stage. Sooner or later the cynicism of today will be transformed into struggle and sacrifice. Workers will ask: if the men in suits in the Kremlin don’t respect the constitution, why should we? Despite the surface calm in society the ground is being prepared for sudden leaps in consciousness and explosions in the class struggle.

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