US President Bill Clinton claims that he was most anxious about the impact of the millennium bug in Russia. Fearing the breakdown of a nuclear reactor and another Chernobyl, he instructed his CIA officials that he was to be informed immediately of any news from Moscow. Well the bug certainly hit, but while the lights stayed on, it was the Russian President who went out.
The announcement of Yeltsin's resignation raises a lot of questions. What effect will it have on the lives of Russian workers? What will change? What are the prospects now for completing the restoration of capitalism in Russia? What about the war in Chechnya? And who is Vladimir Putin?
Canadian journalist and Russia expert Fred Weir takes up this last question for us."
"Yeltsin has been President for a long time , and though I didn't really like him, he did give us stability," said Igor Svetlichny an 18 year old student. "This change is so sudden. I don't understand why it had to be now, and I don't really know who this new guy really is."
"In fact he is a 47 year old ex-KGB agent, plucked from obscurity five months ago to head Yeltsin's government. Putin, Fred Weir continues, delivered "the traditional New Year's Presidential address to a stunned Russian TV audience. "Today I have been vested with the duties of head of state," he announced, sitting in a stern, military-style posture and speaking forcefully. "I am drawing your attention to the fact that there will be no power vacuum, even for a moment. I want to warn that any attempt to exceed the limits of the law and Russia's constitution will be decisively crushed." he added."
Under that constitution the prime minister takes over the role of the Presidency for 90 days when a new election is held. That election is now scheduled to take place on March 26th.
So far since taking office, Putin has sacked five Kremlin advisers, including Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko. These are very superficial changes, however. In reality Putin represents the same clique of oligarchs (an oligarchy is a state ruled by a small handful of people or families) and Kremlin officials as Yeltsin.
Why did Yeltsin retire early and not cling on to his beloved office until the last moment? A significant pointer is provided by Putin's first act on taking hold of the reins of power, the granting of complete lifetime immunity from prosecution, arrest, search or even questioning to the former President. This pay off was further sweetened by a substantial pension, a bodyguard, a government country home, and much needed medical care.
"That may provide the best clue to why the notoriously power-loving Yeltsin decided to go now," argues Fred Weir, "rather than wait for his constitutional term to expire next June."
"It's an old tradition in Russia to scapegoat one's predecessor," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "Yeltsin had plenty to worry about." Only last year the parliament narrowly failed to impeach him on five counts of treason and other crimes. The Yeltsin era of attempted capitalist restoration was driven by practices that would have been punished with prison in almost any other country. According to the Daily Express (4/1/00) "A dozen bank accounts containing almost £10 million are suspected of being linked to the Yeltsin family." The crown jewels of the economy were handed over to a clique of Kremlin connected oligarchs, and two brutal wars to crush the rebellious region of Chechnya were carried out solely on Presidential authority.
As we've explained previously the continuing crisis in Chechnya is a reflection of the crisis in Russia itself. Ostensibly, the cause of this crisis was the alleged terrorist attacks by Chechen separatists in Moscow and other Russian cities - we say alleged because it is far from certain that the Chechens were actually responsible for these bombings.
Whoever was responsible, the bombing has clearly provided the Russian regime with a means of securing popular approval for the war. Without these terrorist attacks there would never have been the same degree of support in the population for the war or for Prime Minister, and now acting President, Vladimir Putin.
The western imperialist powers have hypocritically condemned the merciless bombing of Chechnya, which has indeed hurt the civilian population, in the war to date over 100,000 have died in total. They weep crocodile tears over the fate of the elderly and the children. In reality, Russia took as their example in this campaign the crimes of the imperialists in their war over Kosovo. Putin described civilians hurt in the bombing as 'human shields' being used by the rebels. How many times have we heard the same claim from Clinton and co in relation to Iraq or Serbia? Their moralising and sermonising doesn't wash with the Russian population who are all too aware of the imperialists own monstrous crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Yet for all their pious condemnation the imperialists threaten no action. How could they? Russia, as Yeltsin reminded them, is not some minor power. Ultimately what the imperialists in the west fear is a new edition of October, a new version of the Russian revolution. Yeltsin threatened them with the spectre of such a scenario time and again to secure loans, with the result that the IMF ignored all their own rules in order to prop up Yeltsin's regime.
Now the imperialists don't even dare to use the rhetoric of threatening action against Russia. In reality, of course the imperialists are no more concerned with the fate of the Chechens than they were with the Kosovars or any other peoples. In fact US imperialism has its own interests in the Caucasus. They had intended to muscle into the region greedy for new sources of oil and other minerals. In addition, the Caucasus like the Balkans plays a vital role strategically in international relations. Now they've had to reluctantly abandon these plans or face a collision with Russia. A new chauvinist Russia is not an exciting prospect for imperialism, it is a force with which they could not easily deal.
Only a few years ago Yeltsin and his clique capitulated to US imperialism preparing the way for the war in Iraq. This was the precursor of George Bush's declaration of the New World Order. Now that Russia is flexing its muscles the US will have to think twice. In the epoch of the nuclear weapon it is impossible to go to war with a power like Russia. In fact, even in a conventional war they would be defeated, as Hitler was, if they were to attack Russia.
The New Millennium has dawned on an immensely unstable world. New axes and blocs are being formed, which threaten not world war, but 'small' wars, and proxy wars, which, as we've seen recently, with modern weaponry presents a terrifying prospect.A Russia where the working class is no longer 10 percent of the population but more like 80 or 90 percent, is too tough an adversary to even seriously consider attacking. As a result the imperialists are forced to bite their tongues - compelled to wage a toothless, face saving press campaign against Russia's actions - which are after all no different to their own actions in Kosovo. For now they have no choice but to accept the situation.
Having said that, they have gone a long way in pushing membership of NATO right up to the borders of Russia. Now they can only fantasise about a scenario from which they could emerge victorious. In the event of the regime collapsing - which is inevitable at a certain stage - they hope that they would then be able to intervene at least indirectly in the ensuing chaos (they certainly couldn't intervene directly).
Above all else they are terrified of a new Russian revolution, which they are well aware would have the same, or even wider implications than that of 1917. A revolutionary wave would sweep across Europe, and would not be confined to the shores of this continent either.
They face an insoluble dilemma. The discredited policy of the neo-imperialist agent Yeltsin, which has seen Russian GDP collapse by half in the 1990s - falling to one-tenth the size of the US economy - cannot be continued. That programme for the restoration of capitalism has not yet in any case, entirely succeeded in completing its task, a task which has proven far more difficult than any of the Harvard simpletons who drafted it imagined. The new course suggests a more aggressive foreign policy, a chauvinist, imperialist policy, which will not please western imperialism. It will be more to the liking of the Russian military elite though.
However reluctantly, the western imperialists will have to accept Putin, the man with direct responsibility for the war in Chechnya. He reflects the the interests of the same clique of gangsters and oligarchs as Yeltsin, (people like media and oil magnate Boris Berezovsky, known as "the Family"), and significantly the tops of the army, who are furious at the earlier capitulation to the imperialist powers. That explains why Putin "argues that for the first time in the past three centuries the country is in danger of being relegated to a second-rate or even a third-rate global power." The reason he argues is at least in part "the futile attempt in the past decade to transplant alien western liberal ideas to Russian soil." (Financial Times, 5/1/00)
Putin's programme, or at least its outline, published recently on a government website, hints at the reversal of Russia's previous capitulation to US imperialism. "Russia will not soon become, if it will ever become, a second edition say, of the US or England, where liberal values have deep historical traditions," the programme states. "A strong state is not an anomaly for Russians, and not something that must be fought against, but on the contrary the source and guarantor of order, the initiator and main engine of any change." Democracy is not a principle question for these people. For now this suggests further rule by decree and probably a more aggressive international stance. In the future, if the bourgeois are to have any hope of completing their restoration of capitalism, it would mean dictatorship. Even then there is no guarantee that such a regime would continue down that path. Already the military are demanding rearmament, raging at the sight of US hardware in Kosovo, and their own humiliating capitulation to the west. It is hard to see where the finance for such a programme could come from other than from a restoration of some kind of state ownership. In the event of world economic slump such a reversal would seem even more likely.
From their own point of view Stratfor's Global Intelligence Update comes to a similar conclusion. Putin, they say, has declared himself to be "Kerensky, the revolutionary who didn't want to go too far." Stratfor continues, "Kerensky failed and Lenin came from nowhere, the revolutionary who had no limits. The situation in Russia is, in our view, on a knife's edge. Putin is trying to contain the situation as well as possible. We are not optimistic. However, Putin now holds out the carrot. If he shows that he can also wield a stick, he may just save what is left of the post-Communist reforms. If not, Russia will enter a revolutionary situation."
What western commentators, imperialist powers, Russian bureaucrats and oligarchs alike fear most is a movement of the working class. In that movement lies the only hope for the future of Russia.
Putin meanwhile has staked his career on an easy victory in the war in Chechnya, but in spite of the overwhelming superiority of their military hardware they have not yet succeeded in defeating the Chechens. Although this seems inevitable in the long run, as with the west, they are terrified of the prospect of bodybags filled with the dead bodies of young Russian soldiers turning up on their doorsteps, and therefore they have tried to avoid a ground war. Here however, at the finish, they will have to occupy, and will therefore have to deploy forces on the ground, and that will mean heavy casualties. This will have a dramatic impact on Russian workers and the population as a whole, at least to the extent that they can't cover it up.
The propaganda campaign against the terrorists has had a big impact, demonstrating once again for all those who have not yet learned the lesson, that individual terrorism is wholly counter-productive and has the opposite effect to that which its perpetrators claim. How many times have acts of terrorism against the Americans rebounded in favour of the interests of Washington and the Pentagon?
In any event, even though the propaganda of Putin and the clique around Yeltsin could possibly succeed in winning the next election, in itself that would not solve the problems of the bureaucrats and the capitalist forces around the Kremlin. Russia remains a mafia led regime where crude gangsterism dominates - after all if the Kremlin clique can transform themselves into capitalists by looting the treasury, this serves as an example to the mafia and the rest of the crooks and thieves who make up the capitalist class.
The bourgeois in the west hold their heads in anxiety that such a regime cannot last. The capitalist gangsters also know this and therefore deposit huge sums of money (£20 billion a year) abroad in Swiss bank accounts, the London property market and all over the world. Anywhere in fact except in Russia. There is no investment in industry in the former Soviet Union. The result is that Russia's infrastructure is going to rack and ruin. The recent rise in world oil prices for example may have brought a lot of cash into Russia, but it went straight into the pockets of the oligarchs who control the oil industry.
This whole perverse set-up could not have lasted even for a few weeks were it not for the role of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation which retains not even 1% of the policy of Lenin. Only a few months ago they stood at 80% in the polls. They still did nothing. Except temporise between the demands of their deputies in the Duma and the Kremlin regime. The Communist Party still has the electoral support of a big part of the working class. In the recent parliamentary elections they gained 24% of the vote, up 2% from the elections four years ago. Against the background of the war in Chechnya, the elections were a victory too for Putin and his Unity party, who also gained almost a quarter of the vote, a party with no programme other than support for the man himself. The infamous Vladimir Zhirinovsky came almost nowhere. Noticeably however the majority of workers in eleven districts, voted against all parties.
With a Leninist programme the Communist Party would have romped home. More importantly they would be able to rouse the active support of the mass of the Russian workers.
In the last Presidential elections Zyuganov won at least 40% of the vote. In the run up to a new election, Zyuganov chose to mark the eve of a new millennium by visiting the tomb of Stalin and praising him as the foremost man of the century, and a great war leader. Everyone knows from the evidence of Kruschev, Gorbachev and many others that Stalin made a complete mess of the war. The huge number of Russian casualties was due principally to Stalin's criminal policies. Hitler's attack was determined by Stalin's decapitation of the Red Army. That madness led Hitler to believe he would take Russia in six weeks - his own Wehrmacht generals warned him that it would prove more difficult. Only the courage of the Russian workers saved Russia. Informed public opinion in Russia is well aware of this fact and yet Zyuganov comes out as a defender of Stalin. Why? Only because his policies, which amount to little more than cheerleading the cause of capitalist restoration, are coming under scrutiny from the ranks and the workers in general.
All the plans of Zyuganov, and for that matter of Putin and co., are based on there being some possible way forward on the basis of capitalism. Zyuganov daydreams of some kind of Third Way social democracy. The whole experience of the last ten years demonstrates just how utopian this is. There can be no solution to the problems facing Russia on the basis of capitalism.
If this year should bring a serious world slump this would have an even harder impact on Russia than the collapse in South East Asia did, the whole situation would be transformed. The working class in Russia has shown itself to be remarkably patient but they will not be able to tolerate a further collapse. Once the Russian workers move into action then great events would be on the order of the day.
Already the Ukraine and other former Soviet Republics, where the movement back to capitalism has hardly even begun, are looking towards developments in Russia. Revolutionary developments there would lead to a move to reconstitute the Soviet Union. The trouble for the bureaucrats of all stripes including those in the Communist Party is that any attempt to return to an openly Stalinist regime could not last long. Inevitably accompanying any move to renationalise the economy would be the demand for workers' democracy. Today the working class is a big majority of Russia not the tiny minority it was in 1917. The productive forces created by the labour of the working class in the intervening years has reached a level, where despite the plunder and looting of the bureaucrats and the colossal destruction wreaked by the attempt to restore capitalism, it would be possible to begin the process of socialist reconstruction not possible in Lenin and Trotsky's day.
Those who are gloomy about the perspective of revolution, in the case of Russia especially, do not see that great events are preparing wave after wave of revolution above all in Russia, where the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky has not been completely lost. Despite the current superficial appearance Russia could well be at the forefront of such a movement in coming years.
One hundred years ago if anyone had suggested to the Bolsheviks or anyone else that in 17 years the Russian workers would overthrow 1000 year old Tsarist autocracy and establish the world's first workers' state, they would have been laughed out of court. Were it not for the role of Zyuganov's Communist Party, the Russian working class could even now be on the verge of regaining that power. Such a revolution would transform the face of the planet forever.
A genuine Marxist leadership standing on the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks is what the Russian workers like the rest of us need. Today at the beginning of this new century the task of building such a leadership falls on the shoulders of the Russian Marxists. We can be confident that they will build such a leadership, and we must do likewise, then together we will celebrate the centenary of the October Revolution in a new socialist world.