Russia and the Return of the Repressed
Moscow saw its biggest demo in a decade last Saturday. It was a feel-good, peaceful manifestation of youthful Facebook users, and it was already nicknamed the Likes Parade, as the prospective participants had clicked on “like” in response to the call to demonstrate. The predictions were dire: some expected clashes and bloody martyrdom, others hoped for a conquest of the Kremlin and revolution. However things went smoothly. Police were friendly too; riot police were stationed far away near the Kremlin gates so as not to annoy the people. The speakers stressed their desire to avoid revolutionary upheaval; there were speakers from diverse groups including nationalists, the far left, liberals and the far right.
The big winners of the elections (the communists of KPRF and Fair Russia) sent some token representatives but stayed away en masse, leaving the ground to small opposition groups. Crowd assessments varied from 30,000 to 90,000; not too many for a city of 15 million inhabitants, but undoubtedly impressive.
It could also serve as a wakeup call to the Putin administration: for too long a time, they banked on their hold on the mainstream media and on the passivity of the people. Now they have begun to act: the state-owned TV broadcasted pictures of the demo and provided overwhelmingly conservative commentary. Until now, this TV network had preferred to show non-political entertainment, completely blocking out real current events.
The TV program included frightening stories from Cairo, where the Tahrir revolution undermined the economy and brought the Islamists within reach of power; pictures of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on its way to Syria; and even a previously lost interview of the late writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaking against revolutions in general. Memories of traumatic 1990 were brought back to scare a lot of ordinary Russians. The message was for peaceful and consistent changes, as against revolutions and upheavals, and this resonated well with the rather conservative Russian public outside of the big cities.
However, there are strong voices for change; and these voices found comfort in US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s support. The communists could not stay away from the protests, fearing their own marginalisation; they will demonstrate on December 18.
Putin has some time left until March when he is due for re-election or removal. There is a feeling that he will lose if he should continue to rule by the old methods and rely on the same people. Apparently he understands that, and has decided that his campaign will be run by the recently formed Popular Front instead of tarnished United Russia. But this is hardly enough. The opposition is demanding a recount and/or reelection; this call may be beaten only by more impressive real deeds.
Putin has to find broad popular support — rely upon the communists, the winners of the parliamentary elections, and remove the most hated and most corrupt officials he inherited from Yeltsin’s administration. This would entail parting ways with neoliberalism’s model and embracing nationalization of resources, mobilization economics, putting an end to the offshore activities, repatriation of funds from overseas banks, progressive taxation (if not confiscation) of the super-rich and their assets.
This is a tall order, for Putin played ball with the “offshore aristocracy” and supported the neoliberal agenda. But he may do it in order to survive. US ex-presidential candidate McCain recently threatened Putin with the fate of Kaddafi, and this threat was repeated by some pro-Western protesters in Moscow. This will hardly make him more flexible to Western pressure: Kaddafi followed instructions from Washington for the last five years until his murder — Putin will not repeat his mistake.
Was there election fraud to any great extent? Up to a point, though not to the degree of the general suspicions I reported last week. United Russia did well in the countryside, in small towns (above 50 per cent) and in the national (ethnic) republics (above 80 per cent). It did less well in the big cities and in the Russian (as opposed to ethnic republics) heartland – about 35 per cent of the vote. The total probably is similar to the official result.
The best tool to judge are the polls: if the results were manipulated, they would be at great variance with the predictions. The US Moscow embassy confidential cable 09MOSCOW2530 available to us courtesy of Wikileaks assesses Russian pollsters as rather reliable: “Russian public opinion polling firms and their staffs exhibited a thorough knowledge of current survey methods, and the staff we spoke with demonstrated high standards of professionalism. Presnyakova felt that, all other issues aside, the well-educated analysts working at the four organizations maintained a high level of professional ethics. She said they would not “massage” data to achieve a particular result. Nothing we found contradicted this sentiment. …The Duma elections of December 2007 provide a worthwhile test of the four polling organizations. By comparing how these organizations predictions square with actual results, a clearer picture emerges of how well each firm does in estimating public opinion”.
“The table below provides the estimates for the organizations in the week just prior to the Duma elections. The bottom line provides the actual results.
United Just Russia KPRF LDPR
VTsIOM 62 12 8 7
Levada Center 66 12 8 6
Election Results 64 12 8 8
Apparently their predictive ability is quite good. As for last week elections, they predicted the results with a similar degree of precision:
Polls, November 19-20, 2011 54 per cent 17 per cent 12 per cent 10 per cent
Levada Center, November 11, 2011 — 53 per cent 20 per cent 12 per cent 9 per cent
Election results 49 per cent 19 per cent 11 per cent
For this reason, one should take the cries of fraud with a grain of salt. This does not mean the elections were fair and honest: the communists and the opposition had very little access to the mainstream media. I was told by an editor of a large Moscow newspaper that the communists refuse to grease the media’s wheels, and as a result they are being blocked from the printed media as well. United Russia, I was told, pays very well, and this ensures its good image in the press. This is the case on public TV as well. Though state-owned TV is not allowed to charge parties, my TV contacts told me that other parties pay for their coverage with funds provided by the Kremlin, while the communists get no funds and do not pay. In short, the Russian elections are as unfair as anywhere in the money-based world.
Vengeance of history
However, the most interesting part of the story remained obscured for Western readers, and that is the comeback of communists. In the 1990s, the story of the decade was the demise of communism. It was supposed to be dead for good, this aberration of sacred property rights; and celebrating its death, Francis Fukuyama declared The End of History. But apparently rumours of its death were somewhat exaggerated.
The comeback has some good reasons in the Russian experience. While for the West the 1990s were not bad, the Russians (and other post-Soviet states) had an awful time. Their leaders derailed the country in order to kill communism, as they admitted later. Research institutes, hospitals, military and industry had been turned off at the source and sent to “make money and to become self-reliant.” In scientific centres this drastic ‘market reform’ led to starvation and to mass emigration; while the father of the reform, the late Egor Gaydar, called for “adjustment to the means”. Though things have improved greatly since 1992, they are still not as good as they were in Soviet days. Now people refuse to view the restoration of capitalism as the final chapter, which can’t be overturned.
This success of communists is not surprising to careful readers of the Wikileaks cables. In a cable called “Communist Party: Not Dead Yet”, the US Ambassador in Moscow reported to the State Department in 2006: “Most observers describe the Communist Party (KPRF) as a party on life-support sustained by nostalgic pensioners. The cliché has it that as party stalwarts die off, so too will the KPRF. This assessment, however, ignores a relatively constant level of support, despite the demographics, and the attraction that some feel for a well-defined political party structure. The KPRF accommodates not only the “Soviet” socialist traditionalists, but also a new generation of intellectuals who wish, literally, to overthrow Russia’s current system which they believe only helps a select few.”
For a while (between 2003 and 2008) the Party lost its following as Russia received oil revenues and Putin stabilised economy, but after the 2008 crisis, it picked up again. The US Ambassador wrote in 2009: “The Communist Party has benefited from the economic crisis by attracting increased membership and strengthening its position as a populist alternative to the party of power, United Russia. The invigorated Communists demonstrated that they can organize rallies across the country, and most observers expect KPRF will pick up votes in March 1 regional elections. These successes have resulted from the party’s three-pronged strategy: parliamentary initiatives aimed at pocketbook issues; public protests and actions that demonstrate party vigor; and an “ideological campaign” to communicate their message and appeal to new and younger voters.”
“Communist leaders have lambasted the ruling government’s handling of the economic crisis, claiming that it favors the rich and ignores systemic weaknesses of the capitalist system. In a February 5 meeting, KPRF Deputy Chairman Ivan Melnikov told us that the government’s anti-crisis strategy was ‘not effective’ and was ‘the same as the Titanic’s after it hit the iceberg…to save the first-class passengers first.’ The KPRF has responded to the government’s anti-crisis measures with far-reaching proposals for nationalization and aggressive state intervention to bolster production and employment. KPRF Chairman Gennadi Zyuganov has repeatedly called for complete government takeover of all natural resources in Russia in order to distribute the country’s wealth directly to its citizens. Zyuganov also called on Putin and Medvedev to sack Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin for his alleged bungling of the government’s anti-crisis policies”.
This wish of communists was recently fulfilled, and Alexei Kudrin has been sacked.
The financial crisis in Europe and in the US makes this shift of Russian public opinion especially important. The position of the 99 per cent went south with the destruction of the communist option in 1991, when the 1 per cent succeeded in convincing the rest that there is no alternative to their version of the market and that resistance is futile. With the resurrection of Russian communism, Americans and Europeans will regain some leverage vis-á-vis their elites, and, who knows, perhaps they will find their own way out of the impasse.
Israel Shamir can be reached at email@example.com