A Very Peaceful Russian Revolt
The calls by the “moderate left” for passively following behind the liberals are supposedly based on the need to “work among the people”, to go where the masses are. But how, and with whom, are the forces of the left to set out after these ardently pursued masses? With badly printed leaflets full of abstract slogans?
The December outburst of street protest in Russia was the natural result of a growing discontent which for several years had been building up but which had not found a means of expression. Nevertheless, it would have been hard to predict that a crisis would break out over the results of elections to the essentially decorative State Duma, which has no power (its members, including the opposition, are mere puppets of the administration). Just a few weeks ago, when I discussed the looming political crisis with colleagues at our institute, we could not identify what might serve as the detonator for an explosion. The general conclusion to which participants in the discussion came was that the pretext for mass protests would be something ridiculous, some vulgar everyday transgression by the authorities.
The elections played exactly this role. The fictitious nature of the whole proceedings and the open collusion between the authorities and the Duma opposition were no secret to the public, especially the part of it that attended the demonstrations. But the massive, absurd and virtually unconcealed fraud was perceived less as a political act than as a display of boorishness. It was as though society had simply looked for an excuse to break out in revolt, and had found it when the routine procedure of election rigging unexpectedly became an object of general discussion.
Meanwhile, the political significance of the drama now being played out goes far beyond the question of the composition of Russia’s pseudo-parliament and even of the rules governing its formation. The sole political function of the Duma elections of 2011 was to prepare the way for the presidential election. This in turn will not be the procedure that decides the country’s future leader, whose name will be known in advance.
Here in Russia decisions are not taken by electors, and not by the congresses of political parties, whether of the ruling United Russia or its historical predecessors, but by gatherings of the bourgeois-bureaucratic elite at which serious questions are discussed without undue ceremony or show. The necessary information was released to the public on September 24 at the congress of United Russia, and the matter was considered closed. The function of the Duma elections was to legitimise decisions that had already been taken, and to formalise in legal terms relationships that existed anyway.
The December crisis has torn up the scenario that the authorities had prepared. The rapid decline in the popularity of United Russia, accompanied by the growth of protest activity and the complete discrediting of the existing election procedures has created a qualitatively new situation in which the national voting process is not only failing to serve its basic purpose – legitimising the election of the elites – but is becoming a problem in itself. This does not, of course, mean that the presidential election will be “genuine”. There will be no single opposition candidate, and if such a person were to appear, society would only be the worse for it. Today’s “opposition” in Russia consists either of splinter groups of the existing authorities, or of marginal forces of various hues, mostly liberals and nationalists.
The rejection by society of the authorities, as emerged clearly in December, does not by any means amount to sympathy for the oppositionists. Nor does the agenda urged on the people by the organisers of the antigovernment demonstrations reflect the actual causes of the mass discontent. The liberal leaders of the opposition are not willing to raise social questions, even those that have their own supporters aroused. A whole group of left-wing commentators effusively defend the correctness of the liberal politicians, explaining to their readers that if we raise social demands we risk “narrowing” the mass base of the protests. This might seem logical – the demand for honest elections is “broader” than the call for free medical care. The problem, though, is that in Russia today people are much less concerned about elections than about the fate of their local hospital.
On December 10, roughly 250,000 people turned out in demonstrations throughout the country. In 2005, when protests broke out against the government’s social policies, 2.5 million people came onto the streets despite the January frost. The mass base for social protests is tens of times broader than the social layers on which the organisers of the recent meetings were relying.
It should not be concluded from this that Russians have no need for honest elections. But the overwhelming majority of the people will only join in struggle for them, putting themselves beneath the batons of the police, when it becomes clear that elections can bring changes to their lives, that they can bring about the preservation of the social state for which the great majority of citizens are calling. Here, however, the oppositionists not only fail to share the views of the people, but on the contrary, are to be found in the same camp with the authorities.
To the disturbances in Russia’s main cities, the country’s stock markets responded with a plunge in share prices, while the business media explained the pessimism of investors on the basis that, against the background of protests, the government might be reluctant to implement “essential reforms” such as doing away with free education and health care. The real reason for the stand-off between society and the authorities lies precisely in the resistance by the less well-off to the anti-social policies of the elites. This resistance caused the collapse of the farce surrounding the Duma elections, and it has left the authorities unable to take decisive action against the opposition. But the opposition itself is no less afraid of change, even more so, than the authorities.
The problem with today’s protest leaders and their actions is something quite different from the fact that they are not from the left and hence, naturally, cannot go further than the slogan of fair elections, rejecting any social agenda. The problem lies in the fact that their position must necessarily lead to a failure to win even the minimal “general democratic” demands that are now being formulated. Either we build a genuinely massive, powerful movement, united around a full-blooded democratic program which has to include demands corresponding to the basic interests of the majority of Russia’s people, or the present revolt will expire without having achieved even the limited goals which the liberals and their helpers among the “left” are prepared to support.
The calls by the “moderate left” for passively following behind the liberals are supposedly based on the need to “work among the people”, to go where the masses are. But how, and with whom, are the forces of the left to set out after these ardently pursued masses? With badly printed leaflets full of abstract slogans? The members of the left come to the demonstrations with crumpled newssheets, printed in close type on bad paper, that might well grace a museum of the 1905 revolution. Then, not quite resolved to distribute this material to the surrounding public, they hand it out to one another. The anarchists agitate among the Stalinists, the Stalinists among the Trotskyists, the Trotskyists among the social democrats, and the latter in turn hand out their material to the anarchists. Closed circuit.
The opposition is incapable of proposing to its supporters anything but endlessly repeated meetings whose ineffectiveness is obvious to everybody. And if despite this the Kremlin cannot bring the situation under its control, that is simply because the people in the Kremlin have no idea either about what needs to be done in Russia. Whenever tensions are seen to be dropping, the authorities come out with another declaration or measure that pours oil on the flames of the crisis.
The situation is leading to an inevitable dead end, since a real triumph of democracy would simultaneously mean the complete collapse of the existing opposition. The authorities are not willing to retreat, and the opposition is scared of winning. Undoubtedly, both sides would prefer to quietly reach an agreement with one another.
But politics in Russia is now being played out in public, and hence a secret deal between the two sides would no longer amount to a real settlement. In chess such a situation is known as a stalemate. Life, however, is not a chess game, in which the pieces can simply be removed from the board and the players can start again. Sooner or later the situation will fly out of control, moving into a new and acute phase. That will happen when political protest is amplified by social protest, and new players come onto the scene. For this, it is evident, we will not need to wait long.
Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.