The West, Putin and the left opposition
by Gregor Tassie
The 20th century was defined by two transformative events in world history. Firstly, in 1917 the October Revolution established a socialist regime planning to abolish unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy, introduce sexual and racial equality, and universal free health care and education. Secondly, the defeat of fascism in 1945 in Europe and Asia led to a socialist system embracing one third of the world’s population. This in turn led to capitalist countries – in order to prevent revolutions – announcing pension schemes, unemployment benefits, free education, and health services. The Soviet experiment lasted 74 years, since when the welfare state in western countries has been pushed back by neoliberal economics and globalisation. Capitalism has ruled triumphant, with American ‘exceptionalism’ throwing huge numbers into greater poverty and destitution and regional wars ensuring profits for arms traders. Reprising Reagan’s depiction of the Soviet Union as an ‘Evil Empire’, today Russia has once again become the world’s bogey man.
CHALLENGING THE US
Among the causes for US annoyance is the Eurasian project to form alliances outwith its influence. Following its end, several strategic alliances emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union: The Commonwealth of Independent States which collaborates on economic, political, and military issues between former Soviet states; the BRICS countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa which present an alternative to the IMF and World Bank and the dominance of the US dollar in world markets (1), even though Brazil and India have adopted neoliberalism closer to the US model; and of great importance is the Shanghai Cooperation Group of five former Soviet republics, China, India, and Pakistan, which covers half of the world’s population. Belarus, Mongolia, and Iran enjoy observer status. The pact involves military, economic, cultural, and political cooperation and supports sovereignty and non-interference in international relations. Putin has spoken of a common political, military, cultural, and economic association from Vladivostok to Lisbon on the Atlantic.
In pursuing ‘exceptionalism’, the US has attempted to transform the world in its favour, economically, politically, and militarily. Putin has said that the US has used ‘almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.’ (2) NATO membership expanded to the Russian border and located an anti-missile shield in eastern Europe. This was opposed by Putin: ‘I would rather disagree with a case he [Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.’ (3) Putin argued for a multi-polar world order without dominance by any one state to the detriment of others, notably Russia and China. His words fell on deaf ears and were met with hostility. The 2006 US Congress Act on Belarus and Russia led to American funding of opposition groups in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Sixty US sanctions have been imposed on Russia since 2014. (4)
The ‘Orange’ Ukrainian revolution was led by nationalist/fascist groups (funded largely by the US State Department) who committed atrocities against trade unionists in Odessa and elsewhere. The 2014 coup d’état instigated civil war with the Donbass and Crimea claiming self-determination. The decision of the Donbass elected leaders (mostly communists and socialists) to oppose Kiev was popular, as was Crimea’s reunification with Russia which was backed by referendums. Collections of medical aid are made in Russian workplaces and many Russians have volunteered to fight against the fascists, joined by communists from Spain, Italy, and France. Putin’s position led to his popularity rising massively.
Russian self-sufficiency and cooperation with CIS and BRICS states have prevented sanctions from having desired effect. Putin states that the West suffered more from sanctions than did Russia, claiming that many European workers lost their jobs while Russia created jobs from production of banned items to the value of 5 billion euros. (5) Yet the collapse of oil prices has weakened the rouble, and wealth remains concentrated in Moscow with many regions having declining living standards. Putin stopped the sell-off of the countries’ resources yet recently land was privatised as was the huge railway network. The current unemployment rate is 5% and poverty levels are rising. State pensions and the health system have been restructured and education is being privatised. The trade unions (31 million members) were sanctioned by Yeltsin for supporting his impeachment in 1993 and again they opposed Yeltsin when he tried to remove their right to control social benefits. This was enforced by Putin who also removed the right of the Trade Unions to attend the Council on Labour Relations.
Putin’s service in Dresden in the 1980s allowed him to grasp the threat of demonstrations linked to treachery by Party leaders and to the overthrow of socialism. Returning to Leningrad he made an alliance with the ‘liberal’ Sobchak - a former KGB operative - leading demonstrations against Gorbachev. Putin became head of the security services responsible for expropriating the outlawed Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The rapid switch to capitalism caused huge unemployment and poverty. In Yeltsin’s flagging 1996 election campaign, Clinton provided dollars to fight the threat of the reborn Communist Party. A Putin ally, Medvedev stated, ‘Everyone knows Yeltsin didn’t win the election’. (6) This leads one to question other election rigging since.
Putin as president has proved himself a very astute politician, able to play off different societal groups. In 2003 he openly criticised oligarchs stating that they could no longer influence policy and centralised state power in the Kremlin. (7) Several oligarchs were arrested, and assets seized. It was about this time that oligarchs like Khodorkovsky were championed by the western media while Putin was demonised. Putin calls himself the ‘greatest nationalist in Russia’. (8) He said the ‘collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’. (9) In 2016 he told journalists, ‘I still like communist ideology and have never thrown away my party card.’ (10) He has positively compared Christianity with socialism, ‘freedom, brotherhood, equality and justice are all in the scriptures.’ Sociologists have defined his position as pragmatic, anti-western, and Eurasian. (11) Putin sensed the loss of Russia’s prestige and played to the nostalgia for Soviet life .
A childhood friend of Putin, Sergey Roldugin, told me that he teaches Putin to play piano and that Putin granted funds from the infamous Panama scandal to buy musical instruments for talented children at St Petersburg Music Centre. (12) He rewarded his home city by building new opera houses and concert halls. There is however a degree of vanity, inculcating a personality cult with the media showing Putin posing bare-back on a horse. He uses prison jargon and has expressed racist and sexist opinions publicly. With a current dearth in political leadership, Putin has no viable contender.
The ruling United Russia (which Putin is not a member of) is a bloc of self-seeking entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. There are long term problems because the wealth from exports of oil and gas will dry up eventually, amid mounting ecological disasters and vulnerability to green energy investment. There is a declining birth-rate. The scandal about a huge housing scheme in Moscow, which was bulldozed to permit exclusive private housing for the elite is typical. Protests, like the demonstration in Khabarovsk, are a regular phenomenon today. The September 2020 elections saw United Russia lose control of several cities and towns. Navalny’s anti-communist and anti-Putin bloc took several seats including the leading communist’s in Novosibirsk. The elections were typical in terms of apathy accompanied by a low turnout and vote rigging. (13)
NAVALNY AND THE SKRIPALS
Blogger Alexei Navalny gained prominence mostly through exposing corruption and by being helped by western media. Educated at Yale and a shareholder in five energy companies, Navalny was chosen by Prospect, Time, and Foreign Policy as among the world’s top hundred people in 2011-13. In the 2013 Moscow mayoral election he got 27% in a turnout of 33% and raised over $3 million but bids to stand for president were thrown out because of convictions for embezzlement. Navalny’s twitter followers amount to 2 million but in Russia nobody really thinks he is serious because he is so pro-western.
The Skripal assassination attempt is one of many carried out against oligarchs, mafia figures or former KGB officers. During the ‘wild west’ of the 1990s there were literally thousands of such killings in open gang warfare on Russian soil. In the case of the Skripals, or indeed the Litvinenko case, it may be former agents seeking revenge. That Novichok was kept at Porton Down a few miles from Salisbury appears to be rather bizarre. The Navalny case fits into the same scenario almost perfectly in casting blame and fitting timely political purposes. The UK and German authorities’ refusal to share their findings in relation to the Skripals with Russia is strange, and apportioning guilt without evidence is in itself deeply suspicious. What has Russia to gain by assassinating opposition figures and former spies?
THE LEFT ALTERNATIVE
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has 42 deputies in the Duma - down from 1995 when they had 157 seats. Their ‘stolid and uninspiring’ (15) leader Gennady Zyuganov won the first round of the 1996 presidential election taking 40% of the vote. Elections have invariably suffered abuses or been rigged. (16) Certainly low turnouts indicate that many are cynical about the electoral process. Parties require 200,000 signatures and six months notice for candidature. Several left parties are banned from operating legally. Current election law grants the CPRF, whose membership is 160,000, almost 2 billion roubles which allows considerable dominance over other left parties. It has its own TV station and several newspapers. The Communists of Russia led by Maxim Suraikin split away on ideological grounds, arguing the CPRF took a soft line on religion and private enterprise by including many businessmen as election candidates. Suraikin defines his party as Bolshevik and Zyuganov’s party as Menshevik. Looking at their policies and practices it is hard to deny this. CPRF deputies have been jailed for embezzlement and other criminal activity. (17)
In the 2018 presidential election the CPRF put up an entrepreneur, Pavel Grudinin – a former member of Putin’s party whose wife had a Swiss bank account. He won just 11% of the vote. There are as many as 17 socialist groups, including the Left Front, and youth organisations following the same tenets as the former Young Communist League. In last year’s opinion polls 70% of Russians wanted a return to the social and economic benefits of the USSR. Reflecting on the past has shown for many that the best years were in the Soviet period when the country pioneered science, culture and sport and was a bastion for peace and cooperation.
Putin has proved a very able politician in taming oligarchs and opposing American expansionism. He has shown himself determined to defend sovereignty and he draws the trust and admiration of many who remember the USSR’s position on peace and security. Under Yeltsin and Putin, however, capitalism has failed to offer anything better, bringing only corruption and poverty to ordinary people. The left will have to unite behind a strong socialist programme to present Russia with the way forward and an alternative to a failed system.
(1) Elvira Nabiulinna, Voice of Russia, 12/7/2014
(2) Putin – 2007 Munich Security Conference
(3) Putin, New York Times, 11/9/2013
(4) Center for Strategic and International Studies
(5) Putin – 20 Questions TASS 2019
(6) "Fraudeberichten uit Rusland". nos.nl. Time 24/2/2012.
(7) Putin – 20 Questions TASS 2019
(8) Vedomosti – 15/6/2018
(9) Putin, Message to Federal Council 25/4/2005
(10) Vedomosti, 2016.
(11) Michel Elchaninov, In the head of Putin, Allgemeine Zeitung
(12) Interview BBC Radio 3 – April 2003
(13) Kommersant -14/9/2020
(14) Helsinki elections Commission csce.org
(16) Communists of Russia.ru