Today’s guest post is by Kovane; a Russian living in Russia. It’s opinion, of course, but I found it extremely enlightening – as I’m sure it will be for Russia watchers who don’t actually live there and have a rudimentary knowledge of political parties operating in the country. This details the strengths and weaknesses of the various movements, together with a prognosis for their future, from the viewpoint of a citizen. I hope you guys are paying attention: take it away, Kovane!
“While reading the Western press, one never ceases to be amazed at how poorly real Russian political thought is represented. Journalistic laziness and, let’s be frank about it, ever-present anti-Russian bias take almost all news from Russia down the same beaten paths: the oppressive regime with imperial ambitions grinding down the opposition, even scarier nationalists striving for power with their legions of skinheads and lovable and enlightened liberals longing for prosperity and freedom; but denied by Putin’s propaganda. Needless to say, the actual situation is a far cry from these tropes, and their use makes an understanding of Russian politics much more difficult. And this is, in fact, the opposite of what the media is supposed to do.
Russia is a unique country in the sense that it was affected by the widest variety of political ideas, and most of them were implemented in the whole of Russia or in its parts during its turbulent history. That provides a source of inspiration for many political currents but also divides the people of the country, as different groups associate themselves with different periods of Russia’s history. The easiest possible way to describe these political groups is by finding out their position on a list of key issues, such as a preferable level of state interference in the economy, nationalism vs internationalism, territorial integrity, etc… It’s also interesting to see how they manifest themselves in the official political scene.
This is the largest and the most diverse group, I daresay. According to polls, 68% of Russians regret that the Soviet Union disintegrated. But don’t hurry to get out Lenin’s dusty bust, the Commies aren’t coming back yet. This survey shows that of the 62% of the respondents that support Putin, 37% also positively view the CPRF (The Communist Party of the Russian Federation). What does that mean? Do ordinary Russians miss repressions or lectures on Marxism-Leninism? Maybe, but a much more likely explanation is that these numbers represent a mix of nostalgia and their hope for a strong government capable of providing stability and order.
Let’s take a look at more radical people, those who don’t support the current government and vote for the CPRF (according to the latest election, 11.57% of the population). Unsurprisingly, there are not many pure Marxists or Trotskyites among them: years of Soviet rule burnt out any desire to build Communism or incite the world revolution. Even the CPRF forfeited the cornerstone of a socialist economy, state-ownership of all means of production. As they state in their program, their boldest dream is the Chinese model: renationalization of several key industries, a progressive tax scale and small business support. And then standard pre-election boilerplate begins: tripling of wages and pensions, and free education and healthcare. Unfortunately, CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov forgot to mention the sources of the riches required to do so, as well as many other interesting issues – like how the renationalization will be conducted, or how the CPRF is going to fight corruption. We just have to take his word for it. That demonstrates the main problem of the CPRF today – they don’t want any leadership, the present situation suits them fine: using traditional electorate support, they promote business interests of the same oligarchs whom they so fiercely criticize in public. Of course, this drives away many talented people with leftist views, and the CPRF’s support is slowly dwindling.
It’s also worth noting that there are a number of non-systemic left-wing ideologues, euro-socialists, like Kagarlitsky, or rethinkers of Russian socialism, like the recently-formed “Rodina: common sense” party led by Delyagin and Kalashnikov. Their political clout is practically non-existent so far, but this may change with time.
Government participation in the economy: high, of course.
National politics: internationalism, sometimes seasoned with mild anti-Semitism (some bad Jews are to blame for the Soviet Union’s dissolution)
Territorial integrity: reunion of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and Kazakhstan on a voluntary basis. No plans for forcible inclusion of any countries; Saakashvili can sleep easy, the same for the Baltic States and Eastern Europe.
Stance on foreign policy: suspicious of the West, and blame them for the woes of the 90s, It would be fair to say that the West gave plenty of causes for that suspicion. But almost nobody argues for a new Iron Curtain.
Weaknesses: lack of a critical eye for the Soviet Union; frail balance between openness in the economy and autarchy; the CPRF’s rigidity.
Prognosis: depends on Putin’s policies: if the current political system manages to solve major problems, like corruption and modernization, a portion of the left wing will switch allegiances. Otherwise, the leftist movement will be a source of real opposition, and their influence will only grow.
The second-largest group. According to this poll, 10% of Russians support liberal values and 24% support democratic values. Setting aside any possible misinterpretations of the terms “democracy” and “liberalism”, I would estimate the liberal support base at 15% of Russians. Unfortunately, the history of Russian liberalism is a sad story indeed. The first time liberals got their hand on the helm was right after the February Revolution of 1917. Commanding a majority in the Provisional Government, Kadets (Constitutional democrats) had no clear-cut program and deferred any actions until the convening of the Constituent Assembly, while the country was slipping into anarchy. They predictably lost the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and that was it. The second coming happened right after the USSR’s collapse. New president Yeltsin favoured “young reformers” and trusted Yegor Gaidar with nearly full carte blanche on carrying out the reforms. In the 1993 Russian legislative election, liberal parties received more than 30% of the vote (more than 50%, counting the LDPR, nobody knew them well at the time and they do have the words “liberal democratic” in the name). True, liberals were in office during the toughest times; any party would have suffered a drop in popularity. Nevertheless, “young reformers” were complicit in the most outrageous and criminal reforms – devastating the living standards of much of the population, and selling a majority of Soviet assets for a meager 9.7 billion dollars. That alone seriously compromised the notion of “liberalism” in the eyes of ordinary Russians.
Liberals are represented in the political scene today by Yabloko, the oldest party, and countless socio-political unions; practically each opposition leader has one – Kasparov’s OGF, Milov’s “Democratic Choice”, Limonov’s “Other Russia” (although Limonov is a radical communist/anarchist, the liberal opposition is ready to collaborate even with the Devil if it brings more attention to them) Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights” and even Novodvorskaya’s “Democratic Union”. There were attempts to unify some of them, and the “Solidarity” movement was created in 2008: led by Nemtsov, Milov, Yashin and Kasparov. One party stands out against the common background, noticeably pro-Kremlin, tame “Right Cause” led by Gozman. Maybe this is the Kremlin’s stake to consolidate liberal forces?
The problems confronting these movements are numerous: their leaders lost all credibility by constantly engaging in petty squabbles. Nemtsov, Kasparov and Milov are closely affiliated with some American politicians, which makes them “agents of the West” in the eyes of Russians; they often resort to blatant lies in their criticism of Putin. Even the “Solidarity” program is rife with doctored data. Moreover, the program is a compilation of hackneyed slogans, most of which can be reduced to “More freedom for everyone!” Speaking of Yabloko, it was notorious for being in opposition to every other party and refusing to take seats in the government: they even fired some members for accepting appointment. Although Yabloko is more inclined to social liberalism, its leaders always refused to join forces with other liberal parties; even now, when chances of election are non-existent, its Moscow council dismissed any possibility of cooperation with Solidarnost.
Another appalling trait common in Russian liberal circles is undisguised Russophobia coupled with groveling before a fictitious heavenly image of the West. That just highlights their self-righteousness: unable to assume that something is wrong with them, they confidently blame the Russian people’s “slavish mentality” because those churls don’t vote for them. How dare they? Results so far? A staggering 2.5% of the vote. That means no seats in the Duma for any liberal party in the next elections, and more Dissenter’s Marches.
Government participation in the economy: low, but liberals are trying to step back from market bolshevism.
National politics: internationalism and tolerance with a Russophobic slant: mythical Russian fascism is commonly used as a strawman to justify one’s own flagrantly undemocratic or even criminal actions.
Territorial integrity: Russia in its present borders.
Stance on foreign policy: the West is our savior and our best friend.
Sore points: many – unwillingness to admit the wrongs of the 90s’ liberal policies and to receive objective criticism; abject disunity among different opposition leaders; lack of new reasonable leaders with untarnished reputations.
Prognosis: hopefully, someone will manage to unite these scattered forces and form a new party capable of providing ideological competition to the “United Russia” colossus.
Three groups which can be united under this category are radical nationalists, libertarians and anarchists. While their support base is miniscule, they try to make up this disadvantage by the activity of their members, especially chief ideologues.
Russia’s current national policy leaves much to be desired, thus giving nationalists the opportunity to gain popularity. Corruption in the police and the government’s unwillingness to deal with ethnic crime result in a bizarre situation, whereby members of ethnic crime groups can get away with almost anything, including even murders. Government officials usually try to ascribe sporadic outbursts of violent fights between different national groups to the activity of “omnipresent” Russian skinheads or label them as domestic crime. But it’s very hard to hush up these cases, and discontent among the people grows. One of the parties that try to capitalize on that is the DPNI, the movement against illegal immigration. Their goal is “protection of the indigenous population’s rights”: although they distance themselves from any fascist organizations, there is much controversy around them. Some liberal activists demand to prohibit the DPNI, but their actions have been mostly peaceful so far (save for the unsanctioned Russian March).
Another movement concerned with Russia’s national policy is National Democrats. They propose rather drastic measures: creation of a new Federation consisting of quasi-independent national republics, separation of the North Caucasus and minimal government participation in the economy. It’s unlikely that they will win much support with these ideas, but this movement is very young.
Anarchists and libertarians are in an absolute minority: Russia already had its fair share of anarchy, and the upper middle class – traditional support base for libertarians – isn’t sufficiently developed yet.
It seems that “stability at any price” is practically a commandment in the Kremlin, and the current political scene is designed to provide it. While the KPRF absorbs left-wing voters and pensioners and the LDPR soaks up protest and random votes (Zhirinovsky is a hell of a demagogue, many people vote for the LDPR because he is a “cool guy” or just for the heck of it), the rest of the pie goes to United Russia. Well, and to Mironov’s “Fair Russia”, of course, but who can spot the difference between them, right? Despite both KPRF and LDPR positioning themselves as opposition parties, they perfectly fit into the present political scene. Behold, a managed democracy in action! The United Russia tries to market itself as a conservative party, but it is too bloated: many join the party in hopes of advancing their careers, just like it was with the KPSS. The party seriously lacks any real competition, there were even talks about creating inside the party left and right wings, but they just died away. Considering the new 7% election threshold, The United Russia can bring down any other party, both LDPR and KPRF included, by diluting their votes as it did with liberal parties in the 2007 elections. This makes its rule virtually unchallengeable.
Stability is definitely something Russia needs, but that can’t be achieved by sustaining an artificial political system, the present national policy and corruption. The Kremlin has to face these problems, otherwise stability won’t last long.”
Kovane will take questions and comments – as always, comments in Russian are welcome, but on this occasion you can expect a prompt answer!