Russian federation

Putin - one year on

Last month saw the first anniversary of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin?s accession to the Russian presidency. The event passed virtually unnoticed in our media, and even in Russia itself there were only some muted fanfares on the state-controlled TV and radio stations. It meant nothing to the mass of the population, who continue to suffer from the consequences of economic dislocation and a generalised sense of despair.

After a year of his administration, the question remains as to what kind of Russia Putin is intent on building in the aftermath of the disastrous Yeltsin years. As I have argued elsewhere, the emergence of Putin can be seen as another - perhaps final - attempt by Russian finance capital to consolidate its control and bring about an orderly transition to the market (see Weekly Worker August 3 2000). Failure to achieve this objective so far has brought Russia to the brink of economic catastrophe, representing not only a defeat for Russian capital, but a world historical failure of capitalism itself.

From the point of view of imperialism and international finance capital, what ultimately matters is that Putin should create the conditions necessary for ?stable inward investment?: ie, for the exploitation of Russia?s raw materials and energy, its low paid but relatively highly trained workforce and its vast potential as a market for western exports. Faced with recessionary, perhaps even deflationary, pressures in its own mature markets, moribund capitalism is being driven to seek a higher return abroad, and despite the losses and disappointments experienced so far, Russia remains a key strategic target.

The essential preconditions for success cannot be created without profound reforms both in politics and economics. Sadly for the imperialists, the course of the Putin regime to date gives little grounds for hope that such measures will be forthcoming. From the beginning, it has been clear that Putin is intent on consolidating a unitary centralised state, with all the levers of power in his own hands. Urged by some among the elite to adopt the Pinochet model - a combination of political dictatorship and neo-liberal market economics - he has opted for a Bonapartist approach founded on the ruthless suppression of all opposition, repression of the media, disregard for human rights in general and a particular assault on the rights and already abysmal living standards of the working class.

First, as regards politics, in contemporary Russia there is still nothing resembling civil society - with at least some semblance of political pluralism and genuine participatory democracy. Nor can the Russian state under Putin be described as a law-based entity, lacking even the minimum of accountability. Everything is still decided from the centre and the duma?s only objective function, just as happened under Yeltsin, is to rubber-stamp a plethora of bureaucratic-administrative decrees emanating from the Kremlin.

Putin?s approach to the absolute centralised control of political life in the country appears to be concentrated on bringing about a situation in which the very right of political parties to exist becomes a matter for Kremlin officials and the Central Electoral Commission to decide. This must surely be the significance of the new ?Law on political parties? which passed its crucial second reading stage in the state duma by 261 votes to 56 on May 24.

As we have pointed out before, with the exception of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) - the only major party to publish membership figures, currently claimed to be around 300,000 - Russia currently has no political parties, if by that we mean organisations with a common programme and a base across the country. Instead it has entities that call themselves parties but which are in reality mere electoral blocs set up either to further the sectional interests of factions within the elite, or to represent specific regional or local interests.

The best example of the former type is the pro-Kremlin Unity party (known in Russia as Medved - Bear), currently the dominant faction in the duma. Unity was created only months before the 1999 duma election purely as a vehicle to defend the Kremlin ?family? interest and set up a platform for Putin?s presidential campaign. Putin ?endorsed? Unity but never joined it. Maybe that was because there was nothing to join - no infrastructure and no programme. Unsurprisingly, thanks to the totally unfair advantage of having a near monopoly of air-time on the state-controlled TV and radio networks, Unity captured some 23% of the vote in 1999 and Putin went on to win the presidency the following year.

The key point in the new law is that only an organisation formally registered as a political party will be allowed to contest elections at any level - local, regional or national. In order to qualify, a political party must have at least 10,000 members, with branches of at least 100 members in each of Russia?s 89 regions.

Currently, the country has getting on for 200 ?political parties? - to use the term in its broadest sense. Many exist in only one region or republic and will clearly be ineligible to stand candidates even in their own areas. At present, it is doubtful whether even Unity itself, along with other major parties/blocs like Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces actually meet the criteria, in terms of infrastructure and membership, but, where they are concerned, that problem can be rectified relatively easily, since they have powerful patrons with deep pockets.

For all the others, the only way to avoid total political extinction is to attempt to merge themselves with one of the main parties. Thus, Putin hopes to attain his objective of centralising political life and introducing what he calls ?order? into the ?democratic process?. As duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, the most prominent critic of the new law, put it in a recent essay, ?This law should not be called the ?law on political parties?, but rather ?the law on governmental control over the political parties?? (www.utro.ru).

In a telephone interview given the day after the duma vote, Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Centre, described the new law as another ?historical compromise? made by the political elite with the Kremlin: ?They have just made themselves a virtually unchangeable political elite, closed to all outsiders, in exchange for their cooperative attitude toward the Kremlin ... It will be very difficult to form a new party now, so their position is secure. They will have limited powers, but whatever they have will now be guaranteed for a long time to come? (quoted in Moscow News May 25).

If anything, Ryabov?s view demonstrates the sanguine complacency typical of an insider who is immersed exclusively in metropolitan politics. Putin?s definition of a strong state, given in his national address last summer, as one that ?must rely on a single, vertical line of executive power? makes clear his demand for total, autocratic control. He may contend that ?only a strong and democratic state can defend the civil, political and economic freedoms of the population?, but everything he has done so far has emphasised ?strength? to the total detriment of freedom and democracy. For a dictatorship, a one-party system is not necessarily a sine qua non, provided that it has a multi-party system under stringent control by the executive apparatus. That, it seems, is the rationale behind the ?law on political parties?.

Paradoxically, the centripetal strategy made explicit in Putin?s approach to internal politics seems likely to unleash a multitude of centrifugal forces, particularly in regions and republics that find themselves effectively disenfranchised and unable to struggle effectively to meet either their own political aspirations towards greater autonomy or the increasingly pressing political and economic demands of their populations.

Secondly, there is the question of fundamental economic reform, without which no transition to the market is remotely feasible. Talk of the ?restoration of capitalism? in Russia, as if it were already a fait accompli, is just as misguided as ever. To be sure, Putin?s administration has had some successes in curbing the criminal and parasitical domination of whole swathes of the economy by the so-called oligarchs: Vladimir Gusinsky, for example, faced with criminal prosecution and the confiscation of his of assets, has been forced into exile, and in the process his media empire - a real thorn in the Kremlin?s flesh because of its ?anti-state? activities - has been emasculated. But Russia remains a state without any workable laws on property ownership, whether of land or financial assets, without an operable tax system and where most significant areas of the economy, including the banking and financial sectors, remain deeply mired in corruption and inefficiency - hardly conditions in which capitalism can prosper.

Some enterprises operate on the basis of more or less orthodox capitalist relations of production, but they remain in the minority. In any event, it seems impossible, in terms of Marxist criteria, to talk about ?capitalism? in a situation where, for the vast majority of the population money functions as money just as little as it did in Soviet times; where abstract labour constitutes the exception rather than the rule; where the purchase of labour power as labour power and the alienation of labour power in return for wages is similarly the exception; where the law of value scarcely operates at all; where the bulk of the country?s productive forces can only continue to exist through barter; where the millions of unemployed, many of whom remain formally attached to their enterprises and receive benefits in kind, can hardly be said to constitute a reserve army of labour in any real sense of the term.

It is perhaps, therefore, not surprising that any apparent move in the direction of opening up state enterprises to stable and lucrative foreign investment is met with almost hysterical approval by the ever more jaundiced spokespersons of foreign capital. Such was the case last week, when Putin summarily dismissed Rem Vyakhirev, head of Gazprom, the world?s largest gas producer and the jewel in the crown of Russia?s major industries. Revenues from this state-controlled monopoly, with access to more than 30% of the planet?s identified gas reserves, account for no less than 25% of Russia?s federal budget. Gazprom supplies around a third of Europe?s gas, essentially fuelling the economies of much of central and eastern Europe - not to mention Germany, for example, which obtains nearly 40% of its domestic energy requirements through the Gazprom pipeline.

Hitherto, under Vakhirev?s eight-year chairmanship, Gazprom has been associated with numerous corruption scandals and speculative, often loss-making diversification into financial and commercial empires in such sectors as telecoms, hotel chains and holiday resorts. The company?s refusal to submit itself to normal capitalist accounting procedures, its labyrinthine network of subsidiaries and its complex two-tier share structure, that locks out foreign investors from having any real say in the future direction of the business, have made it something of a nightmare for foreign capital, but the gigantic potential of this enterprise, which employs more than 300,000 workers across Russia, is obvious. Small wonder that Putin?s assertion of genuine state control over the business has caused enthusiasm on Wall Street, where Gazprom?s quoted American Depository Receipts are forecast to double within months.

But it seems probable that the capitalists? jubilation may be short-lived. In a situation where the supply of energy to Europe is likely to be the focus of increasing competition and conflict in coming years, Putin is, to put it mildly, unlikely to cede meaningful control of this vital sector to outside capital. Moreover, there are already signs that the Kremlin has seized on the significant role that Gazprom can play as an instrument of foreign policy in subjugating the ?near abroad? to greater control from Moscow. Last winter, for example, in order to thwart an attempt by Georgia to close Russian military bases on its territory, Gazprom experienced severe ?technical problems? which led to the supply of gas being suddenly turned off.

It is also significant that, rather than bestowing the chairmanship of Gazprom on a recognised specialist in the field, Putin has given the job to Aleksei Miller, one of his old Leningrad cronies, who boasts a degree in economics as his qualification for the task. Boris Fyodorov, a Gazprom board member and an erstwhile proponent of economic reform under Yeltsin, describes the move as a ?great step forward?, but it remains doubtful whether Miller or anyone else is capable of bringing the powerful and well connected coterie of Gazprom senior executives under effective management and control.

Meanwhile, leaving aside this little flurry of ill-founded excitement and optimism about the possibilities of meaningful reform, it is the Russian working class, still under threat from the draconian measures projected in the draft labour code - measures that are deemed essential to the creation of proper capitalist relations of production - that continues to bear the brunt of Putin?s autocratic oppression. They will search in vain for assistance from the likes of the CPRF and the other ?communist? parties, all of whom, despite their red-brown rhetoric, have objectively committed themselves to the necessity of a market economy.

At present the class is atomised and demoralised by 10 years of post-Soviet chaos. For the most part, trade unions have turned into impotent appendages of the state apparatus, desperate for crumbs from the master?s table. Strike action has declined. Working class organisations have become shells or fallen apart altogether.

Sooner or later though, when it realises that only its own self-activity can remedy this desperate situation, the Russian working class will organise itself once more and will rise up against its oppressors.

Michael Malkin