Preparing for the second wave

December saw huge protests in Moscow and St Petersburg against the rigging of the elections to the duma. Mark Fischer asked Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky about their significance

The movement seems to have been very diffuse, with the far left rubbing shoulders with the extreme right and nationalists. How would you characterise it?

For a few years there has been growing unhappiness with the current system among the people - in that sense the effect of the economic and social crisis has been more or less the same as in other countries. But in the case of Russia we previously saw no active expression of that discontent. Millions of people were angry, but that was not translated into political action.

This led some among the elite to imagine that Russians are simply unable to protest for some cultural or psychological reason. As for the intellectuals, they tended to explain this anomaly through fear. However, neither explanation was correct. While the population was so passive that it seemed to be paralysed, this situation could not continue forever.

Meanwhile there has emerged a new generation of young Russians - those who did not live through the disasters of the 1990s. This generation is extremely naive and inexperienced, often lacking even a basic understanding of political and social issues, but it is full of energy and it wants to change things.

The internet has played a role in this awakening, but its importance should not be exaggerated - for some time dissent and expressions of discontent have been common on Facebook, but this was not reflected in events on the street. That situation has changed, but even now those on the street are not necessarily the same people as those agitating on the web.

Elections to the duma have always been rigged, and in any case this fake parliament has no real power. All the parties involved in the electoral process - not only the pro-government United Russia, but the so-called ‘opposition’ as well - are controlled by the administration, and most people have been well aware of that, including, of course, those who joined the protests in December. But people needed a pretext to go onto the streets and they got it with the rigging of the elections.

It is was no great surprise when the opposition parties, whose votes were stolen, decided not to support the movement. However, some of their members did - especially in the case of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, in open confrontation with their own leadership.

As for the non-parliamentary opposition, it tried to benefit as much as possible from the new situation; and to a certain extent it has managed to do so, because the government claims that official opposition politicians are ‘representatives’ and ‘leaders’ of the protest. This means that if you want to go to a protest rally which is not going to be attacked by the police, you choose those organised by the ‘Democratic Coalition’. So far that has worked, but there is a growing frustration among the youth who initiated the movement. A coalition which unites some of the left with liberals and the far right can be sustained only at the price of political ineffectiveness. These people lack principles and that makes them stay together rather easily, but it also prevents them from thinking out a political strategy.

Within the left there is now a debate. On the one hand, we have some ‘moderate socialists’, backed by some anarchists and Trotskyists, who say that we need to follow the liberals because they enjoy the support of “the masses”. That also means avoiding any discussion of social issues and not putting forward any demands except ‘free elections’. On the other hand, there is a tendency which aims to form an independent left coalition able to formulate its own agenda and which refuses to go along with rightwing nationalists and liberals. Rabkor.Ru, the web journal of the Institute for Global Research and Social Movements, tries to be an expression of this tendency.

You have previously noted the paradox that, while prime minister Vladimir Putin has scored as high as 80% approval as an individual politician, even his most popular policies register only 20%-30% support. Has that situation now changed?

Today Putin is in big trouble. It is true that his personal popularity has been used to cover up the extremely unpopular neoliberal policies which he is implementing. But this could not continue forever. Now his popularity is collapsing because more and more people associate him with the government he leads (unlike during the times of his presidency). President Dmitri Medvedev is simply hated and the obvious identity between the two men makes things much worse.

The situation is deteriorating so fast that the plans for this year’s presidential elections, in which Putin will stand once again, have been called into question. There is no way Putin can get elected in the first round without massive fraud. And letting the elections go to a second round is something the Russian bourgeoisie doesn’t like, because this increases ‘instability’.

In line with Lenin’s theory of revolutionary situations, there is now a crisis at the top. The elite doesn’t know how to run the country - they certainly can’t continue in the old way. But this is not specific to Russia. We are affected by the global crisis of neoliberalism.

If Putin survives, presumably he will head a weak regime?

I don’t think that he will survive for long. A weak regime is hardly regarded by the elite as the best option for dealing with the crisis. The bourgeoisie and oligarchy needed Putin when he was capable of delivering stability. Now he’s exactly the opposite to what is needed, so they may start looking elsewhere. At the moment Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire entrepreneur standing as an independent, looks like a bad option, but the very fact that he is running tells us that the elite is looking for a candidate to replace Putin. Whether they succeed in finding a solution is a different story. It doesn’t seem too likely right now.

Has the working class made its presence felt to any extent?

Not so far. There have been some strikes, but they have not been connected to the democratic protest. And the liberals don’t want working class support and participation. However, in Petersburg local union leaders are visible on the streets. I think that the working class will be central to the second wave of protests, which is surely approaching.

You mentioned Lenin’s theory of revolutionary situations. How do you view the current situation?

The first wave of protest brought about very little, if anything, except that the duma parties and liberals have now been discredited. But the next wave will be more incisive and will put forward social demands - not necessarily very radical, but essential for mass mobilisations. The majority of Russians aren’t yet ready to fight for socialism, but they are demanding a return of the welfare state - something opposition liberals will never support.

New movements, new forces and new leaders will emerge - this is all a normal part of the revolutionary process, in which we as Marxists are happy to take part.