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The Russian Left Today


Kagarlitsky

To

judge from opinion surveys, newspaper reports and simply from conversations on

the street, Russian society is moving leftward. To judge from the statements of

politicians and the relationship of forces within the elite, however, the

country is moving decisively to the right.

Disillusionment with the results of privatisation is almost universal. More than

two-thirds of citizens invariably support the proposal to return oil and gas

fields – and the largest industrial corporations along with them – to state

ownership. In everyday usage, the words “free market” have the force almost of

an obscenity.  Even among the intelligentsia and small business operators,

people who only recently were strong supporters of neo-liberal ideology, moods

have changed. More and more Russians are inclined to describe themselves not

just as social democrats, but as socialists. Courses on Marxism are returning to

the universities, in response to demand from the students themselves.

At

the same time, the government is promising the forced-draft privatisation of the

few assets that remain in its hands. It is also abolishing progressive taxation,

forcing anti-trade union legislation through the Duma, and threatening to carry

out a reform of municipal services that would not only compel the already

impoverished members of the population to pay the full cost of these provisions,

but in effect, to invest money in this sector from their own pockets. If

enacted, these measures will spell ruin for the new middle class that arose

during the 1990s, and this, naturally, will cause them to become radicalised. It

is this, along with the winds of “anti-globalist” protest blowing in from the

West, that explains the changed state of affairs in society. Miners demonstrate,

the trade unions of dockers and aviation workers organise successful strikes,

and telephone subscribers wage a successful campaign against the introduction of

timed calls, forcing the corporations to make concessions. All this is combined

with a growing alarm for the future of civil liberties under the administration

of Vladimir Putin, and an increasingly powerful discontent at the continuation

of the Chechnya war.

Meanwhile, the shift by the regime to the right is meeting scarcely any

resistance on the political level. Formally speaking, the opposition in Russia

is represented by two organisations – the Communist Party of the Russian

Federation, and the “Yabloko” party. The trouble is that the opposition long ago

became part of the establishment, and is no less corrupt than the government.

While criticising the “authoritarian tendencies” of the regime, Yabloko gives

total support to the Kremlin’s social policy, despite the obvious fact that it

is this social and economic course that obliges the Kremlin to be authoritarian.

Under the conditions of the oligarchic economy, when the authorities carry out

reforms that serve the interests of a tiny minority, and which are condemned by

two-thirds of the population, there is no reason to hope for democracy.

The

ruling layers are trying to compensate for their unpopular social program by

using nationalist rhetoric and by whipping up a racist psychosis closely linked

to the war in Chechnya. The “opposition liberals” have wound up in a political

trap. From time to time they criticise the consequences, while ignoring (or even

applauding) the cause 

The

only thing that is now left-wing about the official Communist party is its name.

For socialism, the party leaders have substituted the slogan of “great-power

patriotism”, and the press organs they control are full of racist and anti-semitic

attacks. Under the leadership of Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party of the

Russian Federation not only gives fervent support to the genocide in Chechnya,

but regularly helps the government to implement its economic policies. It is no

accident that representatives of the KPRF were in the first ranks of those who

sought the ruinous increase in telephone charges, justifying this on the basis

of the need to accumulate funds in national industries. In essence, the actions

of the leaders of Russia’s official communist movement would be better suited to

members of a fascist party.

The

leaders of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) – the

country’s largest trade union federation, surviving from Soviet times – have

shown themselves to be not much better. When the government presented its draft

for a new labour code which abolished long-established benefits for workers,

allowed employers complete freedom to carry out sackings and compile blacklists,

legalised child labour and provided for the phasing-in of a twelve-hour workday,

the FNPR bitterly criticised the document. For several months the leaders of the

trade union federation declared their disagreement with the government. Then,

they joined with the government in setting up a conciliation commission which

put forward a “compromise variant” that differed little from the original. The

few improvements that were introduced to the draft law were the result of

demands put forward by the alternative trade unions, which also took part in the

commission.

The

situation might have seemed altogether tragic, but there was another side to the

coin. The open corruption of the official opposition led to the rise of

alternative movements on its left flank. This is better illustrated using the

example of the trade unions. Alternative unions already have a long history in

Russia. Arising after the miners’ strike of 1989, when the Soviet Union still

existed, most of them came under the influence of anticommunist ideas. The only

exception was the trade union “Defence of Labour”, established by radical left

activists. The experience of the 1990s once again showed that liberal ideology

was incompatible with the goals of the labour movement. After a string of

failures, scandals, defeats and disappointments, the alternative trade union

movement started moving to the left. Meanwhile, Defence of Labour was in the

privileged position of not having to change its ideas and strategy. In the late

1990s the leadership of this trade union federation was assumed by Oleg Shein,

who in 1999 was also elected by voters in the city of Astrakhan to the position

of deputy to the State Duma. Although Defence of Labour was still relatively

small, a process began in which other alternative unions united around it. A

Russian trade union congress held on 6 June 2000 not only attracted

representatives from 90 per cent of the alternative organisations, but also a

number of members of FNPR unions who were in opposition to their leaders. The

congress voted to support its own draft labour code, drawn up by Shein. On 19

June demonstrations and strikes in support of Shein’s draft took place

throughout the country. Although the number of participants did not exceed

200,000 people, this could be considered a turning-point for the labour

movement; the apathy and demoralisation of earlier years had been replaced by a

readiness for action.

The

idea of a united workers’ party hung in the air at the June trade union

congress. Workers in Russia no longer consider the KPRF their party, and expect

nothing good from the authorities. Until recently, left activists were still

hoping for a split or a leadership change in the KPRF. Quite possibly, something

of the kind will happen sooner or later, but the wait now seems too long. Most

importantly, under Putin the KPRF has definitively abandoned its role as an

opposition, and has become one of the props of the regime.

Throughout the 1990s, efforts by the fractious left groups to unite invariably

ended in failure. The situation only changed in 1999 with the appearance of the

Movement for a Workers Party (DRP), which was joined by most of the leaders of

Defence of Labour. Even after unifying in the DRP, however, many groups

persisted in making sectarian attacks on one another, not to speak of the

attacks they made on the leftists who remained outside the unification process.

For members of the left, overcoming sectarianism is now becoming a question of

life or death. The need to establish a broad left organisation is being felt at

every step, but the left itself often lacks the experience, the knowledge and

simply the personnel to make use of the opportunities that are opening up.

The

future of the left in Russia depends to a considerable extent on the development

of the anti-war movement. Here as well, striking changes have occurred. The

small size of the demonstrations and pickets held by human rights defenders

might seem to offer graphic confirmation of the regime’s thesis that the people

are united in supporting the war. Meanwhile, the many thousands of members of

the Caucasus diaspora, as well as of Russia’s muslim minorities, have been

conspicuously absent from these demonstrations. The reason is simple. As pointed

out by Ahmad Shabazov, one of the ideologues of the Movement for Civil Rights

founded by Moscow Chechens, these human rights groups have been more interested

in Western grants than in the real situation in Chechnya, and have been

unwilling to see the links between Russia’s social problems and the war.

With

the appearance on the political scene of the Movement for Civil Rights and of

the Chechen coalition “Third Force”, the situation has changed radically.

Russian society has witnessed a new Chechen movement that is secular,

internationalist and progressive. The slogan of national independence for

Chechnya has been shifted to the background; the primary place is now taken by

slogans focusing on equal rights and the solidarity of all the oppressed.

Meanwhile, the Movement for Civil Rights aims to become not just a movement of

people of Caucasus nationality, who in Russia are subject to mockery and

humiliation on a daily basis, but also a body open to all citizens with an

interest in national and social equality. Unlike islamic nationalists who oppose

everything Russian, the ideologues of the Movement for Human Rights maintain

that the “Chechen question” cannot be settled until the “worker question” is

resolved. The practical result of this ideological shift has been agreement on

united actions between the Movement for a Workers Party and the Movement for

Civil Rights. Most likely this will only be the initial phase in the

establishing of a broad left-democratic coalition.

The

history of the left, of course, includes numerous coalitions that have not

achieved their goals, as well as movements that have had brilliant beginnings,

but which later have ignominiously collapsed. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in

Russia is changing. The coming months will be a testing time not only for

coalitions arising on the left flank of politics, but also for the regime. The

economic upturn is losing momentum, and the Russian elite is haunted by the

spectre of a new economic crisis. This crisis is looming both within the

country, and outside it.

A

country with a hundred and fifty million people cannot exist solely on the

income from sales of oil and gas. In the neocolonial economy created by the

Russian oligarchs, not only the standard of living but also the very survival of

many citizens of Russia depends on the fluctuations in the price of oil on world

markets. Changes are about to happen, and the elites feel this no less keenly

than left activists. For this very reason, the authorities are anxious to settle

the question by strengthening their machine of repression, by putting pressure

on the media, and through racist and chauvinist demagogy. This is their method

of “consolidation”. The left puts forward its own method, based on the

principles of democracy and solidarity. A collision is inevitable.

In

Russia today we are seeing only the first stage in the creation of a new

democratic movement. A great deal remains unclear, but one thing is obvious:

this will be a movement of the left, or it will not exist at all.  

 

 

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