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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.