Yokos And Others

Russia is moving towards parliamentary elections but the real big question, which makes people excited, worried or intrigued is not about how many votes this or that party is going to get. More important is to understand which corporate groups are going to be more present in the next Duma.

Foreigners don’t understand a thing about Russian politics. They’re always asking about platforms and ideology, whereas Russians are more interested in how many seats in parliament will go to the oil majors, the metals lobby or the financial sector. On the party lists from the Union of Right Forces to the Communist Party you’ll find all the major corporations represented: oil companies like Yukos, LUKoil, TNK, Sibneft, Neftyanoi and Nafta-Moskva; aluminum giants like Base Element, RusAl, SUAL and Sibirsky Aluminum; as well as Unified Energy Systems, Norilsk Nickel, Alfa Bank and scores of lesser-known companies.

Russia is the most bourgeois of the European democracies. But of all the bourgeois elites, ours is the most straightforward. Why bother buying off parties or State Duma deputies when you can simply buy seats in parliament? Why plan long-term strategy when you can write your own laws? Then again, the laws are implemented not by big business but by the bureaucrats, that other bastion of privilege in today’s Russia. The bureaucracy never loses sight of its own interests, and it will not be satisfied just doing someone else’s bidding. On the United Russia party list alone, there are more than 70 high-ranking government officials. The whole point of parliamentary democracy is to provide for the coordination of interests — to allow bureaucrats and businessmen to compromise. But in fact the hordes of representatives of big business and the bureaucracy in parliament attest to the weakness of Russia’s ruling classes. They are insecure, and most importantly they are not united. No one can be trusted.

Russia is not unique in this, of course. The “revolving door” of government in the United States ushers corporate executives into cushy jobs in Washington and sends outgoing government officials back into the boardroom. But at least the Americans admit that this practice presents a problem and attempt to rectify it with laws regulating the involvement of public servants in private business and addressing conflicts of interest.

Russia has no use for such niceties. Every big boss knows that he can only rely on himself or his closest and most trusted associates. Reliance on anyone else will result only in lies, deceit and the old double cross. The ruling elite has not yet become a full-fledged class. It lives more by the rules of the underworld.

As democracy degenerates from its “guided” form to the purely decorative, the professional politician’s purview contracts accordingly. Boris Yeltsin laid the foundation for sham parliamentary democracy in his 1993 Constitution, which provides that the State Duma must vote no confidence in the government twice to have any effect, and most likely the effect is that the Duma itself is dissolved. If the government doesn’t suit parliament, we just get rid of parliament, rather like O. Henry’s short story “Cabbages and Kings.” When parliament was calling for the government to resign in 1993, tanks were called in to shell the White House. Such brutal measures are no longer required, however, because Duma deputies can safely be ignored.

Corruption in the Duma is the stuff of jokes. The sale of Duma seats through party lists is TV talk show fare. These and other bright spots of Russian politics are the logical result of the way the system was constructed. When members of parliament wield no real influence yet retain very real privileges, the legislative branch inevitably falls into decay. Under the new rules of the game, lobbying for business is the only sensible thing to do.

There is no point in placing all the blame on the regime and its yes-men in the Duma. The regime abuses the political rights of the people with impunity, but the people are its accomplices. The people are not silent; they snigger quietly to themselves. It will be a real hoot when the Duma is made up entirely of lobbyists. We will watch them debate on television, laugh at their gaffes and think that none of this has anything to do with us.

From that point of view one person is really important Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who till recently was heading Yukos oil company. Now he is in jail.

Some Western left saw the jailing of Khodorkovsky as an attack of Putin’s “nationalist” administration against “comprador capital”. But Putin’s team is least interested in getting rid Russian business of foreign influence. The Putin’s administration has done all it can to drag Russia into the World Trade Organization and to increase the role of foreign capital in the economy. There is no question of a principled struggle. Putin repeated time and again that nationalization of Yukos is out question. Putin announces that the legal and economic results of privatization will not be reviewed. This means that the oligarchic structure of the economy, dominated by raw materials quasi-monopolies, will remain in place no matter who owns them. More, Russian presidential administration is quite keen on the perspective of Yukos as well as other corporations being sold to “foreign investors”, which means Americans.

Khodorkovsky also planned to sell some of Yukos shares to US oil corporations. But this is exactly where the real question is: who will do the sale, who will get the money? Oligarch’s arrest could be put down to a run-of-the-mill battle to redistribute property if not for two things.

Paradoxically, in a twist of fate, the very fact that the quasi-monopolies are protected against nationalization leaves the heads of these corporations defenseless in any conflict with the regime. The Kremlin has vowed to defend the private property, not the owners themselves. So, we’ve seen the richest man of Russia sitting in an iron cage is if he was a terrible cannibal from “Silence of the Lambs”. Though it provoked some Schadenfreude among those who lost their income and jobs during neo-liberal privatization. It also generated a lot of fear. If this government can do this to Khodorkovsky, what can they do to the rest of us?

In a country where the vast majority of the population wants these companies to be renationalized, the regime can only be authoritarian. In order to defend private property, the regime has no choice but to ignore public opinion. A wide-open political contest is out of the question. The most the regime can afford is a semblance of participatory government, or “guided democracy.”

But sooner or later the arbitrary rule to which most Russians are exposed every day will affect the upper echelons of society. When the bureaucrats are all-powerful, no one is safe. At some point the defenders of private property start demanding their fair share. Some businesses choose to cut a deal. Others, in particular Khodorkovsky, have tried to establish a dialogue with the people directly in an attempt to free themselves from dependence on the state. This explains why Khodorkovsky has pushed so insistently for greater openness and has founded so many charitable organizations to support education, civil society and even the political opposition.

It was always doubtful how successful this strategy could be. However, the Kremlin sensed a threat and went after Yukos with a vengeance. Khodorkovsky wound up behind bars, though if the charges he faces are taken at face value, the entire Russian elite — starting with the Kremlin — ought to be locked up along with him.

At this point a second factor comes into play, changing the situation dramatically. Khodorkovsky stepped down as the head of Yukos and indicated that he would be happy just to run the foundations he had established to develop civil society. In Marxist terms, the oligarch became a “leader of the bourgeois-democratic opposition.” He remains a member of the oligarchic elite. But the owner of a major corporation who is trying to hang on to his slice of the pie taken from the people back in the early 1990s is one thing; a politician who has issued a challenge to the regime is another thing entirely.

The press frequently compares Khodorkovsky to the famous industrialist Savva Morozov, who bankrolled the Bolsheviks at the beginning of the 20th century. It would be more apt, however, to compare Khodorkovsky with two men who found themselves in a similarly complex situation: Benigno Aquino in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship, and Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in Nicaragua during the Somoza dictatorship. Both were liberal representatives of a traditional oligarchy who opposed authoritarian rule and “managed democracy” in their countries. They were neither radical nor left-wing, but the logic of political confrontation drove them into such a heated conflict with the regime that no compromise was possible.

The current regime has no need for mass repression. It gets away with just locking up former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and a few leftist radicals. It kills only the Chechens. It cows the press without resorting to threats from the secret police – often a visit from the health inspectors does the trick. Russia has no broad popular opposition outside the Duma. The trade unions spend more time whining than striking. And the main hope of the left is still the financial backing of disgruntled oligarchs.

Khodorkovsky, who failed to make himself popular through charity, funding political parties (including Communists) and “socially responsible” investment, suddenly started attracting public sympathy once we saw him behind the bars. If there is a figure, which can run in 2004 against Putin, it is him. Today, Khodorkovsky is just about the only person in Russia for whom (unlike politicians in the State Duma) democratic reform is not just a worthwhile goal, it is a matter of life and death. But is he familiar with the fate of his predecessors? The Aquino and Chamorro clans eventually came to power in the Philippines and Nicaragua, but both men paid for this triumph with their lives.

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