March 2007 vs. March 1917. Historical parallels

On March 3, Russia’s liberal and leftist groups held the Dissenters’ March in St. Petersburg. The rally seems to be the first successful social event of the liberal opposition so far. It gathered over 3000 people; but more importantly it revealed that the ethos of the social protest has changed.

Initiatives of the United Civil Front led by the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov are aimed at strengthening the liberal opposition by uniting efforts with social movements. And even though they have different goals and motivation, all discrepancies are insignificant in comparison with the common goal – to resist the regime. For different social actors are equally frustrated with the authorities; social conflicts are gaining momentum and the existing political system denies people any chance to defend their rights by legal means. So, on the one hand liberals ousted from the political rostrum have become more radical and on the other – people indignant at escalating housing, transport and communication services prices, take little consideration of the fact that the odious authorities are implementing word by word the economic programs of the liberals. The logic is simple: the more intense becomes the hatred towards the authorities, the more there is ground for dialogue and integrating efforts of all sorts of political and social actors.

The Dissenters’ March was in the first place a protest against the St. Petersburg city authorities and the reforms carried out by the federal authorities. Kremlin-backed periodicals reasonably blame both Kasparov and Kasyanov of using social discontent to promote their own programs. But as the reality on the ground has proved those dissatisfied with the current situation have no other option but to join in their protest the United Civil Front and “The Other Russia” and other organizations of the liberal opposition.

As long as the authorities don’t change the social policy, the union of the liberals and different social movements will only grow stronger. The growing social discontent will lead to further politicization of the society. As things stand today, the liberal opposition appears to be the only political force that can provide resources, legal and information support to social movements. The leftists are of little help in this sense. They insist that the more independent the social movement is the stronger it is, but despite this activists and leaders pragmatically chose cooperation with those who can create at least the appearance of effective social protest.

Even the leaders of independent unions of St. Petersburg, who are very cautious not to be dragged into political games of others, after the Dissenters’ March agreed that the labor movement should participate in such actions, even though under their own banners and with their mottoes. And when the “Ford” and dock workers support pensioners and little groups of young leftists and right radicals in their protest, this will change the essence of the rallies.

The last week’s events are reminiscent of the 1917 political situation that led to the February Revolution. (By chance 2007 is the jubilee year of the Revolution.) Back in 1917 the liberal opposition that wanted nothing more than to substitute the tsarist bureaucrats with its own came to power on the back of workers’ riot who shared neither goals nor values of the opposition. And for some time the liberal opposition managed to hold power. That didn’t last long, though.

But historical allusions don’t go further than that. The 1917 February’s political activists were much more serious and dependable than the leaders of the United Civil Front, left alone “The Other Russia”. The civil society, at least in the cities, was incomparably better structured. The labor movement was better organized. All in all, the negative aspects are similar, while positive are not so far.

Apparently, these historical allusions underpin aspirations of today’s liberals to trigger a second February that would not result in a second October (in October, 1917 the liberal and moderate-socialist Provisional Government established by the February Revolution was overthrown by the Bolsheviks). But if by “October” we mean liquidation of the institutions of bourgeois democracy, then this time “October” will come already in “February”. For today’s opposition doesn’t seem able to hold the power by democratic means. Unlike the 1917 St. Petersburg’s bureaucrats today’s leaders don’t have experience of building effective chain of command that would permit to control the society without repressions.

But now the simple change of authorities will not save the day; on the contrary, it will only trigger new protests. If it were possible to suspend the reforms that are under way that would give the new authorities a chance to contain mass protests without changing the general concept of economic policy. But now that the situation has gone too far people are waiting for radical change, i.e. they want reverse the reforms.

The opposition liberals are far from considering radical measures, it contradicts their interests. This means that the allies will inevitably clash after the first victory. And there are no guarantees that larger organizations which lack experience and structure will be the top dog.

We must accept that all these scenarios are based on one disputable assumption that the opposition gains the upper hand. To tell the truth, even if the number of the participants of such rallies as the Dissenters’ March grows two- or threefold, it will not be enough for level of social protest is too low while the bureaucrats are too strong to simply ignore such Marches.

The authorities will continue ignoring protest actions as long it they are united. As we know, revolutions start with the crisis of the elites. And the closer comes 2008 presidential election in Russia the less we see unity in the top echelons of power.

There is a dozen of unpredictable scenarios waiting for us, if the top-ranking officials clash for power in 2008. And the above-mentioned are not the worst of all…

Boris Kagarlitsky is Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements

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