Protests by tens of thousands of people in Moscow and other cities December 10 were by far the largest demonstrations in Russia since the collapse of the USSR two decades ago.
The focus of the mobilizations was massive fraud in the December 4 parliamentary elections. The ruling party, United Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, outraged millions with ballot-stuffing operations to try to achieve a parliamentary majority. These brazen attempts at vote-rigging were documented by both poll monitors and ordinary citizens using cell phone cameras.
The fraud triggered immediate protests over two days in Moscow and other cities. Initial demonstrations were met in typical fashion for Putin's Russia–with police brutality and hundreds of arrests. But after an international condemnation of the crackdown, leaders of liberal parties brokered a deal with the government for a permit for the December 10 demonstration.
Putin, the former president who became prime minister after installing his puppet, Dmitry Medvedev, as president, made a mockery of democracy earlier this year when he announced that Medvedev would in turn step aside for Putin to run for president again in March. Now, the protests are reshaping Russian politics, with business tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, the third-richest man in the country, announcing he will challenge Putin for the presidency.
Boris Kagarlitsky, a former political prisoner in the ex-USSR, socialist activist and author of numerous books about Russia, spoke to Lee Sustar about the roots of the protests and prospects for the future.
SINCE COMING to power in 1999, Putin was able to preside over an economic expansion that created stability based on a kind of social contract–until the economic crisis hit in 2007-08. What has happened since?
THE ECONOMY did grow strongly from around 2002 to 2007. As a government official said of that period, many people in Russia moved from misery into poverty–as if that were an achievement.
In truth, it was some kind of achievement. There was real industrial growth in that period. But most growth of industrial output was provided by old, obsolete equipment from the old Soviet period, or by foreign investment in the most protected industries, like auto. The sectors that were most protected were precisely the ones that attracted the most foreign investment, because foreign companies had to build plants in Russia to gain access to the Russian market.
So in many ways, things were doing better economically up to 2008. But things deteriorated very rapidly after the collapse of oil prices. Industrial output declined, unemployment increased, and a social crisis erupted. All of a sudden, people discovered that in the period of Putin, the remaining parts of the welfare state from the USSR had been undone, or were coming under attack. So we gradually started losing, one by one, elements of welfare state that we retained after the "reforms" of the 1990s.
Now there is a systematic attack on education, health care and some elements of social provisions. We have austerity, as in Europe. It's comparable to what you see around the rest of the capitalist world.
So over the last three years, the economy was deteriorating, anger was growing, and yet nothing was happening.
WHY THE delayed response in terms of protest?
PEOPLE WERE hoping that things would get better. Putin and his entourage retained some popularity for their record for the first part of the decade. It was, of course, not all their success, but it was associated with them.
Also, opposition forces in Russia were almost nonexistent. Liberals–not the kind of liberals you have in the West; really, they're neoliberals–are much worse that Putin on economic questions. But their criticism on such a right-wing basis was unpopular. Then there are the clowns, like the official Communist Party or [the fascist] Vladimir Zhirinovsky or the fake social democratic party called Just Russia. These are not any kind of political alternative.
Also, the left failed to build a political organization. It had little access to the media. It was marginal, sectarian and split into different groups. In that sense, there was very little political activity that could be presented as a political pole of attraction.
That was the situation for the last three years. There was little public activity. But Putin's popularity collapsed, and what happened in the December elections was, in a way, his punishment. People either didn't vote, or they voted for anybody but United Russia, the pro-government party. That resulted in an absolutely catastrophic collapse for United Russia.
The original plan of the government was to get about 55 percent of the vote, and prepare for the next presidential elections, in which Putin was going to be the candidate.
Instead, people didn't vote. And those who did, ironically, voted against United Russia. The real vote of for United Russia–which was proved by exit polls and by counts of polling stations under the control of independent observers, went down to 20 to 25 percent. That is what some people in United Russia also told me.
In fact, United Russia knew it was going to lose in the big cities. But it was sure that the small towns and remote areas would compensate for this. Instead, the vote collapsed everywhere.
So at about 4 p.m. Moscow time, there was a sudden decision by the government to rig the elections. I guarantee that there was no preliminary agreement to carry out such a fraud. Some level of fraud is routine in Russia, to make things look a little better. This time, there was an order to carry out massive fraud. The situation for the government was deteriorating hour by hour.
That's why the situation became so scandalous. If they had planned election fraud beforehand, they would have been able to rig it more smoothly.
They did everything wrong. They were caught in hundreds of cases. The figures became absurd. At least three provinces ended up with a voter turnout that was more that 100 percent. In Rostov, the voter turnout was reported at 140 percent. They had all kinds of techniques for vote-rigging that were completely ineffective. United Russia organized a massive vote fraud–and still failed to get 50 percent of the vote.
WHAT WAS the reaction to the fraud?
THE LIBERAL intelligentsia in Moscow was completely frustrated. But there was a spontaneous protest in Moscow of 10,000, and one of similar size in St. Petersburg. In Petersburg, the left actually organized a few boycotts of the vote on Election Day.
In Petersburg, the protest was very much hegemonized by left and progressive forces. In Moscow, it was a mixed bag. The right-wing liberals are fighting hard to hegemonize the movement, but the nationalists also joined in the protests.
The December 5 protest continued into the next day. There were quite a few clashes between students and police. The European University in St. Petersburg had to cancel classes in the sociology department because most of the students were under arrest. So you can get an idea of how massive the protest was.
During these protests, there was a spontaneous coalition of different forces. This was to be followed by a rally on December 10, which was to take place on Revolution Square. It was initiated by the Left Front, a coalition of different leftist groups.
But then the liberals made an agreement with the government–without consulting their partners in the Left Front–to hold a legal demonstrations elsewhere. It was moved to Bolotny Square, and Bolotny means swamp. So there were a lot of jokes about going from the revolution into the swamp. The aim of the liberals was to take over the protest movement, and to a certain extent, they succeeded.
Finally, there was an agreement that the left would still gather around Revolution Square and then march to Bolotny. It was an important achievement–it established the freedom to march on the streets, which has been denied for years.
But at the rally, the liberals controlled the stage, the message and the media. The left is getting increasingly marginalized. But the liberals are leading the movement nowhere. They have called another rally on December 17, another on December 24, then another on the New Year.
But the movement is gradually losing steam. The government will not cancel the election or revise the election law, which was a major demand of the protest.
And at the December 10 demonstration, there was a bloc between the liberals and the far right. The liberals allowed the right to come into the square with their imperial banners, and let them to speak. For the first time, we had a neo-Nazi speaking to such a large crowd–a scandalous situation that demoralized quite a few people. Thus, the movement is being demoralized, and will probably be defeated in its current form.
But people are right when they say that a new Russian Revolution is beginning. There were rallies all over the country on December 10. Unlike Moscow, these protests were dominated by people who spoke on social issues, and who were critical of the social and economic system.
So the split between the liberals and the left is a good thing. The left is participating in protests with liberals, but there is a feeling that they represent a different agenda, and so the left should be separate.
So now the task for the left is to organize separately, even though we can support the general democratic demands. What the liberals are doing is a dead end. We have to organize at the enterprise level, at the university and in the schools, and develop more radical forms protest, like those used by the anti-globalization forces in the West. We have to develop social movements at the grassroots level.
But the left is not united. Some segments of the left are becoming the left wing of the liberals. A lot of people are happy to go to these rallies and support general democratic demands. They argue that nothing else should be declared, because it will push away the crowd.
My point is exactly the opposite. The liberals are losing grounds because they don't speak about the issues in which their own mass base is interested–health care, for example. On these issues, the liberals have no differences with the government. The left needs to develop its own agenda that is more radical–and one that is in conflict with the liberals.