Understanding the March 26th Russian Election

Jeffrey Sommers


democracy rode high in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. Glasnost created

a genuine culture of citizen participation in political life. Sterile arguments

remain over whether this was done to preserve communism or tear it down.

Whatever the reasons, for a few bright shining years Russia possessed a vigorous

democratic political dialogue putting that of the US, or many other Western

democracies, to shame. No mere chance to “participate” in a coronation of

political figures and their platforms well preened and screened by powerful

special interests, Russia truly had a citizenry active in political life. It was

an openness which defied the still existing KGB’s repressive internal

surveillance apparatus. That criminal organization which bled the nation of

resources and forced so many to live in fear could no longer stem the tide of

participatory democracy unleashed as early as the mid 1980s. Indeed, it was

hatred of the KGB that helped pull down the economic union among the Soviet

republics and bloc. Had that economic union remained, or even been dissolved in

a planned fashion over many years, then perhaps the utter ruin of East European

economy could have been avoided. Instead, as former chief economist of the World

Bank Joseph Stiglitz (most likely pressured to resign by US Treasury Secretary,

Lawrence Summers) has remarked in the Nov/Dec issue of Challenge:


facts, to say the least, are jarring. With only one exception [Poland], the

countries under question have done more poorly since the transition to the

market economy than before. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of these countries

have yet to reach their 1989 gross domestic product (GDP) levels, meaning that,

on average, these countries today are worse off than they were before the

transition.” “But even bleaker are the statistics on poverty. For eighteen

of the twenty-five countries [in East/Central Europe] for which we have data,

poverty on average has increased from 4 percent to 45 percent of the

population….They have managed to experience lower growth and greater

inequality since the transition than before it began.”


transition to poverty planned by the likes of Lawrence Summers, who when brought

to Russia it was reported by Fulbright Scholar and Anthropologist Janine Wedel

in her book Collision and Collusion that he spent his leisure time neurotically

chiseling off a relief of Lenin embedded in the wall of his office–not because

Summers had any legitimate aversion to authoritarianism under Lenin, but more

likely because like a Stalinist, Summers wanted to airbrush an unpleasant fact

from history. For Summers this unpleasant reminder was that once before people

had revolted against an economic liberal utopia. Summers came bearing that

economic liberal gift again. This time resulting in the consequences Stiglitz

mentions above.


this was more than mere ideology at work; much more. The neoliberal project to

dissolve the Soviet bloc economy put forth by Jeffrey Sachs as “necessary”

for rebuilding East Europe worked very much to the advantage of capital. West

Europe’s economy already suffering from overcapacity, found a useful area to

dump its excess production. Moreover, with the collapse of East Europe’s

economy their exports of industrial products to the West collapsed. Indeed, the

raw materials and equipment which once went into the production of industrial

products in East Europe now could be bought by the West at fire sale prices. In

other words, East Europe was returned to its pre-1917 role as supplier of raw

materials and consumer of Western products. A class of powerful oligarchs arose

in Russia who cooperated with this regime and profited handsomely from it.


be sure, this state of affairs could not continue under conditions of the rich

political discourse opened up in the late 1980s. People in Russia began to

rebel. In order to continue this program in the 1990s democracy had to be

checked. In Russia this took the form of shutting down the elected Duma in 1993.

Yeltsin’s forces bloodily suppressed the people’s representatives in an

attack on the parliament which may have left as many as 1000 dead. After the

slaughter these dissenting Duma members found themselves evicted from their

apartments, a very serious punishment in the incredibly tight Moscow housing



intellectuals and Russia’s new rich supported this move. It secured their

status as Russia’s new elite. In Orwellian fashion it was all spun as

suppressing anti-democratic forces, and the world’s economic liberal elite

nodded in approval. By 1996, Yeltsin had a firm grip on Russia’s media. A

cocktail of almost total control of the media, of massive campaign spending, and

what many commentators have argued was a jigger of election fraud, was served up

to put together Yeltsin’s 1996 election victory.


magician’s trick could not be duplicated again using the same ridiculous front

figure in 2000. Central casting had to find a new figure to replace Yeltsin.


Putin would do. He was a survivor. From the KGB to its renamed Yeltsin era

incarnation, the FSB, he was fully versed in the panoply of dirty tricks and

rules of intimidation of the Chekist. Launching the war on Chechnya was a

reliable tactic for generating public support by diverting public attention away

from internal problems. Remaining critics could be intimidated using both

familiar and new techniques. By now there really no longer existed an opposition

media. There was only one dissenting voice in Moscow: the newspaper Novaya

Gazeta. Routinely caring articles by left opposition intellectuals such as Boris

Kagarlitsky, it was an irritant. It continued to ask the embarrassing question

about FSB agents reportedly found at the scene of the Ryazan apartment bombing.

As we recall, this bombing last fall was one of the pretexts used for launching

the war against Chechnya.


the March 26th election nears, Novaya Gazeta, as reported by the Voice of

America, had its computers sabotaged on March 15th just as it was about to send

the paper to press. This last of the opposition papers, which only appears once

a week, was put on notice that dissent will not be tolerated. As the election

nears what is clear is that that Russia’s oligarchs are securely in power

(although with some squabling among themselves) and they have a capable agent in

Putin of suppressing all dissent. He is also familiar with the usual nationalist

ploys that can be put to use during times of trouble to generate public support.


“transition” is now truly complete. The economy only serves Russia’s

oligarchs, while the old repressive internal security apparatus in its new FSB

incarnation has been placed back in charge, with the democracy of glasnost only

a faded memory. Hopefully history will record that this project which served

capital so well, while destroying a genuine flowering of democracy in East

Europe, had its ideological cover provided by neoliberal intellectuals based in

the elite universities and think tanks of the West.


Sommers World History Center Boston/Riga www.whc.neu.edu


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