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Russia after the War in Irag

by Alan Woods Sunday, Jun. 01, 2003 at 11:10 AM


In Defense of Marxism-

Workers International League-

Russia after the war in Iraq

By Alan Woods

On Friday May 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his state of the union address. In comparison with the triumphal statements of the past, it displayed unusual frankness about the country's problems. Putin said that unemployment in Russia is on the rise, and that the proportion of Russians in poverty remains unchanged: "[Almost] a quarter of Russian citizens have income that is below the poverty line - yes, a quarter," said Mr. Putin, "Secondly, economic growth remains highly unstable." The Russian leader acknowledged that much of the economic growth Russia has been experiencing was the result of higher oil prices. The Russian economy is heavily dependent on this, and is therefore much more vulnerable than in the past to the fluctuations of the capitalist world economy.

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial on May 20, entitled "Waiting for Putin", which, among other things, said that Putin sounded "more like an opposition leader berating an incumbent government for ineptitude than a sitting President". This is a very perceptive remark. The bourgeois Bonapartist Putin tries to appear above the factional conflicts between his ministers, chastising his own government for not doing enough while avoiding responsibility for its shortcomings. This is a tacit admission that his government is increasingly unpopular and is losing support.

The WSJ goes on: "But while the frankness is refreshing, Mr. Putin's speech was more notable for what it didn't say. It didn't tell us how he would achieve the goals he set out. How does he intend to increase the trickle-down of the phenomenal wealth concentrated in the hands of a few oligarchs? And what does he intend to do to diversify Russia's economic base so that it is not so highly dependent on oil revenues as it is today?

"He called encouragingly for 'radical cuts' in Russia's bulging bureaucracy. An administrative 'impetus' was promised, but no specific targets or proposals given. There were calls to tackle corruption, but again no concrete proposals for cutting the number of regulations or licenses, the source of much petty corruption."

The criticisms of the Wall Street Journal are quite justified. Putin's speech was completely empty and, while highlighting Russia's problems, contained no specific policies for how to tackle them. But then, how could he? The problems he describes are inherent to capitalism everywhere, only in Russia they assume a more open, disgusting and flagrant expression. And the WSJ's criticisms would carry a little more weight if they also explained how that worthy organ of American Big Business intended "to increase the trickle-down of the phenomenal wealth concentrated in the hands of a few oligarchs" – in the USA!

By the way, the Enron and other corporate scandals shows that the Russian oligarchs have a lot to learn from their American colleagues in the matter of corruption – and not "petty corruption", but corruption on a truly grand scale! By comparison with the big US corporate crooks, the Russian capitalists are miserably provincial in the field of thieving, as they are in every other field.

As always a copy is always inferior to the original. The Russian bourgeois tries to imitate their American class brothers and sisters. The American bourgeoisie does not wish to acknowledge the fact, and protests its innocence. But the gross injustices, inequalities, theft and corruption that the WSJ deplores in Russia are the direct consequence of the introduction of the "free market", under the insistent pressure of the USA. The hypocritical American bourgeois complain about the very things that flow directly from the policies that were "made in the USA" and inflicted on the unfortunate Russian people over the past decade.

Putin's Bonapartism

In his speech Mr. Putin called, incredibly, for a doubling of GDP in a decade. But, instead of enumerating the ways this might be done, he merely declared that the job "will require a consolidation of all political forces in the country." He promised more competition in the marketplace; less bureaucracy in administration; more flexible and predictable taxation; more effective ministers; and greater parliamentary influence over government. The melody was familiar and will have charmed the ears of the bourgeois at home and abroad. From a capitalist point of view, it was a list of excellent intentions, but unfortunately very short on detail – except for one in particular.

While he paid lip service to Russia's multiparty system, he came back again to the idea of a "consolidated" society. "Without strong authorities a breakthrough for the future is impossible." Thus, Putin's "magical solution" for Russia is – more power for Putin. However, this idea, so attractive for the President of the Russian Federation, is not nearly so attractive for most of its citizens. The polls indicate a fall in Putin's popularity. Behind the apparent façade of unity, the Putin government is split and in crisis. There is constant concealed faction-fighting behind the walls of the Kremlin. This is the first indication of a deeper crisis in Russian society

Capitalism has been a nightmare for the Russian people. Russian capitalism represents a particularly repulsive hybrid combination of capitalist anarchy with the worst features of corruption and bureaucracy inherited from the old Stalinist regime. The first years of "market reform" produced an economic collapse that has no precedent in the peacetime history of any modern state. And although the economy has partially revived in the last four years, the mass of the population has not benefited, or has benefited very little. Unemployment is growing, as is inequality (See figures). After the collapse of the Russian economy in the summer of 1998, there was a revival of the productive forces, propelled by the devaluation of the rouble and high oil prices on the world market. But now both these factors are being cancelled out, or have already been cancelled out.

The position of the masses is not improving, but getting worse. Signs of social disintegration and demoralization are appearing everywhere. The Russian Education Ministry has established that Russian schoolchildren spend some 2.5 billion dollars on drugs annually. The Ministry's sociologists have established that at least 4 million Russians aged between 11-24 take drugs occasionally; some 1 million of them are regular drug addicts. Altogether, there are about 6.5 million drug users in Russia, of which 2 million are addicts. They added that each year young Russians spend at least 215 billion roubles on drugs, whereas expenses on higher education do not exceed 40 billion.

This is an integral part of the free market economy. It has been established that the drug trade brings 500 per cent profits, with an annual turnover of billion. At the same time, Russia spends no more than 60 million dollars a year to combat drug-related crime, treat patients and introduce preventive measures.

For a couple of years Putin enjoyed a relative stability. He made use of this to strengthen his quasi-Bonapartist regime. The Russian constitution gives him strong powers. He dominates both houses of Russia's parliament and holds considerable sway over regional governors as well. He controls a servile press and the state controls most of the television that Russians watch. The army, police and secret police have great power.


This would not have been possible if the Russian Communist Party had been anything like a real Communist Party. But Zyuganov and the leadership of the CPRF have consistently compromised. They have failed to mobilise a real opposition in the factories and the streets, and they have accepted capitalism. This has disarmed the working class and allowed Putin to concentrate power in his hands. The opportunist policies of the CPRF leadership were even criticised by Putin in his speech, as John Helmer pointed out in The Russia Journal (May 20, 2003): "Facing growing electoral support for left-of-center critics, Putin chose to position himself closer to them than to their targets, with just the slightest of objections to 'unclear ideological positions and insincerity' in politics. 'Those who are not afraid to call business robbers and bloodsuckers,' Putin added, 'are not ashamed to lobby the interests of big companies'."

These comments refer to the leadership of the CPRF, which "hunts with the hounds and runs with the hare". Coming from Putin, this is, of course, mere demagogy. With his characteristic Bonapartist methods, he is trying to distance himself from his own government and put on a "left" face. This will fool nobody. Everybody knows that Putin has actively participated in the plunder of Russia and the handing over of its valuable resources to foreign capitalists.

Putin encouraged the sale of the state shareholding of Slavneft to Sibneft and Tyumen Oil Co., (TNK); approved TNK's sale to British Petroleum; and encouraged Sibneft's merger with Yukos. Coming from him, these words are just cheap cynicism. Nevertheless, what he says about the attitude of the CPRF leaders has a basis in fact. While complaining about the excesses of capitalism they do not put forward a clear anti-capitalist policy.

CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov commented on Putin's speech: "Over the last three years the rate [of economic growth] has slid from 10 percent to 4 percent, and we are still crashing into that hole. The general impression you get from the presidential address - we are crawling along the old course. If there really is stabilization - then it's only the stabilization of stagnation."

This is correct, as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. According to calculations published in the newspaper Kommersant, in order to double Russian GDP within the scheduled time, industrial growth in the country should achieve at least 8.5-9 percent a year. This is highly unlikely. Until recently Russia's economic stability has been based on high oil prices. The expected fall of oil prices after the Iraqi crisis alone rules out the possibility of an 8.5% industrial growth. This means that Putin's promises to fight poverty and increase wages are pure demagogy.

The only way that the Russian workers will obtain improved living standards is by fighting. This fact will become clear after the next elections, whatever the result.

Despite the policies of the leadership, the stage is being set for an explosion of the class struggle. There is a deep gap between the people and the elite; that is why the presidential appeal for consolidation was completely futile. Instead of national unity, there will be a sharp upturn in the class struggle in Russia, starting on the economic plane. At a certain stage this must be followed by a movement on the political plane. How will this be expressed?

The policies and conduct of Zyuganov and co. are unspeakably bad. Nevertheless, the CPRF is the only thing approaching an opposition at the moment, and nature, as is well known, abhors a vacuum. Therefore, the CPRF is enjoying an upsurge in popularity as disillusioned poor Russians look for alternatives. This was entirely predictable. The mass of the working class do not understand small organizations and naturally seek to express themselves through the big, well-known organizations and parties that speak in the name of socialism and communism. They do not read the party programmes or listen to the speeches of the leaders. But they are voting for communism, or in any case against capitalism. This is an important fact.

Nationalism or internationalism?

The WSJ editorial continues its lecture on the virtues of good governance: "There were other omissions too. Days after two rebel suicide attacks killed more than 75 in the region, Mr. Putin's calls for peace in Chechnya sounded hollow in the absence of any new initiatives - other than a vague offer to amnesty rebels who put down their weapons - for achieving a breakthrough."

This is really wonderful! The US imperialists have just waged a vicious predatory war against Iraq, killing thousands of men, women and children, in order to plunder its oil. It is currently engaged in an illegal occupation, in which its heavily armed troops are shooting unarmed Iraqi civilians. Yet they feel they have the moral right to criticise Russia's conduct in Chechnya. Once again, it is a question of "do as I say, not what I do".

Russia's foreign relation are now extremely complicated. The consolidation of the capitalist regime demands the full integration of Russia into the world economy. But the full implementation of the rules of the WTO would further expose the weakness of Russian capitalism and accentuate the contradictions in Russian society. On the other hand, there is a real contradiction between Russia's interests on a global and regional scale and those of the USA. These contradictory trends explain the vacillating and at times incoherent nature of Moscow's foreign policy, which blows alternately hot and cold.

The Russian people are drawing a balance sheet of the last ten years and the result is negative. The overwhelming majority were opposed to the aggressive war of US imperialism in Iraq, and are increasingly turning against the disastrous adventure of their own government against the people of Chechnya. All this has a common denominator, which is capitalism. An aggressive and imperialist foreign policy is the inevitable consequence of the rule of the big monopolies, as Lenin explained long ago. The struggle against imperialism, if it means anything more than mere phrases, must be linked with the struggle against capitalism. As Lenin also pointed out: the main enemy is at home.

But the leadership of the CPRF is doing everything possible to undermine the movement against capitalism. Instead of fighting for a real Communist policy, the CPRF is playing with nationalist forces that have nothing in common with Communism. This is a fatal policy. What is needed is not a nationalist front but a front of all working class forces prepared to fight against the capitalist oligarchy. What is needed is an end to the criminal war of aggression in Chechnya and a programme of reconstruction based on public works – houses, hospitals, roads and schools.

It is time to draw the necessary conclusions. Capitalism has failed in Russia. The only future it holds out to the people is a future of war, hunger, humiliation and despair. It is time for the Communists of Russia to return to the policies of Marx, Engels and Lenin. It is time to fight for socialism and internationalism. It is time for a change of course!

Above all, what is needed is the expropriation of the parasitic oligarchy, the nationalization of the banks and the monopolies under workers' control and management and the introduction of a socialist plan of production. On that basis, on the basis of a regime of genuine workers' soviet democracy, it would be possible to invite all the former peoples of the Soviet Union to join hands with the working people of Russia in a voluntary Socialist Federation.

May 29, 2003.

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