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Issue 47, May 2000

The coronation of president Putin

    What war is good for
    Putin means business
    Mounting discontent

When it was announced that Vladimir Putin had won Russia's presidential election, no-one was surprised. Ever since his appointment as Boris Yeltsin's heir-apparent, it has been clear he would win. ROB JONES reports from Moscow on what this means for Russia today.

VLADIMIR PUTIN WON Russia's presidential election with just over 50% of the vote, scraping up enough votes to get through in the first round. Now world leaders are flocking to his door, with Britain's Tony Blair leading the pack. Their hope, so they say, is that Putin will do all in his power to end the Chechen war, restrict the power of the 'oligarchs' - the new gangster elite - and continue with free-market reforms. But Putin was the candidate of the 'family' - the group of corrupt friends, relatives and businessmen around Yeltsin. For years, they had been seeking a suitable successor to ensure that they hold onto the wealth and power grabbed during the years of capitalist restoration. Putin's first act was to sign a decree granting Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.

Putin was chosen after a string of other candidates were rejected. Long-serving former premier, Victor Chernomyrdin, proved too unpopular. Sergei Kiriyenko was forced to resign after the August 1998 rouble collapse. Yevgeny Primakov showed signs of being too independent. Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who at one time appeared to be building an anti-Kremlin bandwagon, was subjected to a mercilious campaign of denegration by the mass media. The Kremlin feared that if Luzkhov came to power, privatised property would be reallocated to his own cronies.


Putin has proved his loyalty to the Kremlin many times. He was a spy for the KGB (the secret police under the Stalinist regime) in Germany, later becoming its deputy head in St Petersburg under Anatolii Sobchak. (Sobchak later fled into self-imposed exile in France to escape corruption allegations.) Putin gained a certain notoriety at a press conference when he demanded that for every crime committed, five criminals should be punished. More recently, he has headed Russia's Federal Security Bureau (FSB - the new name for the KGB). After the country's prosecutor, general Yuri Skhuratov, hinted that he would be investigating corruption in the Kremlin, Putin organised a press conference to show a film of Skuratov romping around with prostitutes. Any hopes that he will fight corruption look groundless.

So how did such an unsavoury character win the election? The way the campaign was organised gave him a huge advantage. Putin refused to participate in what he dismissed as cheap electioneering. There were no 'Vote Putin' placards and he declined to participate in televised election debates. He didn't need to. Practically the whole mass media was mobilised to show Putin visiting factories and meeting with regional governments. He flew a jet fighter to Chechnya, claiming it was the fastest, cheapest method of travel! He took a trip in a nuclear submarine. A dirty war was fought against all the other candidates. Only occasionally did any of them get any favourable coverage on one of the independent channels. There was also clearly an element of fraud. It is very difficult to believe the official returns which showed Putin getting a big majority of votes in the Caucasus, which is suffering the devastating effects of the war in Chechnya.


top     What war is good for

NEVERTHELESS, THESE WERE secondary factors. The impotence of the opposition enabled Putin to promote himself as the only viable candidate. In particular, the opposition parties have failed to offer any alternative to the nightmare in Chechnya.

In the 1993-1995 war there was general, although largely passive, opposition to the war amongst the population. This was partly due to the perception that the Kremlin had stumbled into the war through the drunkenness and incompetence of Yeltsin and his ministers. A significant section of the bourgeoisie, around neo-liberals such as Yegor Gaidar and Grigori Yavlinskii, were vocal in their opposition, as was the country's main independent TV station. As a result, doubts about the wisdom of the war hardened.

This time preparations were more thorough. An atmosphere of fear was created in Russia. The horrific bombs which exploded in flats in Moscow and the southern city of Volgodonsk were quickly blamed on Chechen terrorists, although no evidence has been provided. This allowed Putin and the military to launch the blitzkrieg which utterly destroyed Grozny, forcing 250,000 refugees to flee to neighbouring republics.

Initial support for the war is already waning. The promises made by the military that the war would be over within a month, then 'next' month, then before the election, and so on, are no longer viable. Chechen forces repeatedly ambush Russian troops. Perhaps more significantly, the idea is spreading that the Moscow bombs were actually planted by the Russian regime to justify launching the war.


This seemingly incredible claim has been given credence by events in the city of Ryazan. After the Moscow bombs, residents in the city reported seeing suspicious activity in the basement of their flats. The police were called. They confirmed that they had found sacks of explosive and called the bomb squad. A few days later the FSB announced that the sacks contained sugar and were being used in a training exercise. Documents of the test results shown on TV revealed that the 'sugar' was of a decidedly explosive nature. Another former premier, Sergei Stepashin, said on TV that the new Chechen war was planned last May - three months before the bombs.

Support for the war reflects a desire that something should be done about the 'Chechen problem'. This support has always been superficial. Many parents and friends were hoping against hope for an early end to the fighting, afraid their sons would be conscripted to fight this brutal war. Now more people are expressing doubts.

None of the opposition parties or candidates have spoken up against the Chechnya offensive. Yavlinskii, who in 1993-95 consistently criticised Yeltsin's conduct of the war, now says that it is necessary to eliminate the bandits in Chechnya.

Even worse, if anything, was the position of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) - the only party which could have mounted a serious challenge to Putin - which came second in the election. Its leader, Gennadi Zyuganov, has stripped the party's programme of any vestige of socialism, concentrating instead on 'the need to build a strong Russian state'. Far from criticising the war, Zyuganov justifies it. In long speeches he explains how he served in the Caucasus during his national service, describing the Chechens as 'bandits and thieves'. To underline his appeal to the most reactionary moods in society, he tried to insist that his nomination papers as presidential candidate described him as 'Russian'.


top     Putin means business

AS FAR AS economic policy is concerned it was also difficult to find any differences between Putin and Zyuganov. Putin has been careful not to alienate Western investors. He met with the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow to reassure them there would be no attempts to change the ownership of privatised enterprises. He moved quickly to appoint a couple of neo-liberals into his cabinet.

Western businessmen and politicians have all applauded Putin's victory. They know he will continue to support and defend the interests of capital, even before he has published his full economic programme. They would be quite happy to see him use his dictatorial methods. Zyuganov's programme shifted significantly to the right. Openly calling for a mixed economy, the most he promised the state sector was a certain increase in aid to the military industrial complex.

Putin was blessed by recent favourable changes in the economy. The tripling of the world oil price caused a massive inflow of cash into the government's coffers. This, together with the effects of 1998's rouble crash which boosted Russia's production at the expense of imports, created the illusion that the economy had turned the corner and may even be beginning to expand. Even this apparent growth, however, was restricted to a few sectors of the economy. Opinion polls indicate that the mass of the population still think that their living standards are getting worse.


There are a number of warning signs of future crises in the economy. Firstly, despite the inflow of cash from oil, there has been no significant reduction in Russia's debt obligations. To meet interest payments the goverment has turned to the money speculators with the issuing of GKOs (short-term government bonds). It should be remembered that it was the collapse of the GKO bubble that led to the rouble crash in 1998. On top of that, the oil price has dropped back from the heights it attained at the time of the election.

The superficial reports by many Western correspondents indicate that Putin won because the population fully support him. The reality is different. Over 48% of voters actually voted against him. It would be more accurate to say that Putin won because more people wanted to vote against the other candidates than wished to see his defeat. Significantly, Zyuganov lost support in the Red Belt - regions in which the KPRF holds power. In a number of those areas - Tula, Kemerova and Astrakhan, for example - there have been direct confrontations between the KPRF authorities and striking workers.

top     Mounting discontent

AT FIRST IT seemed likely that fairly large numbers of people would vote against all candidates in the election. In the end the total was only 1.9%, with 6% in Moscow. A number of factors forced a change in their position, often at the last minute. There was a mass media scare campaign implying that people voting against Putin were traitors and were in danger of forcing a second - and expensive - round of voting. Some changed their minds because they saw no alternative to Putin, and others voted for one of the opposition candidates to mark their dislike of Putin in a stronger way than a vote against all. Vladimir Zhirinovskii, in the past a channel for discontent, had a derisory vote - less than 3%. He has become discredited by his foolish antics and support for Yeltsin.


One positive feature was the election of Oleg Shein as a 'workers' candidate' in Astrakhan. Shein, the leader of an independent, left-inclined trade union, Zashita, has pledged to use his parliamentary allowances to finance a support centre for the workers' movement. He has moved an alternative project to the government's proposed new restrictive labour law. Workers' Democracy - the Committee for a Workers' International section in the CIS - will do all we can to assist this work and will eagerly watch to see if he meets his promises.

Putin is trying to keep up his image as a Western-friendly but firm-handed reformer. This will be temporary. His victory has already been accompanied by the stepping-up of repression against opposition activists in Russia's neighbouring republics. A new wave of arrests has affected the Workers' Movement Solidarity in Kazakhstan. On the eve of the election, the president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, ordered a violent attack on journalists observing an opposition demonstration. When the current economic stability is again disrupted by events on the world arena, or another group of workers lose their patience, Putin will use heavy-handed tactics.

Essentially, there is little difference between Yeltsin and Putin - they have both balanced between different class and intra-class forces. But Yeltsin restricted the people with whom he worked, never openly taking on board the KPRF. During his election campaign, however, Putin went wider. He stole key elements from the programmes of the four main opposition forces. He attacked - only in words of course - the 'oligarchs', as had Yavlinskii. He promised an end to the corruption much criticised by Skhuratov. He echoed the social demands for increased wages and pensions (raised by Zyuganov), and called for the resurrection of the state, as demanded by the nationalists. The bloc formed by his party, Edinstvo, and the KPRF in the State Duma (Russian parliament) - to carve-up the committee chairs between themselves - confirm that Putin will manoeuvre between a larger spectrum of forces than his predecessor.


But by hijacking some of the key policies of the other parties, Putin is fomenting division. The Union of Right Forces, which did so well in December's parliamentary elections, has already effectively split, with key figures going over to Putin. Luzhkov's bloc has lost much regional support. Even the leaders of the Young Communists have deprived Zyuganov of a base amongst young people by declaring that they wish to become the youth wing of Edinstvo. This leaves much of the electorate of these parties in limbo. In effect, what is opening up is not so much a single vacuum in Russian politics as a number of smaller vacuums at different places in the political spectrum.

The development of the beginnings of a genuine workers' party that can offer a working-class alternative is what is needed now. People are much more open to the idea and the workers' movement is likely to see an upturn in activity now that the distraction of the (non) election is out of the way.

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