Sham presidential elections will increase presidential authoritarianism

Although President Putin’s sacking of Premier Mikhail Kazyanov, and the Russian government, on Tuesday 24 February, was a surprise to many outside the CIS, the move was rumoured inside the country for months. Putin managed to keep most of those affected in the dark about the timing. Several ministers only found out they had been sacked when the media asked them to comment.

Putin has presented this purge as necessary with just three weeks to go to his re-election bid for President. He says it was done so that he can announce who the new government will be, giving voters a clear idea of who they are voting for.

On 1 March, Putin appointed Mikhail Fradkov in Kazyanov’s place. Described as a "low-profile technocrat", Fradkov has held mostly economic posts in the state and government. He has been a loyal bureaucrat for years, serving as an economic adviser in the Soviet Embassy in India, under the old Stalinist system, and then, under the new capitalist system, working as a Russian delegate to the UN in the early 1990s. Fradkov then went on to chair the Russian delegation to GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) talks.

Roland Nash, of the Renaissance Capital investment house, described Fradkov as, "a totally loyal, reasonably faceless ‘mini-me’ for the president."

"In naming him, Putin avoided creating an alternative centre of power or a rival for the political spotlight," according to the International Herald Tribune (2 March, 2004).

Fradkov also has close links to the state security services, a key power block behind the Putin throne. Putin wants someone who will increase the centralisation of state powers and who will carry through capitalist policies.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political commentator who has analysed the composition of Putin’s inner circle, said on 2 March: "Putin has found a man who leans both ways, toward strong government controls and towards liberal economics and foreign relations," (International Herald Tribune).

End of the Yelstin era?

Some media commentators explain that by getting rid of Kazyanov, Putin has finally drawn the line under the Yeltsin era. Apart from Putin himself, Kazyanov was the last remaining high ranking minister first appointed by Boris Yeltsin.

During his nearly four years as Premier, Kazyanov has presided over nearly 20% economic growth. However, most of this growth was due to the high price of oil and gas on the world markets and therefore he can hardly claim credit. But, as Putin has moved increasingly against those oligarchs who are too Western-friendly, Kazyanov found himself under more and more pressure. This was especially the case since he was incautious enough to publicly state that he did not think that the oligarch Khodorkovskii (who is accused of defrauding the state of billions of tax revenue!) should be imprisoned for "economic crimes".

But, of course, Putin is himself a consequence of the Yeltsin era. In the first issue of the CWI’s paper, published in the former USSR, in May 1990, we warned that as capitalist restoration would prove incapable of meeting the aspirations of the masses, the ruling elite would move more and more in the direction of Bonapartist [after the 19th Century French dictator, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte] dictatorial methods of rule to maintain their power and wealth.

Putin is proving to be that very Bonaparte. Increasingly the state apparatus - as personified by Putin - is holding the strings of power in its hands and even the capitalist class is finding they are unable to control everything the state is doing in their name.

The shallowness of Russian democracy is shown by next month’s Presidential election. Putin, who is clearly going to get at least 70% of the vote, is refusing to take part in public debates with the other candidates. Whilst his half hour pep talks to his "campaigners" are broadcast on television in full, other candidates are pushed off the airwaves. Harassment of opposition campaigners is widespread. In some cities people collecting nomination signatures (2 million were needed for each candidate) were called in by the political police for questioning. In the city of Saratov, a group of young communists had drugs planted on them, and are being investigated for alleged "terrorism" and for seeking to undermine the election. In Yaraslavl, a new head of the anti-terror squad was appointed, and one of his first acts was to call in CWI activist Sergei Kozlovskii in for questioning!

There are seven candidates formally registered for the presidential elections. One of them, Ivan Rybkin, a former Parliamentary speaker, mysteriously disappeared at the start of the campaign and turned up in Kiev five days later. He then fled to London, from where he claimed he had been kidnapped and drugged in Moscow and brought to Kiev. Rybkin is now "fighting" his campaign from London, if fighting is the correct word, as he is not allowed to participate in the TV debates. Three other candidates, Khakamada, Glazyev and Khariton, the last representing the ‘communist party’ (CP), are all seriously talking of withdrawing in protest at the lack of democracy. If this happens, this will leave only the bodyguard of far right politician Zhirinovsky, Malyshkin, and the Speaker of the Upper House, Mironov, on the ballot paper along with Putin. They are not very determined opponents – Mironov has stated that Putin is the "best possible President".

It is clear that the election will not offer a real choice between candidates but will merely be a chance to approve or disapprove of the current President – in other words it is more of a plebiscite, a favourite tool used by Bonapartists to ‘legitimise’ their rule. To ensure the necessary 50% turnout needed to make the presidential election valid, local authority chiefs are instructed to ensure that at least 70% of voters turn out.

New government will ensure ‘reforms’

Although Putin sacked all the government ministers on 24 February, they all remain as "acting ministers" and most will be re-appointed. The new government will ensure that ‘reforms’ of the tax and banking systems and administrative structures take place. New tariff agreements with the natural energy monopolies and further deregulation as demanded by the WTO, will be pushed through, with little resistance from the pro-Presidential Parliament. These reforms will help to assure Western investors that their money is safe. Already economic commentators have stated that although some European companies are reluctant to enter Russia because of the growing fears of a new dictatorship, those companies already established there are quite happy with the changes that are taking place.

During the Russian parliamentary elections, last December, millions of working class voters did not bother to vote. This is likely to increase in the forthcoming presidential elections. There is no real opposition to Putin. The CP is on the verge of a major split, and the other opposition parties are in deep crisis. Even the oppositional ‘Rodina’, that was seen to have done well in last December’s parliamentary elections, has now split decisively, with one wing acting as a pro-Putin "Rodina".

It may seem that Putin has succeeded in concentrating all power into his hands, but that will not secure a stable and problem-free future for the ruling elite in Russia. The UN predicts a slowdown in Russia’s growth. It is inevitable that, sooner or later, working people will be forced into action against the regime. Then Putin and Russia’s new capitalists will find they do not have adequate forces to keep the mighty Russian working class held back. In order for working people to make real change, however, they will have to create a mass party that represents their class interests.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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