Russia: Another 100,000 strong anti-Putin demo

But many protesters ask: “We came – what next?”

Another massive demonstration, probably over 100,000 strong, to demonstrate against the fraud in Russia’s December’s parliamentary elections and against a victory of Vladimir Putin in March’s coming presidential election, took place in Moscow on 4 February in temperatures close to minus 20. Similar, although smaller, demonstrations took place in cities across Russia. Meanwhile, in Moscow, Putin and his supporters organized a counter-demonstration. Zhenya Otto, Moscow CWI, describes what she saw on the opposition march.

The demonstration on the 4 February was very organized. It was led by crowds of “non-party civilians”, probably making up over half of the march. Then the political parties followed. First, the liberals, then the nationalists and ultra right, and finally, at a distance, the ‘left coalition’ and the ‘red-black block’ (anarchists). In this way, the organisers, with the connivance of much of the left, isolated the left activists from the main demonstration.

The CWI participated in the demonstration including the left block, with placards declaring, “Down with the President: for a constituent assembly of all working people!”, “No confidence in the candidates of big business and the bureaucracy – for an active boycott of the election!” and “No to Nazism and xenophobia – for the unity of all workers!” We were trying to find people who agreed with our position that in the coming presidential election it was necessary to organize an active boycott rather than support the existing “lefts” from the chauvinist Communist Party or pro Kremlin ‘Just Russia’ candidate.

But the main reason for coming on the demo was to conduct a dialogue with the social activists, ordinary people who had come out onto the square, to decide what their political position was and what to do further, so the bulk of our activists were in the “civilian” part of the demonstration with banners and handing out leaflets. There were all sorts of people here, from Moscow university students to debtors, ecologists and other social activists. There were many others who just carried white balloons. We carried our banners: “Let big business pay for the crisis – no to budget cuts – nationalize the banks and industry”, “Power to the millions – not the millionaires”, “They are all in it together – boycott the election – vote by striking”. This last banner got the most attention – young people came up, saying that there was no-one they wanted to support in the election and started to talk about Egypt. The older layer were not so keen, they were prepared to vote for anyone just as long as it was not Putin.

The demand for nationalisation also provoked discussion. Some people said that “if there is no boss, then people will not work well”. They even tried to convince us that this had been scientifically proven. Our activists replied that a boss/capitalist will aim to satisfy social needs but just to increase his profits. We also discussed the difference between the bureaucratic control of industry and society that existed in the USSR and the need for nationalization under workers’ democratic control and management. Funnily enough, many of those who opposed the idea of nationalization willingly accepted the transfer of Putin’s palaces for the use of children – in other words, they were OK with expropriation!

“Putin is a thief!”

Amongst the crowd of social activists, some slogans simply died a death. Others were quickly taken up. By far the most popular was “Putin is a thief!”. When we discussed this with people, it was clear that they did not think that Putin was the only thief or that he was the only one responsible for the crisis in the country. They were not keen on any of the candidates in the coming election. The most popular chants we used was “the people are not cattle, boycott the election” (it rhymes in Russian!) and “Power to the millions, not the millionaires”.

The platform played the marchers romantic music, switching to pop. Periodically the organisers took the microphone, asking people to wait while the end of the march arrived. The music lasted for an hour. One protester shouted, “Get on with the politics!” Then when the politicians eventually got onto the stage, they just tested people’s patience even further. Not one of them tried to put forward any plan of action.

The majority of the speeches followed the same pattern; the speakers thanked people for turning up, told a few tales about election fraud and criticized the authorities for the lack of political freedom. Then they demanded new elections and the resignation of Churov (the head of the election commission). They called for people not to give a single vote to Putin and to sign up as election observers. They demanded the release of political prisoners, including not just those who were arrested for taking part in protests but also a number of business people serving jail sentences on various charges. Social problems, such as the increase in electricity tariffs and the commercialization of state services, were mentioned just once – in a song called ‘Free Fall’, which was performed by a group of soldiers. The political figures completely ignored these questions. Moreover, two speakers who had been agreed at the ‘organizing forum’ before the march were not allowed on to the platform, including the leader of an independent teachers’ trade union.

The speeches of the capital’s intelligentsia we will leave without comment – they were heartfelt, but without content. The writer, Ludmila Ulitskaya, limited her contribution to the comment,” today a new, very good history is beginning”. The journalist Irina Yasina appealed to the crowd to pay attention to developing their own honesty and conscience so that we can have people in power who have high moral values. The TV journalist Leonid Parfenov used his speech to advertise his “social television” project and ended by calling on people to “wake up”!

Those in the square greeted the orators coldly. One of the first who spoke was leader of the ultra- right Alexander Belov. He tried to warm the crowd by shouting “Russia without Putin!” and “Who robbed Russia?” but was met with cries of “Get off!” The Just Russia (pro-Kremlin “opposition party”) tried to tell us we needed a democratic Russia and the authorities should be under control. When he shouted “Russia should be free” he was met with the cry, “Give up your mandate” and “Down with them all!”

The ‘leader of the left forces’, Sergei Udaltsov, attacked the authorities for their lies and provocations. Replying to the accusation that ‘you are all in the pay of the US’, he boasted how he had himself had “thrown shit” at the American embassy during a protest. He also denied that this was a “revolution of mink coats”. He had, he claimed, worn the same coat for three years now. But his only advice to the masses was to volunteer as election observers on 4 March and to demand the protocols from the election commission. He ended with a symbolic ripping up of Putin’s portrait and, once again, made the call for “Russia without Putin”.

CWI Banners read: “Let big business pay for the crisis – no to budget cuts – nationalise the banks and industry!”, “Power to the millions – not the millionaires!”, “They are all in it together – boycott the election – vote by striking!”

‘Left forces’

That this ‘leader of the left forces’ was allowed to speak was not accidental. The majority of left organisations in Moscow have united in the ‘Left Front’ coalition, thus giving Udaltsov the right to speak in their name. This is exactly what the liberals wanted – to be able to lean on the left to gain more legitimacy for their leadership of the movement. Udaltsov had just signed an agreement with Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the so-called “communists”. So not only did he not call for a boycott of this election, he said nothing about the capitalist system being responsible for the crisis rather than just Putin, and said nothing about getting rid of the Presidential position as an institution.

Of course, to maintain the “unity” of the organising committee, Udaltsov did not say a word against xenophobia, calling for “unity” (in effect, the unity of the workers with the bosses and the puppet politicians) while the ultra right went amongst the crowds on the demonstration trying to divide people according to nationality, sex and orientation, preventing the development of real solidarity. This “leader of the left” also avoided raising any social demands for fear of angering the liberals. A speech against the commercialization of education and for the nationalization of the banks and industry would have contradicted the rights to private ownership and the free market propagated by the liberals. Udaltsov’s programme is now little different from that of the liberals. The only element of ‘leftism’ is Udaltsov’s references to his own poverty.

None of the registered presidential candidates even turned up to speak, once again demonstrating how strongly tied they are to the Kremlin. It is therefore incomprehensible why the left have united again to support the candidature of the Communists or Just Russia. Much of the left is now squirming on this issue and using convoluted arguments claiming that their demand “Don’t vote for Putin or the right” can be interpreted as a vote against the “right” parties of the communists and ‘Just Russia’ and can therefore be interpreted as a ‘boycott’. But for most activists this call is clearly seen as a call for a vote for the Communists or Just Russia.

It is no surprise that a joke rippled through the crowd during the protest – “let’s put a fire under Bolotnaya” (Bolotnaya is the name of the Square in which the demo was help). The organisers took this as a criticism of their position. But at the end of the demonstration, the organisers only called on people to “turn out again” and to all hold hands around Moscow’s Garden Ring as a protest. It is not surprising that on the blogs afterwards, one of the most popular photographs was of one of the protesters holding a placard stating, “Well, we came. What next?”

Illegitimate elections

The Presidential elections are due on 4 March. They will be no more legitimate than last December’s parliamentary elections. There are only five candidates; Putin, Zyuganov (the increasingly right nationalist ‘communist’), Mironov (the leader of the Just Russia Party that was originally set up by Kremlin spin doctors to try to neutralize any opposition), Prokorov (a liberal oligarch notorious for his call for a 60 hour working week and promoted by the Kremlin to give an image of pluralism) and the right-wing nationalist clown Zhirinovskii. Even the relatively ‘safe’ Grigorii Yavlinsky, who would have no chance of winning anyway, has not been allowed to stand. The same methods of vote fixing and fraud, as were used last December, are being prepared for March’s presidential elections. Orders have already been dispatched to regional chiefs telling them what percentage of the vote they need to organize for Putin. A new demonstration is being planned for 5 March.

In calling for a boycott of the upcoming presidential election, the CWI in Russia is not urging passivity, but on the contrary, believes that the opposition should be mobilising its supporters to leaflet and campaign outside the workplaces and educational institutions, to build genuine committees of action in opposition to the fraud. The so-called oppositionist ‘Communist’ and ‘Just Russia’ deputies elected in December’s rigged election are not boycotting the work of the Duma but have instead passed a statement recognizing the “legitimacy” of the election. The CWI believes the post of President should be abolished, not just to establish a ‘Parliamentary republic’ but to allow the convening of a genuinely democratic constituent assembly to which the working class and the oppressed can send their representatives to decide how society should be run. Most of all, the CWI calls for the working class to organize in trade unions and to form a genuine left workers’ party that can challenge the rule of big business and its representatives in the Kremlin, and to struggle to form a government representing workers and the oppressed masses with a bold socialist programme.

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February 2012