Youth protests take place ahead of Russia’s ‘no-choice’ presidential election

Alexei Navalnii protest (CC/public domain)

Once again, a presidential election in Russia looms and for the fifth time since 2000 there is a simple choice; either Putin or one of the other candidates, none of whom has a chance of winning. The only exception to this was in 2008, when Medvedev stepped in to hold the presidential chair warm for four years before Putin could not stand for technical reasons. 

After the last election in 2012, protests against voter manipulation broke out. This time protests are taking place in advance. A few weeks ago saw another wave of youth protests sweep Russia, affecting over 100 cities – from the several thousand who turned out in Moscow’s balmy minus six to the thirty people who managed to brave Yakutsk’s minus 45!

Police carried out widespread raids on dozens of offices of Alexei Navalnii, who called these protests in the days before Sunday. They stopped passengers at airports and stations and searched student hostels to confiscate any agitational leaflets. But on Sunday itself, “only” 300 protesters, including Navalnii himself, were detained by police. Undoubtedly, the regime is concerned that a crackdown before the election could provoke wider discontent. The Ministry of Defence, according to some soldiers, has been surveying the rank and file asking them who they think is the most popular pro-western politician, calling for a “coloured revolution”, and whether they would be “prepared to obey an order to use force against people calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitution in Russia”.

On the first protest, last March, youth marched without placards or slogans. Now they are making their own. There were placards with slogans such as “The fifth term should be a prison term” and “Putin: the people have the right to rise up against tyranny and repression”.  When the right wing politician, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, turned up at the Moscow protest to try and make political capital, he was shouted down, told to withdraw his candidacy and mocked as the “Tsar’s pet jester”. 

Several of the protesters commented that they do not particularly support Navalnii, but will boycott the election as there are no real opposition candidates allowed. Navalnii, a right wing populist, has already been forced to reflect a more left wing sentiment by calling for a minimum wage and free healthcare and education. Tens of thousands of red streamers were distributed by Navlalnii’s campaign with the single work “zabastovka” (‘strike’) on them. Although Navalnii has no intention of organizing strikes, indeed he offers no strategy except that youth should come out in protest when he calls for it, the fact that youth in other cities held these streamers on their protests means that “strike” as a form of protest has been brought back onto the political agenda. 

Nominations have now closed and there is little choice in the election. Navalnii has been barred from standing. The eight candidates include Putin, Zhirinovskii and an agrobusinessman, Pavel Grudinin, nominated by the Communist Party. The other official parliamentary party, Just Russia, has not nominated a candidate, saying they support Putin. The rich socialite Kseniya Sobchak and neo-liberal Grigorii Yavlinskii are unlikely to cross the 5% barrier whilst the other three, a right wing nationalist, pro-Putin regional governor and a “communist” who says that his election programme is that of Stalin are allowed just to create an image of a multi-party election.

No serious opposition

But for the mass of the population, there is not a single candidate who can be seen as a serious opposition to Putin. Even Yavlinskii, whose appeal is restricted to the urban intelligentsia, is seen by many people as responsible for the chaos and economic disaster of the 1990’s. Although many will not remember, he was the author of the “500-day programme” that was first proposed during the Gorbachev regime, which planned for the mass privatisation of the Soviet economy in an eighteen month period.

Just as in previous elections, there is little doubt that the “main candidate” will win a majority of votes, official polls say he will get 70%. Previously, Putin’s victory reflected substantial electoral support but while he still has layers of support this has fallen and his victory could well turn out to be hollow.

The support that Putin can still muster is, to a large degree, due to being associated, at least in the eyes of the older generation, with ending the catastrophic years of President Boris Yeltsin’s rule following the collapse of the USSR. Putin came to power two years after the collapse of the ruble currency and following a series of bombings of blocks of flats that were allegedly the work of Chechen terrorists. Presenting himself as a strong leader prepared to end the chaos, Putin launched a bitter war to re-establish control of Chechnya. He was fortunate that the ruble collapse, combined with a dramatic rise in the world oil price, leading to eight years of strong economic growth. But then the 2007-2008 global crisis hit. Russia suffered one of the sharpest, even if shortest, economic collapses in Europe, and in the years since has suffered economic stagnation.

This led to growing discontent and the growth of independent trade unions, social protests around issues such as LGBT rights and eventually the ‘Bolotniy protests’, following the 2012 election, which many saw as rigged. But a combination of misleadership by the trade union and liberal opposition leaders and an increase in repression led to the decline in opposition. Events in Ukraine and the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation saw Putin ride a wave of patriotism during which any opposition, whether in the puppet parliament or outside parliament was isolated and forced into retreat. Anyone who stepped out of line met repression and opposition and many opposition groups practically disappeared. But now the mood is changing.

Most of the adult life of those under the age of 30 years old has been during the latter decade of Putin’s rule, during times of economic stagnation and crisis. Cut-backs in higher education, poor wages and exploitative employers, combined with increasing restrictions on elementary freedoms and the growing clericalization of society, have no attraction for this generation. Navalnii has successfully tapped this mood, although the relatively small but explosive youth protests were more an expression of frustration at the general situation rather than open support for his policies. The danger for the regime is that the growing radicalisation of youth will affect the older generation and give them hope too that something can change.

Just a small indication of this is the reaction to a video taken by a group of trainee pilots in the city of Ulyanovsk (where Lenin was born). These youth filmed a parody of the song “Satisfaction”, dressed in provocative underwear. The authorities clamped down, comparing them to the protest group band, Pussy Riot, and threatened them with prosecution. Within days, many more such videos appeared in solidarity, made by swimmers, horse-riders, police and army cadets, and even a group of pensioners, forcing the authorities to back down.

The danger that the youth will trigger off a wider protest is real, given that living standards, even according to official statistics, are still declining and, it appears, the economy has fallen back into recession. Even if there is no widespread protest before the election, the Kremlin is still worried that the number of people who actually vote for Putin will drop, thus undermining credibility for his rule. The peak number of votes given to the United Russia candidate was actually that given to the Medvedev in 2008, at the start of the global financial crisis, when they gained the support of 52 million people out of an electorate of 107 million. In 2012, after what was perceived as widespread manipulation, this support dropped to 46 million. The key task for the Kremlin spin-doctors is to ensure that the numbers, this time, are higher. Instructions are already being sent out to universities and workplaces to directors telling them to ensure that everyone turns out.

It is for this reason that the Kremlin is attempting to distance itself from the unpopular United Russia party and has replaced a whole series of regional governors, trying to give a fresh image to Putin’s rule. High profile arrests of corrupt politicians act to serve not just as a warning to others to stay in line, but are also used to suggest that the regime is actually fighting corruption. One of the reasons why the so-called ‘communist party’ replaced their traditional candidate, Zyuganov, with the agrobusinessman, Grudinin, is reportedly because the Kremlin thought this would help keep the turn-out high.

Sometimes their attempts reach the heights of absurdity. The film “Death of Stalin” was removed from screens until the summer, and the culture ministry even tried to delay the showing of “Paddington 2” because its release date clashed with that of a domestically produced film intended to lift the patriotic mood before the election. Such moves are increasingly met with widespread contempt.

In this situation, what should workers, youth and socialists do? Is there a candidate that can be supported? Or should socialists boycott the election?

Left extremely weak

Unfortunately, the left as an organised force in Russia is extremely weak. One of the best known “left” leaders is Sergei Udaltsov. He became a leader of the Bolotnoi protests, during which he argued that the left should join with the liberals and far-right in opposition to the Kremlin, thus effectively dropping any left wing demands for fear of alienating his new friends. Udaltsov was recently released from prison where he has been since the end of the Bolotnoi protest. He immediately announced he would support the Russian communist party, which combines a deeply reactionary social and Russian chauvinist policy and fawning support for Putin’s international policies, with a few left demagogic phrases about wages, living standards and about how good life was in the USSR.

Udaltsov initiated a series of “primary elections” to nominate a candidate for the “left-patriotic” organisations. Amongst the candidates Udaltsov supported were pro-market economists, businessmen, regional governors and open right wing chauvinists. With Kremlin approval, non-party agro-businessman Pavel Grudinin won the primaries and became the “communist” candidate.

The ‘communists’ present him as a good “owner”, running an honest enterprise, i.e. the former ‘Lenin collective farm’, in the interests of the Russian people. Grudinin pays, according to these fairy tales, high wages and assures good conditions for his staff. But Grudinin, who was earlier quite at home in United Russia, is little more than a typical oligarch. Perhaps not as big a oligarch as those who live on incomes from oil and gas, but, nevertheless, operating in exactly the same way. During privatisation, land belonging to the Lenin Collective farm was put out to rent and Grudinin’s son is still in charge of the “rent department”. The number working at the farm has been cut from 900 to 320 and productivity increased five times. This dramatic increase in exploitation of the workforce and the relatively high living standards of those who remain is based on rent income and the use of thousands of women, immigrant workers and according to some reports even children who work for miserly sums and without contracts or social guarantees to collect fruit and vegetables in the summer.

Fully in accord with the racist policies of the Communist party, Grudinin warns “investors”, who build flats on the farm’s land, to “…check people’s nationality. If you begin to sell flats to the wrong people, I will not work with you. There is such a thing as face-control…if someone’s surname is Ivanov [typically Russian] that’s good. Zagorulko [Ukrainian-Russian] good. Lukashenko [Ukrainian-Belarussian] well OK, Aryutyunyan [Armenian] think carefully”!

Whatever Udaltsov and the Russian communists tell us, Grudinin is no socialist. He describes the name “Lenin Collective Farm“ as a brand-name having “nothing in common with ideology or form of ownership”. The Communist party complain that critics are slandering him and in his defence reply, “If he is elected, it [Russia] will be like China”. Using the Chinese ‘model’, in which the most brutal anti-working class policies of capitalist restoration are combined with an extremely dictatorial regime, as an example to follow, is not going to attract youth and workers in Russia to vote for Grudinin.

The only reason the other “opposition candidate”, Kseniya Sobchak, is allowed to run is that she not only poses no threat, but she may attract a layer of urban middle class voters who would otherwise not bother to vote, helping the Kremlin to get a higher turnout.  A former leader of the Bolotnoi protests, Sobchak, along with the other liberal leaders, bears a large part of the responsibility for dissipating the movement. A socialite, part of the rich elite, her father was mayor of St Petersburg during the Yeltsin years and a close colleague of Putin. It is true Sobchak has made a few correct statements about some of the most decisive issues – for example, in support of LGBT rights. She has also made some very provocative statements, such as stating that Crimea is Ukrainian.

She opposes the present youth mobilisations, which, it should be remembered take place in defiance of the regime’s declaration that they are illegal. She claims that when almost no legal protests are allowed people should not take part in unsanctioned demonstrations. They will lead, she says, to civil war. Instead we should put our faith in people such as Kudrin – for years Putin’s finance minister – in the hope that he can convince Putin to liberalise society. Presenting herself as a supporter of women’s rights, Sobchak’s programme of neo-liberalism would harm the rights of millions of Russian women (she says that former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, is her “hero”).

Does this mean it is correct to boycott the election? Is this the only alternative? Navalnii’s campaigning against corruption and call for street protests has certainly unnerved the Kremlin. They know that if there was to be a clear alternative presented in a democratic election, there is the danger their candidate could be defeated.

Undoubtedly reflecting the mood of the youth who have turned out on the streets in response to his calls, Navalnii pushed to the background his more chauvinist views and emphasised social demands. He does this, however, in a populist way. He will not make demands as socialists do, raising the need to reject the capitalist form of society and establish a genuinely democratic socialist society. Instead he argues that all that is needed is “honest capitalism”. This is the fundamental weakness in his position and is compounded but his top-down approach, seen in his presidential campaign election. In contrast, socialists call for building a campaigning, democratic opposition that can fight for proper wages, for all, establish high quality and free healthcare and education and argue for a genuine alternative to capitalism.


Many youth and a large layer of older workers will undoubtedly boycott the election, either in response to Navalnii’s call or by simply not participating, thus lowering the voter turn-out. Those who do so may well take the next step and participate in activities aimed at ensuring the vote is democratic, by observing voting, for example, or protesting in the street at the unfairness of the election. Not only is the main liberal opposition candidate prevented from participating but there is no genuine voice representing the interests of workers and youth. And we, of course, support this. In the coming presidential elections, no candidate is on offer that socialists can call for a vote for and millions will correctly show their opposition by boycotting.

A “coalition of left groups”, in reality, a couple of small left groups from a Stalinist tradition, supported by figures such as Boris Kagarlitsky – who is well known and feted in some left circles internationally but who has had no problem linking up with Russia’s far-right to act as cheerleader for the Kremlin’s foreign policy – has made a call for a “Red boycott”. Arguing that it is necessary to offer an alternative to Navalnii’s right populism, they argue that the task is to win over the “moderate Navalniites” not by putting a clear left wing position but by watering down their policies. In reality, the only difference between Navalnii’s call for a boycott and the call for a “Red boycott” is the word “Red” – and that is nowhere near enough to explain the differences between a genuine left agenda and Navalnii’s populism. 

Socialist alternative (CWI Russia) has actively participated in the protests. We support the youth who see the need to protest, while pointing out that for real change to happen the protests need to establish action committees, linked up democratically, in a national structure, and to adopt policies independent of Navalnii’s.

Most importantly, the majority of the working class, which has not yet entered the field of struggle, needs to be offered radical independent class policies, opposing the anti-worker Putin regime and also the various shades of liberal pro-western capitalist opposition.

All opportunities that will arise in the next few months need to be used by socialists to strengthen support amongst the new layer of activists to build an organisation capable of reflecting the real interests of working people and youth; for living wages and against the exploitation of youth, for decent housing, education and health-care, and to unite to resist divisive racism, sexism and anti-LGBT chauvinism, and to fight for a real change – a socialist change in society.

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February 2018