On 14 January, many Russians celebrate New Year’s Eve (according to the pre-revolutionary Gregorian calendar). On 15 January, this year, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in his annual State of the Nation address, announced the summary dismissal of the country’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and his whole cabinet (with their agreement!).
The relatively obscure head of Russia’s tax service, Mikhail Mishustin, was to become prime minister. Putin would be preparing a referendum on constitutional changes that would include diminishing the power of future presidents. The parliament (Duma) then approved these actions with not one voice against. (The so-called Communist Party opposition abstained.)
Putin’s term as president comes to an end in 2024, by which time he will be more than 70 years old. But it is most unlikely that he is preparing to take a back seat. On the contrary, Putin appears to be planning either to take back the position of the prime minister, with enhanced powers or become head of a revamped State Council, taking on something like ‘Supreme Leader’ status. Both of these jobs can be held indefinitely.
Severe economic slowdown
Vladimir Putin has headed Russia’s government – alternating with Medvedev as president or prime minister – for 21 years now. Only Stalin’s one person dictatorship lasted for longer, after he had eliminated every remnant of workers’ democracy and socialism and physically annihilated all those who opposed his rule.
In a Russia that has been brutally capitalist for the last thirty years, the rule of a small clique of very rich oligarchs has gone largely unchallenged. Initially, when the ‘shock therapy’ of wholesale privatisation in the 1990s was pushed through, there was a 50% collapse in the economy. There was mass poverty and a feeling of helplessness. Life expectancy plummeted and has only recently come back to pre-1991 levels.
For the first decade of Putin’s rule, there were soaring oil prices and an economic boom. This meant improvements in Russia’s economy, still primarily based on its vast mineral resources but also the exploitation of a working population bereft of real trade unions and workers’ parties. The past five years, however, have seen a severe slow-down in growth to 2% per annum due to sanctions imposed by the US and European powers against Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict from 2014 onwards and a considerable decline in the price of oil – a mainstay of Russia’s export earnings.
Putin’s government imposed big budget cutbacks, carried out by compliant regional authorities across the vast expanse of the Russian Federation. There has been a fall in real wages for five consecutive years and state pensions have come under attack.
Recent years have seen the beginning of serious opposition to Putin. Protest demonstrations of youth, of pensioners and sometimes of workers, have become more frequent. The plan to rapidly push up the pensionable age for men and women provoked protests across the country.
“A couple of thousand of us went to the Finland Station, where Lenin’s statue still stands”, said one St Petersburg pensioner. “A hundred years after the revolution, here they were, people like Putin, who used to call themselves communists, making us work longer for lower pensions! We made a noise, but the so-called reform went through. Unfortunately, this is not France!”.
But there have been other outbursts of anger on the streets during Putin’s period of rule. One in 2012 was precisely over his manoeuvre of swapping posts with Medvedev, on the understanding he would stay in command. Five years later, in 2017, youth in Moscow were protesting against Medvedevhimself for feathering his own nest through blatantly corrupt practices.
In the absence of any viable alternative to him, Putin’s popularity stayed higher than that of most world leaders. But it has been falling. Last year it reached a 13 year low and his ‘trust ratings’ are similarly at rock bottom. The greatest dissatisfaction is expressed amongst young people, mainly over a lack of jobs and low wages.
Regional and local elections in September of last year – 2019 – were to be an important test of support for Putin and the Kremlin party, United Russia. By the time nominations were going in, ratings were so low for Putin’s party that members presented themselves as ‘independents’, and, in Moscow, there was not one United Russia candidate!
When dozens of oppositionists were excluded from election lists in the capital, there were mass demonstrations almost every week from August onwards, reaching more than 60,000 on August 10th- the largest protest since. Around 2,400 of the demonstrators were taken into police custody, among them Maria Aljochina of the ‘Pussy Riot’ punk band, a number of journalists and at least one well-known politician.
Aleksei Navalny, whom Vladimir Putin refuses to mention by name, was arrested in the third week of July for planning illegal protest demonstrations. At that point, he had spent on average every seventh day in the past year in jail.
Navalny is no socialist or even anti-capitalist politician. He has been an enthusiastic supporter of rapidly re-established capitalism from the beginning. But he mistakenly argues that there can be clean capitalism. He, quite rightly, sees Putin and the ruling party covering up for corrupt practices at home and bloody atrocities abroad.
During the local elections last year, Navalny devised a special ‘app’ called ‘Strategic Choice’ to identify candidates who had the best chance of defeating Kremlin loyalists. A friend and lawyer in his anti-corruption organisation, Lyubov Sobol, protested with a month-long hunger strike at being excluded from the election lists by the pro-Kremlin “crooks and thieves”.
Voter turnout on September 8th in all 85 regions of Russia was very low. In Moscow and St Petersburg it was under 20%. This was in spite of state and local administration employees being dragooned into voting for pro-Putin candidates. All kinds of fiddling and rigging were exposed, but no action was taken against the perpetrators.
United Russia suffered a stunning loss in Khabarovsk, in the country’s Far East, where the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) won 34 out of 35 seats in the regional parliament. United Russia also lost its majority in Irkutsk, in eastern Siberia. Opposition candidates succeeded in many other areas.
As the Economist commented recently, “Parliamentary elections are due next year, and the fear of more street protests and political losses mean the Kremlin would rather lock in its (new constitutional) changes under the present Duma”.
In a blatant attempt to buy support and get his ‘reforms’ agreed in the proposed referendum, Putin has ordered the new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, to open up the country’s reserves and implement a massive $515bn spending programme. Help for low-income families is included – a major ploy by Putin to regain flagging support in town and country.
After his New Year speech, Sarah Rainsford, a BBC correspondent in Russia, travelled beyond the capital and found people resigned to Putin’s rule for lack of any obvious alternative. But she described his January ‘State of the Nation’speech as “Mr Putin’s first step in planning for life post-2024 – or ‘Pexit’”!
Pointing to the difficulties strongmen like Putin have in retiring, The Guardian (London), two days later, carried an editorial: “There had already been speculation he might seek to emulate Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarba
The Economist commented in a similar vein: “Ageing autocrats rarely leave office voluntarily, particularly if their rule has been tainted by war, repression and graft”.
Putin’s two decades have seen the top 10% in society increasing their share of the country’s wealth from just over a quarter to nearly half. The richest 1% now owns nearly a quarter. There is more wealth held by rich Russians abroad – beyond the reach of Russia’s tax collectors – than is held by the rest of the Russian population. It is about three times larger than official net foreign reserves.
Putin’s own wealth is sometimes said to stand at $70bn. Sometimes more. It is far more than any of the 15 top oligarchs on the country’s rich list. Sergei Pugachev, once known as ‘Putin’s banker’, has said that attempts to calculate his wealth will not succeed. He’s the richest person in the world until he leaves power.”
And wealth does not guarantee power when the knives come out. The success of Putin’s plan to stay on top is far from assured. He is surrounded by both very rich oligarchs and aspiring political thieves.
Andrew Roth, based in Moscow for the Guardian, comments that Putin is probably aiming at “managing a conflict among the clans and interest groups surrounding him who are jockeying for influence as he plans his exit from the Kremlin”. But success is by no means guaranteed.
Roth quotes Evgeny Minchenko, “an analyst close to the Kremlin” as saying on a Moscow radio programme: “We’ve seen over the past year how conflicts have grown among various security services and even within the FSB” [- the former KGB in which Putin worked from 1975 until the attempted military coup of August 1991]. Minchenko had described the balance of power as “complex”. He pointed to other “heavyweights” vying for power like, “the executives of state-owned companies such as Rosneft head, Igor Sechin, and Rostec chief, Sergey Chemezov”.
The new prime minister, Mishustin, is portrayed as a technocrat but has been discovered to have at least some wealth of his own acquired through ‘acquaintances’. Official attempts have recently been made to cover up his ownership of luxury properties worth nearly £37million. As Alexei Navalny said while looking into Mishustin’s wife’s business activities: “Mishustin has been a ‘servant of the people’ for the past 22 years, so why is he so damn rich?”. There are fairly strict laws limiting government officials’ earnings, but their spouses can accumulate vast fortunes, as VladlenaMishustina seems to have done.
Russia’s economy has, for many years, been over-reliant on energy exports, the profits from which tend to leave the country in large amounts. When prices are up, the state coffers accumulate substantial reserves. In the last few years, there has been a massively lower income. A further fall in the price of natural gas was reported in January.
In spite of this, Putin has decided to throw more than half a trillion dollars into a massive programme of public works and social spending.
Even as the announcement was being made, conservative officials were being summarily sacked without even a chance to collect personal belongings from their offices. They have been replaced by those who favour massive spending on infrastructure and “fiscal stimulus”.
Nevertheless, as the Financial Times (London) pointed out, Mishustin will not have an easy task in “opening the spending valves amid cabinet infighting, bureaucratic inefficiencies and disagreements over the role of private companies in the national projects” (27 January). He has set a deadline of 20 February for his cabinet to come up with new plans for spending on grand “national projects”.
Putin is now weighing up when to put his new constitutional reforms to a referendum. He has promised a ‘people’s vote’ this year and aims to shore up his support in advance of the general election due in 2021.
Until recently, much of Putin’s domestic support has come from his perceived role of pursuing Russia’s best interests on the world arena, including ‘retrieving’ Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. But the resulting sanctions have undoubtedly hurt Russia’s economy and Russian lives are still being lost. A new negotiator, Dmitri Kozak, has been appointed for talks with France and Germany, as well as Ukraine, but a settlement and the lifting of sanctions is by no means assured.
Putin has not been reluctant to play the big power role internationally, most recently arranging indirect peace talks between both sides in the Libyan civil war to be hosted in Moscow. “Although Libya and Syria are very different cases,” writes Patrick Winton in the Guardian, “there are some parallels with the way an uneasy alliance of Turkey, Russia and Iran grabbed hold of the political negotiations in Syria, wresting the initiative from the US, Europe and the UN”.
In spite of a renewed public spat with Poland’s government about the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War, Putin is aiming to host a celebration in Moscow on May 9th to mark the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Germany. The leaders of the main nations involved are invited to stand together in Red Square. Some of them feel ‘conflicted’ over what their response should be. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron has already accepted the invitation. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are considering it and others will make their position clear nearer the time.
When in Jerusalem with other world leaders recently, Putin proposed a summit of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, China, the US, France and the UK – to discuss “current challenges and threats”. He may well be proposing that it is held in Moscow while the heads of government are there for the Red Square parade.
For all his bravado in his relations with world powers, at home, Vladimir Putin is facing probably the most testing period of his two decades at the head of Russia’s government. His gamble on a dramatic re-shuffle and a massive injection of cash into the economy may buy him time. But the youth and workers across the vast expanse of Russia will not give him forever to resolve the fundamental crises that capitalism means for them.
A movement is already in the making to demand the most basic democratic rights constantly trampled on – free elections, freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly, of organisation. The monopoly of power by corrupt politicians and oligarchs, protected by a brutal state machine, will be challenged.
The working class that has suffered under the yoke of exploitation for decades will find its voice. It will organise and move to claim its due in terms of income, public services and control over the future of society – a future without exploitation, graft, war and hunger.
The ideas of socialism will regain their real meaning in terms of the fight to take industry, the banks, energy reserves and commerce out of the hands of the bloated and corrupt oligarchy and into public ownership, on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management.
Great as his personal power might appear to be, as a new decade begins, Vladimir Putin and his cronies could be facing big challenges in the very near future that all their dictatorial methods and ‘kept’ state forces will not be able to save them from.
In Russia and, indeed, all the former republics of the USSR, the genuine ideas of Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism will regain mass support. The CWI will continue to work, as we have for decades, to help develop a solid base of support for genuine Marxism amongst the working class and youth of the whole region.
A Marxist programme needs to include fighting for:
- Throwing off the parasitic clique that rules in capitalist Russia today!
- Full democratic rights to a free press and freedom of speech, assembly and organisation – for trade unions and political parties.
- Democratic elections at all levels – local, regional and national – with the right of all parties and organisations to participate.
- All elected officials – from shop-floor representative to president or prime minister – to receive no more than the average income of a skilled worker and to be subject to immediate recall by their electors if not carrying out the wishes of the majority.
- The right to organise democratic trade unions in all places of employment, including the armed forces and the police. Abolition of surveillance, spying and the FSB.
- The expropriation of the major monopolies in industry, banking, energy and commerce that dominate the economy. Take them out of the hands of the super-rich oligarchs and state functionaries and run and manage them under the control of democratically elected workers’ representatives.
- The taking of all minerals and natural resources into democratic public ownership.
- Ban all export of private capital and implement democratic state control over imports and exports. Repatriate the stolen billions held in foreign banks.
- For the election of delegates from workplaces, neighbourhoods, local and regional assemblies, to draw up plans for a truly revolutionary, democratic constitution to replace all laws and practices devised to defend rule by oligarchs and bureaucrats.
It is more than one hundred years since Lenin and Trotsky, at the head of a workers’ government, began the task of sweeping away the dictatorship of a wealthy and privileged few, and implementing a democratically-decided sociali
For more, contact CWI@socialistworld.net