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December 2011, Week 3

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Wed, 21 Dec 2011 23:22:10 -0500
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A very peaceful Russian revolt

By Boris Kagarlitsky

December 21, 2011
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- 
http://links.org.au/node/2663

The calls by the "moderate left" for passively following
behind the liberals are supposedly based on the need to
"work among the people", to go where the masses are. But
how, and with whom, are the forces of the left to set out
after these ardently pursued masses? With badly printed
leaflets full of abstract slogans?

The December outburst of street protest in Russia was the
natural result of a growing discontent which for several
years had been building up but which had not found a means
of expression. Nevertheless, it would have been hard to
predict that a crisis would break out over the results of
elections to the essentially decorative State Duma, which
has no power (its members, including the opposition, are
mere puppets of the administration). Just a few weeks ago,
when I discussed the looming political crisis with
colleagues at our institute, we could not identify what
might serve as the detonator for an explosion. The general
conclusion to which participants in the discussion came
was that the pretext for mass protests would be something
ridiculous, some vulgar everyday transgression by the
authorities.

The elections played exactly this role. The fictitious
nature of the whole proceedings and the open collusion
between the authorities and the Duma opposition were no
secret to the public, especially the part of it that
attended the demonstrations. But the massive, absurd and
virtually unconcealed fraud was perceived less as a
political act than as a display of boorishness. It was as
though society had simply looked for an excuse to break
out in revolt, and had found it when the routine procedure
of election rigging unexpectedly became an object of
general discussion.

Meanwhile, the political significance of the drama now
being played out goes far beyond the question of the
composition of Russia's pseudo-parliament and even of the
rules governing its formation. The sole political function
of the Duma elections of 2011 was to prepare the way for
the presidential election. This in turn will not be the
procedure that decides the country's future leader, whose
name will be known in advance.

Bourgeois-bureaucratic elite

Here in Russia decisions are not taken by electors, and
not by the congresses of political parties, whether of the
ruling United Russia or its historical predecessors, but
by gatherings of the bourgeois-bureaucratic elite at which
serious questions are discussed without undue ceremony or
show. The necessary information was released to the public
on September 24 at the congress of United Russia, and the
matter was considered closed. The function of the Duma
elections was to legitimise decisions that had already
been taken, and to formalise in legal terms relationships
that existed anyway.

The December crisis has torn up the scenario that the
authorities had prepared. The rapid decline in the
popularity of United Russia, accompanied by the growth of
protest activity and the complete discrediting of the
existing election procedures has created a qualitatively
new situation in which the national voting process is not
only failing to serve its basic purpose - legitimising the
election of the elites - but is becoming a problem in
itself. This does not, of course, mean that the
presidential election will be "genuine".  There will be no
single opposition candidate, and if such a person were to
appear, society would only be the worse for it. Today's
"opposition" in Russia consists either of splinter groups
of the existing authorities, or of marginal forces of
various hues, mostly liberals and nationalists.
'Opposition'

The rejection by society of the authorities, as emerged
clearly in December, does not by any means amount to
sympathy for the oppositionists. Nor does the agenda urged
on the people by the organisers of the antigovernment
demonstrations reflect the actual causes of the mass
discontent. The liberal leaders of the opposition are not
willing to raise social questions, even those that have
their own supporters aroused. A whole group of left-wing
commentators effusively defend the correctness of the
liberal politicians, explaining to their readers that if
we raise social demands we risk "narrowing" the mass base
of the protests. This might seem logical - the demand for
honest elections is "broader" than the call for free
medical care. The problem, though, is that in Russia today
people are much less concerned about elections than about
the fate of their local hospital.

On December 10, roughly 250,000 people turned out in
demonstrations throughout the country. In 2005, when
protests broke out against the government's social
policies, 2.5 million people came onto the streets despite
the January frost. The mass base for social protests is
tens of times broader than the social layers on which the
organisers of the recent meetings were relying.

It should not be concluded from this that Russians have no
need for honest elections. But the overwhelming majority
of the people will only join in struggle for them, putting
themselves beneath the batons of the police, when it
becomes clear that elections can bring changes to their
lives, that they can bring about the preservation of the
social state for which the great majority of citizens are
calling. Here, however, the oppositionists not only fail
to share the views of the people, but on the contrary, are
to be found in the same camp with the authorities.

To the disturbances in Russia's main cities, the country's
stock markets responded with a plunge in share prices,
while the business media explained the pessimism of
investors on the basis that, against the background of
protests, the government might be reluctant to implement
"essential reforms" such as doing away with free education
and health care. The real reason for the stand-off between
society and the authorities lies precisely in the
resistance by the less well-off to the anti-social
policies of the elites. This resistance caused the
collapse of the farce surrounding the Duma elections, and
it has left the authorities unable to take decisive action
against the opposition. But the opposition itself is no
less afraid of change, even more so, than the authorities.

The problem with today's protest leaders and their actions
is something quite different from the fact that they are
not from the left and hence, naturally, cannot go further
than the slogan of fair elections, rejecting any social
agenda. The problem lies in the fact that their position
must necessarily lead to a failure to win even the minimal
"general democratic" demands that are now being
formulated. Either we build a genuinely massive, powerful
movement, united around a full-blooded democratic program
which has to include demands corresponding to the basic
interests of the majority of Russia's people, or the
present revolt will expire without having achieved even
the limited goals which the liberals and their helpers
among the "left" are prepared to support.

'Left'

The calls by the "moderate left" for passively following
behind the liberals are supposedly based on the need to
"work among the people", to go where the masses are. But
how, and with whom, are the forces of the left to set out
after these ardently pursued masses? With badly printed
leaflets full of abstract slogans? The members of the left
come to the demonstrations with crumpled newssheets,
printed in close type on bad paper, that might well grace
a museum of the 1905 revolution. Then, not quite resolved
to distribute this material to the surrounding public,
they hand it out to one another. The anarchists agitate
among the Stalinists, the Stalinists among the
Trotskyists, the Trotskyists among the social democrats,
and the latter in turn hand out their material to the
anarchists. Closed circuit.

The opposition is incapable of proposing to its supporters
anything but endlessly repeated meetings whose
ineffectiveness is obvious to everybody. And if despite
this the Kremlin cannot bring the situation under its
control, that is simply because the people in the Kremlin
have no idea either about what needs to be done in Russia.
Whenever tensions are seen to be dropping, the authorities
come out with another declaration or measure that pours
oil on the flames of the crisis.

The situation is leading to an inevitable dead end, since
a real triumph of democracy would simultaneously mean the
complete collapse of the existing opposition. The
authorities are not willing to retreat, and the opposition
is scared of winning. Undoubtedly, both sides would prefer
to quietly reach an agreement with one another.
But politics in Russia is now being played out in public,
and hence a secret deal between the two sides would no
longer amount to a real settlement. In chess such a
situation is known as a stalemate. Life, however, is not a
chess game, in which the pieces can simply be removed from
the board and the players can start again. Sooner or later
the situation will fly out of control, moving into a new
and acute phase. That will happen when political protest
is amplified by social protest, and new players come onto
the scene. For this, it is evident, we will not need to
wait long.

___________________________________________

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