Great excitement has been expressed over the month of December in the bourgeois media because Putin’s political party, United Russia, although it won the parliamentary elections held at the beginning of December, did so with a reduced number of seats. “Is this the start of the Russian Spring?” , enthused former UK ambassador to Russia, Tony Brenton in the Daily Telegraph of 12 December. However, after casting a whole series of aspersions on the conduct of the Russian elections, he is forced to conclude that, notwithstanding Putin’s party’s diminished share of the vote, Putin’s personal popularity makes a Russian Spring extremely unlikely.
In the previous parliamentary elections, held in 2007, United Russia won an overwhelming victory, gaining over 64% of the vote. However, on this occasion, United Russia secured just short of 50%, as compared to the 19% gained by the next largest party, the Communist Party. If one considers that in Britain’s last election, the Conservatives gained 39.5% of the vote on a 65% turnout – about 25% of the electorate! United Russia secured nearly 50% on a 60% turnout, i.e., about 30% of the electorate. In other words, in terms of bourgeois elections, Putin’s party still did very well indeed, notwithstanding its reduced majority.
The reason for Putin’s popularity is that under his leadership Russia has been able to reassert itself on the world stage as a major power, in contrast to the weakness and humiliation it suffered in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia “had nine years of democracy under Boris Yeltsin; bad years. Living standards collapsed. The country became close to ungovernable. Criminality flourished. Overseas, the former superpower became a negligible force” (Brenton, ibid.). Under Putin, on the other hand, “…results have been spectacular. Order was re-established. Living standards (aided by a sharp rise in world oil prices) shot up. Russia was taken seriously overseas again”.
The Telegraph further informs us that as a result of the Putin-Medvedev stewardship, “The Russian economy itself is in pretty good shape, especially when compared to many of the debt-laden European Union states. The Kremlin is hoarding the world’s third-largest foreign currency reserves, Russia is easily the world’s biggest energy exporter, and the former economic basket case is not running a budget deficit at all” (Andrew Osborn, ‘Vladimir Putin: the gremlin in the Kremlin’, 6 December 2011).
Moreover, the oil money was not simply channeled towards the imperialist maw or even local oligarchs, but saw its way to improving the lives of the Russian masses:
“Oil and gas prices, which account for about 50 per cent of exports, have remained high and the Kremlin has been taking advantage of the windfall to spend big, and in populist style, on higher pensions, on its creaky armed forces, on new roads, new schools and new hospitals.
“The Kremlin has been promising ordinary Russians the Earth, and, even with rampant corruption, has at times been delivering…” (ibid.).
The same article quotes one Russia expert as saying: “Between 1999 and 2007 Russia went through one of the biggest booms in the world. Average living standards rose from Indian to Polish levels and the economy was growing at an average of seven per cent a year.”
As far as imperialism is concerned, however, any spending aimed at improving the wellbeing of the masses is just a cheap trick to buy votes with money that in a capitalist system ought to be preserved for the boosting of profit.
Reasons for decline of support for United Russia
It is of course undeniable that Putin’s party has lost support in the 4 years that have elapsed since the last election – and it is particularly interesting that the votes it has lost have gravitated towards anti-western parties. The Communist Party in particular has increased its share of the vote from 11% to 19%, suggesting widespread disenchantment with the wonders of western ‘democracy’.
Again the reason is not hard to find: the economic crisis has affected all capitalist countries, Russia included, albeit not to the same extent as the old and decrepit imperialist powers. The New York Times informs us that:
“From 2000, the year he [Putin] assumed the presidency, until 2008, wages, adjusted for inflation, grew at an average of nearly 15 percent a year. But while salaries are still rising, they are increasing much more slowly today — at an average of 1.3 percent per year since the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008, according to data compiled by Citibank.” (Andrew E. Kramer and David M. Herszenhorn, ‘Boosted by Putin, Russia’s Middle Class Turns on Him’, December 11, 2011).
In other words, those who are now denouncing United Russia are the same myopic middle class types we commonly see in this country too – selfish people who always expect any hardships naturally arising from the capitalist system to be heaped on the working class, not on them. In this country, too, they vote for any party that promises to lower taxes and cut social spending on services that they don’t use. It is no surprise, then, that those who at the behest of imperialist-manipulated blogs rushed to the streets to demonstrate against Putin’s supposed electoral fraud, consisted overwhelmingly of people who are “very well off”.
“The prevalence of iPhones and Dolce and Gabbana gear among the roughly 50,000 who turned out on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square to protest against rigged parliamentary elections this month showed that this was not an ordinary demonstration of communist pensioners or diehard anarchists” (Charles Clover, ‘Russia’s middle class finds its feet’, Financial Times, 13 December 2011).
In their selfishness, these people (who by no means represent a majority even of the Russian middle class) have been ready prey for imperialist interests looking to turn Russia into the biddable neo-colony that they had all along hoped it would be. Their discontent is undoubtedly being orchestrated from the US and the EU via media such as Facebook and Twitter. For all that their protest is hyped up by the imperialist media, however, the forces they are able to mobilise are pathetic, though even the ‘respectable’ Financial Times is prepared to make a fool of itself trying to talk up a tiny demonstration into a mass protest:
“About 6,000 protesters took to the streets in Moscow on Monday in one of the biggest political demonstrations in years amid accusations that the Kremlin’s ruling party had relied on widespread fraud to secure a parliamentary majority.
“Shouting ‘Russia without Putin’ and ‘For a Russia without games’, the crowd of thousands squared off against police in a central Moscow square before heading towards the Lubyanka, the former KGB headquarters, near the Kremlin” (Courtney Weaver and Charles Clover, ‘Kremlin targeted by election protests’, Financial Times, 6 December 2011).
The fact of the matter is that in Moscow any demonstration of less than the 100,000 and more that can be expected to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution, for example, hardly counts for anything at all.
More recently, after days of spreading misinformation through Facebook and Twitter, a demonstration of some 50,000 (maximum) was mustered. The bourgeois media in this country were taken by surprise because the demonstration was shown on the Russian media, contrary to all the imperialist claims to the effect that the Russian news media were being manipulated to suppress information about the protests. One imagines, however, that the Russian news media were anxious to show both how pathetically small the demonstration was and to show its class character.
The allegations of electoral fraud
The imperialist media, however, are on a roll, with an eye to the Russian presidential election next March. The non-stop allegations of electoral fraud are probably having some effect on Putin’s popularity, and his approval rating has apparently dropped to only 42%, which implies that in March he is likely to fail to gain an overall majority and will face a run-off against his main opponent.
While all kinds of allegations are made that people have been photographed on mobile phones stuffing ballots or paying for votes, etc., etc., a moment’s sober thought would reveal the improbability of all these allegations. Putin and his party have been so far ahead in the opinion polls that electoral fraud was and is still quite unnecessary. And quite why people would commit such frauds in anybody’s presence, let alone the presence of people photographing the proceedings, remains to be explained. While it is possible that there may have been irregularities in certain areas on the part of candidates anxious to get into office at any price, there is absolutely no reason to think either that electoral fraud was United Russia party policy or that Putin sanctioned such activity. Nor is there the slightest basis for the insinuations in the imperialist media that the perpetrators of such irregularities would be allowed to get away with it.
Furthermore, we have long experience now with the activities of such organisations as Freedom House who decry as fraudulent any election result which produces a candidate who is not to the liking of US imperialism, and who routinely orchestrate disgruntled elements to try to overturn the will of any electorate which goes against the imperialist diktat.
In view of the fact that parties in Russia prepared to sell their country out to imperialism have no electoral support whatever, the mischief that imperialism can wreak in Russia is very limited. One message allied to that of ‘electoral fraud’ that is keeping Twitter and Facebook busy, however, is the message that, to the extent that Russians are feeling the effect of the world crisis of capitalism as markets throughout the capitalist world shrink drastically, the fault is to be attributed not to capitalism itself – oh no – but to corruption, to politicians lining their pockets and living in luxury while the poor pick up the tab. In Russia, as in all other capitalist countries, there is undoubtedly no lack of corruption. It is also rife in the UK and the US and periodically hits the headlines when it comes to light. It is not, however, corruption that is causing the crisis of overproduction – it is the relative impoverishment of the masses of people that is an integral and unavoidable feature of the capitalist system.