Socialism Today - Putin's 'putsch'
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Issue 45

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Issue 45, September 1999

Putin's 'putsch'

    Going boom
    Chechnya's history of independence
    'Strong man' Putin

Appointed as prime minister just six months ago, Putin's meteoric rise to the top in the Kremlin seems unstoppable, as Russia heads for early presidential elections. ROB JONES from Workers' Democracy - the Committee for a Workers' International's section in the CIS - assesses the situation that Yeltsin's protégé faces in Russia today.

RUSSIA'S RULING CLIQUE was confident over the New Year that things were going its way. Unity, the party established by premier Vladimir Putin three months before the parliamentary elections in December, gained a respectable 24% of the vote, just 1% behind the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and 10% ahead of the main bourgeois opposition led by Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and former premier, Yevgeni Primakov.

The balance sheet for the economy at the end of 1999 was the best in ten years. Industrial production grew by 8%, capital investment by 2%. There was even a growth of 2% in employment. The budget surplus grew by $21 billion. The war in Chechnya still seemed to be going well. The taking of Grozny, it was promised, was only days away. The mistakes of the first war had, they assured us, been avoided. Everything was going so well that Putin's opinion poll ratings suggested he would win a presidential election in the first round.

Given this rosy scenario, the 'family', the corrupt clique of businessmen, bankers, bureaucrats and relatives around Boris Yeltsin, decided it was time for him to go. Yeltsin's announcement, broadcast as people were preparing their tables for the New Year celebrations, took everyone by surprise. He taunted his opponents who had said he would not step down at any cost, apologised that many were disappointed with the results of his ten years in power, and appointed the chief of the Federal Security Service (FSB - the successor to the KGB) and former spy in Germany, Putin, as acting president for the three months until the elections. However, now that Russia is beginning to emerge from the long holiday (which starts and ends ten days later than in Britain) the shine is beginning to fade.


The main gain for the ruling elite has been securing a state duma (the lower house of parliament) that will be much more loyal to the government. The KPRF and their allies have seen their number of seats slashed from over 200 to about 120. The government can count on the votes of the Unity block, Vladimir Zhirinovskii's party (which has always supported Yeltsin on key issues) and a large part of the so-called independent deputies. Since the elections, the Luzhkov-Primakov bloc has split with the 'All-Russia' part, made up of regional governors, who have announced their support for Putin. Sergei Kiriyenko's Union of Right Forces has also said it will support Putin, as have many other leading figures who supported other parties in the elections.

However, not everything is going Putin's way. The deciding round of the election for governor of the Moscow Region (the industrial belt around, but not including, Moscow) was held at the start of the New Year. The two contending candidates were the former speaker of the state duma, Gennady Seleznyov (KPRF), and General Boris Gromov. Gromov was the general who finally took the troops out of Afghanistan and was a vocal opponent of the first Chechen war (1994-96). His candidacy was backed by Luzkhov while Putin publicly backed Seleznyov in what was seen as a rerun of the parliamentary election. This time Gromov gained 2% more than Seleznyov amidst allegations of vote rigging by both sides. What is interesting about this result is that, although neither candidate really made their views about Chechnya known in the campaign, Gromov opposed the previous war, providing a little more evidence that the supposedly high support for the current war is only superficial.


The KPRF has clearly suffered a serious blow in the elections. Having lost so many seats, it also looks likely that a non-communist will be elected speaker of the state duma, although it would not be surprising if Putin eventually backs a KPRF candidate as part of some backroom deal.

Until recently, KPRF leader, Gennady Zyuganov, has been one of the two main contenders for the presidency. But, not only has the party morale been damaged by the elections, Zyuganov has lost more credibility due to his constant manoeuvring - one minute suggesting some agreement could be reached with Putin, another time saying he would make a deal with Primakov about a joint candidacy. Primakov, however, seems to be backing off from opposing Putin. This may leave Zyuganov as the main candidate against him. In some ways this will be like January's presidential election in Uzbekistan where the only opposition candidate voted for the sitting president, Islam Karimov, because 'he was the best candidate'! Zyuganov has already made it clear that he supports Putin on many issues. The ruling elite need a credible opposition candidate as some correspondents have started calling March's election a formality and a plebiscite. At the moment, Zyuganov's candidacy poses no threat to Putin as his rating has dropped from around 25% before December to 13% now.

top     Going boom

WHY WAS YELTSIN so keen to call an early election? The consolidation of support around Putin and his apparent popularity are based on improvements in the economy and the Chechnya offensive. The ruling elite decided they needed the election as quickly as possible, before Putin's rating starts to drop. (Yeltsin gave up power only reluctantly, after getting Putin to sign a decree granting him an amnesty from any prosecution arising from his time in the Kremlin.)


The economic gains, however, are directly related to external factors. They are more to do with distorted statistics than to any real restoration of industry. Take, for example, the effects of the rouble crisis in August 1998, when there were six roubles to the dollar - now there are 28. In dollar terms, personal income has fallen from $159 a month in November 1997 to $65 today. On the other hand, as most of the money earned by Russia is from the sale of minerals, oil and gas for dollars, there have been many more roubles (worth less) in the economy. Thus wages have increased in the same period from 939 to 1,719 roubles. But when measured against inflation, real incomes fell 15% in 1999. This has meant that no-one can afford imported goods anymore and have turned back to buy cheaper home-produced products, thus stimulating production. Last year's 8% increase in industrial production has to be seen in the context of a fall of more than 50% since 1990. Industrial production is now only 3% higher than it was in August 1998.

The other factor that has had a big effect is the rise in the world price of oil from $10 to $25 a barrel. Prices of metals have also been going up. Over the course of the year, this added almost $15 billion to the state budget - an increase of about 12% of GDP. In other words, the government has had a windfall of 50% more than all the foreign direct investment it has received over the past ten years. As a result, the problem of wage arrears has eased slightly - from 85 billion roubles ($4bn) in December 1998 to 59 billion roubles ($2bn) - and the state has been able to cover the cost of the Chechnya campaign.


In Chechnya itself, problems are already developing, after initial claims by the political and military leaders that the war would be over in two months. Two leading generals have been sacked and the early January cease-fire, ostensibly called to allow Orthodox Christian Christmas celebrations (7 January) and a peaceful end to the Muslim Ramadan, was really to allow the regroupment of Russian forces. The Russian army's inexperienced troops had been pushed back by battle-hardened Chechen rebels and bad weather. Counter-attacks by the Chechens led to the temporary loss of three towns. The capture of Grozny was promised at the beginning of December, was then postponed until the elections, the New Year, and has still not been secured.

Even Western leaders who have consistently backed Yeltsin have been forced to protest at the brutality of the Russian army. The massacre of 40 civilians in Alkhan-Yurt and the forced repatriation of refugees have increased the bitterness felt by Chechens. In turn, the Russian mass media is covering up the number of casualties. On 10 January, for example, the army reported 27 Russian troops were killed in Argun but the TV reported only two dead. In total, the official Russian body count stands at 712, whereas the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers put the figure at over 3,000. (International Herald Tribune, 19 January)

top     Chechnya's history of independence

CHECHNYA HAS FOR centuries resisted its forced inclusion in the Russian empire. Chechens gained independence for a short period after 1917 after they and the neighbouring Ingushetians joined the civil war on the side of the Soviet republic. Lenin argued for self-determination and against the collectivisation of agriculture in the Caucasus, which he knew the peasants would resist. Unfortunately, the Chechens fell victim to Stalin's bureaucratic approach to the national question when he arbitrarily divided up the Caucasus and alienated the peasantry through forced collectivisation. Although many Chechens fought heroically against the Nazis in world war two, Stalin deported the whole nation to Kazakhstan, believing they would betray Russia.


In the early 1990s, the new capitalists encouraged the break-up of the Soviet state and planned economy to allow capitalist market relations to develop. Yeltsin urged the republics to 'take as much sovereignty as you can', and initially supported Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, when he led an uprising against the former Soviet ruler of the republic in November 1991. When the uprising got out of hand, however, Yeltsin sent in the troops. They got no further than the airport before being forced out.

Subsequently, Chechnya-Ingushetia was split into two republics. The latter, granted tax-free status, remained loyal to Moscow. Chechnya just refused to pay taxes. This created a haven for the former Soviet bureaucrats/emerging capitalists, who used the two republics to launder the money they robbed from Russia's state enterprises and from the workers' wages and savings.

But Russia's ruling elite quickly became disillusioned with the neo-liberalism of people like Yegor Gaidar, Boris Fedorov and Anatoly Chubais as the help promised from the West did not materialise. They drew the conclusion that the break-up of the Russian state had to be reversed, in part to provide more stability for Russian capitalism. The armed crushing of the Russian parliament in 1993 opened up a period of the strengthening and consolidation of the new capitalist state.

The massive amount of laundered money in Chechnya led to squabbling within the Chechen ruling elite. Dudayev fell out with his former allies and dispersed the parliament. Russia financed and armed the opposition to attack Grozny, each time without success. But this infighting provided the excuse to invade Chechnya - a decision taken at the birthday party of the then defence minister, General Pavel Grachev. Cynically, the first troops to enter the capital were instructed to burn the bank records kept there to destroy any evidence of money laundering.


The war was a disaster for Russia. The conscript troops were completely unprepared and unwilling to fight. The generals were incompetent and corrupt. The population of Chechnya, including many thousands of Russians, united against the Russian army. The well-armed Chechen forces, who bought their weapons from Russian officers, succeeded in inflicting serious defeats on the army. Twice they forced the Russians out of Grozny.

We warned then that the new capitalist Russia could not solve national conflicts. Indeed, due to the demoralised state of the Russian army, the Chechens' determination to defend themselves, and the unpopularity of the war, the Russian army was forced to withdraw. At that time, Russia's ruling elite was split over the war. The neo-liberal wing saw the attack on Chechnya as an attempt to restore the old guard, who favoured strong state intervention. Miners protesting about wage non-payment blamed their plight on the war. The Committees of Soldiers' Mothers were very active. But although the war was unpopular, opposition remained largely passive.

In 1994-96 we argued in favour of self-determination for Chechnya and for the withdrawal of Russian troops. We called on workers to organise to overthrow the Russian government which started the war and warned that an independent capitalist Chechnya would be ruled by warmongers like Shamil Basayev. Therefore, the struggle for an independent Chechnya could not be separated from that against capitalism in Chechnya and Russia. This required a joint struggle of Russian and Chechen workers to form a voluntary federation of workers' states in the Caucasus and Russia itself.


Our programme remains the same in this war. The only real difference between the two wars is that the government has more effectively prepared public opinion this time around.

top     'Strong man' Putin

THIS WAR, PUTIN claims, is against banditry and international terrorism. (Incidentally, many Western leaders support him despite their half-hearted criticism of the methods employed.) Reports that the horrific bombs in Moscow and other cities, which have never been proved to be directly linked to Chechnya, were actually planted by the Russian secret police to justify the war, are gaining credence.

That there is a relatively high level of crime in Chechnya, including kidnapping and banditry, is a direct consequence of the Russian government's policies. A dramatic increase in crime has accompanied the restoration of capitalism throughout Russia. It is worse in the Caucasus because the economic conditions are more extreme. In Chechnya, the first war destroyed the infrastructure, homes and factories. Youth have been left unemployed with no income and no future and have, therefore, been ready to serve the warlords who turned to crime after the war.

This war is a central plank of the ruling elite's election strategy. The bourgeoisie has failed to build a viable political party to represent its interests. They were desperately seeking a candidate who could take over from Yeltsin without threatening their power and privileges. They hope that Putin, with his image as a strong man, will do the job. This supposedly short, victorious war has been used to mobilise electoral support. In addition, it has disarmed the opposition parties who all support it and are reluctant to speak out against Putin. Zyuganov, for example, is among the fiercest supporters of the war. The West's hypocrisy in criticising Russia, after using similar tactics in Kosova itself, has enabled the ruling elite to play the nationalist card.


Chechnya, however, represents more than just an election platform. It forms an integral part of Russia's strategic interests in the region. Plans to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea have increased the importance of the Caucasus. Russia is trying to reassert itself as a major player on the world stage. It would receive a colossal blow to its prestige if it is defeated - for the second time in a few years - by a relatively small rebel force. That would also exacerbate the centrifugal forces pulling at Russia's borders by encouraging other breakaway movements.

However, support for this war is superficial. The issue was rarely raised during the parliamentary elections - most people were too concerned about more immediate problems, such as wages and job losses. There are signs that people are seeing through the propaganda.

As the war drags on and the truth about Russian casualties becomes more widely known, it is likely to become as unpopular as the previous war was. Already some Russian newspapers are saying that the war is beginning to look too much like the first. Recent experience has shown that leaders who are popular one week can be very unpopular the next. The high opinion poll ratings enjoyed by Putin will quickly go the same way as those of other leaders before him.

Putin has no illusions in democracy, even in words. He calls for a strong state and espouses patriotism. He has warned striking workers that tough measures will be taken against them. One of the decrees he signed on his first day in office was to give the FSB and seven other government agencies the right to monitor e-mails. As his popularity inevitably declines in the next weeks and months, it will become clearer that the Russian presidency has all the trappings of bonapartism. The bourgeoisie, who are all lining up behind Putin as 'our man', may themselves come to regret their latest appointment.


By March, the latest round of elections will be over. Over the past year, the workers' movement has been somewhat subdued because many were hoping that maybe a change was on the way. Now, however, workers are going to have to turn back to struggle. The KPRF has been shown to be spineless and incapable of organising opposition. This should make the job of arguing for a genuine workers' party easier in the period ahead.

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