|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
WITH AN almost beautiful sense of irony, just as the polls closed in Russia’s presidential election the huge Manazh exhibition centre burnt to the ground. The Manazhe, just metres from the Kremlin walls, was built to celebrate Moscow’s defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812. Russia’s newly elected president, however, has less in common with Bonaparte than with his nephew, Louis, who came to power in France in 1850 and ruled as Louis Napoleon.
Just as symbolic of the state of contemporary Russia is that the building went up in flames so quickly because of decades of neglect. Almost every day old buildings neglected in the race to build capitalism are collapsing, exploding or burning. As the Manazhe collapsed a large police building in Novosibirsk burnt to the ground. The next night a gas explosion collapsed a block of flats in Archangelsk, killing over 50. And the superficially nice buildings being constructed by Russia’s new property developers are no better, as the recent AquaPark catastrophe showed. Eleven were killed and dozens injured in February when the glass roof of a swimming pool complex, only two years old, collapsed under the weight of snow. Scratch just below the surface of anything that is done in Russia’s new capitalism, and you find that it is jerry built with only contempt for human life and living conditions. The very same is true of the presidential election.
As expected, Putin gained 71% of the vote with the Communist Party’s Nikolai Kharitonov a poor second with 14%. The other four candidates shared 10% between them and 4% voted against all.
This was never a contest between equal parties. Everything was done to ensure that the other candidates did not get a chance to explain their ideas. Sergei Glazyev, for example, in practically every town in which he was due to speak, found that the local authorities had cancelled the hall. One candidate, who later withdrew, mysteriously disappeared at the beginning of the campaign only to turn up days later in Kiev having been clearly drugged and implicated in a video with prostitutes. Other candidates had their campaigners called in for questioning by the political police.
The mass media was hugely biased. Putin had twice as much coverage as all the other candidates put together and while his coverage was overwhelmingly positive, theirs was almost always negative. Putin also refused to participate in candidates’ debates, making them almost meaningless.
This wasn’t the only reason for the defeat of the other candidates. All the opposition parties are in crisis. It is now likely that the Communist Party will split into a wing around millionaire casino-owner, Semagin, who wants to join up with Putin’s United Russia, and the remainder around Zhyuganov and Kharitonov, who will have little appeal other than to older and rural layers. The two neo-liberal parties are in chaos, some leaders thinking they should stay close to Putin and others opposed. Perhaps the biggest loser in this election was Sergei Glazyev whose party, Rodina, did so well in December’s parliamentary election. His vote fell to 4% and his party collapsed, with the other joint leader, Rogozin, openly declaring his support for Putin. Unbelievably, Mironov, speaker of the senate who stood for the Russian Party of Life – set up by Putin’s wife – openly declared on election day that he had voted for the ‘best’ candidate, that is Putin!
At the beginning of the campaign, several parties spoke of boycotting the election, but none eventually did so. But with about two weeks to go, Glazyev, Khakimada and Kharitonov were so frustrated with the one-sided nature of the campaign they all spoke of withdrawing, although none did. This just added to the feeling that the other candidates were inept.
Several Western organizations such as the OBSE (and Colin Powell) have publicly raised doubts over the fairness of the campaign. But they only visited for a few days to watch the voting formalities – except apparently the British observers, who went on a drinking binge. They ignored the wider picture, only complaining, meekly, about an unfair media and some technical difficulties during voting. This time local activists refused to help the observers in some areas. As one said, ‘in December we showed them all the irregularities and undemocratic practices but they still said the elections were only partly unfair. What’s the point?’ They do not see the widespread harassment of activists that takes place during the campaign.
Most importantly, they failed to understand that this election was not about who was the best candidate but whether enough people (50%) would turn out to vote for the election to be valid. In the absence of political debate, all the state’s resources, including those of the electoral commission, were directed at encouraging a high turnout. To gain the eventual 64% turnout blatant bribery was used. In the Sokol region of Moscow, voters were promised free video programmes and the use of a fitness centre. In Voronezh, ballot papers had a lottery ticket attached, with the draw taking place when the boxes opened. Universities ensured that the usual low participation by students was reversed by implying that failure to fulfill civic duty would affect results. In Omsk, a Siberian city, voters were given free public transport for the day, hot meals were served at the station, and young voters were given a bar of chocolate and two free cinema tickets.
As if that wasn’t enough, election officials in the Caucasian region openly reported they had been told to stuff ballot boxes. That is borne out by the remarkable results from those republics. In Chechnya 92% supposedly voted for the man who has waged war against them for four years. In neighbouring Ingushetia, they almost over-exerted themselves, reporting a 98% vote. In Dagestan, which in the mid-1990s voted overwhelmingly for the CP, a modest 95% vote for Putin was reported but made up for with a 90% turnout.
Nearer to Moscow, Bashkirostan also reported a 90% vote. Even in Moscow, observers report that at one psychiatric hospital patients were offered ballot papers already filled in (for guess who) and when some said they wanted to vote otherwise they were told there were no other papers. If this was done in front of observers in the centre of Moscow, it is not difficult to envisage what was going on in the remoter areas.
So, not surprisingly the ‘main’ candidate won, with an impressive 71%. But they were careful not to over-egg the pudding – after all, too many votes would make the election look like the stage-managed affairs of soviet times. Vova, as he is affectionately called, will lead the grateful nation for another four years.
By sacking his premier, Kazyanov, just before the election, Putin has set about streamlining the government. He appointed the unknown Micheal Frodkov to head the new cabinet, and has reduced the number of ministers from 30 to 17. The deputy premier, Zhukhov, and newly appointed economic and social ministers, including those for health and education, are neo-liberals, ensuring that the pace of market reforms will be stepped up – and now with little opposition from parliament. Pensions, housing, education, health care are all to be ‘reformed’ in the next six months and a speeding up of preparations for entry to the WTO and a new, even more restrictive labour law is promised. At the same time, the influence of the security forces has been significantly strengthened. One TV analyst claims that, in the upper echelons of power (he didn’t define this), 60% hold senior military, police or KGB rank, compared to 30% under Yeltsin and less than 10% under Gorbachev.
Putin explains the government reform by saying he was strengthening the ‘vertical’ by building a ‘pyramid’ around it. But all these structures are becoming more and more concentrated into the hands of one man, in the manner of a bonaparte, an autocratic ruler who relies on the power of the state. The apparent strengthening of the state structure, however, disguises the fact that this pyramid is balancing upside down on a very weak social base. There is still relative economic stability, due to Russia’s oil and gas resources, but it is inevitable at a certain stage that there will be social movements that could cause a severe crisis and threaten to tip over the state pyramid.
As the elections of the past months have demonstrated, there is a political vacuum that needs to be filled. It is in the interests of the working class that it finds the strength and resources to establish its own party to fill this vacuum and begin to gather the forces to take Russia out of the nightmare of increasingly authoritarian capitalism.