From Yeltsin to Putin: Modern Democrat Gives Way to Modern Nationalist

— Hillel Ticktin and Susan Weissman

THE POWER BROKERS in and around the Kremlin have orchestrated a transfer of power that could serve as a model for modern democratic rule—the kind of demonstration democracy (demonstrate the form, forget the content) practiced to a high art form in the United States.

The oligarch Boris Berezovsky has bragged that he could make anyone president with enough money and control of the media. It looks like he has.

Yeltsin had to leave—he is feeble and his puppet strings are showing—but he had to do so by ensuring the succession of his team and the protection of his family. This was executed flawlessly.

An emergency was created (the bombings in Moscow), Chechen terrorists were blamed, and the morale of the army and the dreary morass of Russian confidence were raised by pounding Grozny flat. The media are managed to the extent that the results are hidden; a successor was anointed who champions order, deports Caucasians from the capital, yet extols the virtues of a market economy.

Then a parliamentary election was held, and the controlled media maligned and slandered the so-called opposition. Electoral blocs with minor differences were created for voting purposes—and these are called parties. Finally they pretend there is a true opposition (other than the massive discontent and resignation of the population); and presto, they win!

To cap it off, Yeltsin in characteristic dramatic form announced his resignation on the New Year's Eve of a new century and millennium!

Fragile Victory

What lies behind this story? And how certain is it that Putin can prevail, and to what end?

Most observers agree that the December parliamentary elections were far from fair, yet even so, the self-proclaimed victory of Unity, the party bloc created by the Yeltsin clique, only received 23%. This was sweetened by the 8+% vote of the Union of Rightist Forces, made up of former Yeltsin-appointed Prime Ministers who still support the government.

Since when was 32% (Unity plus Union of Rightists) a majority? Take into account the more nationalist forces—the Communist Party (KPRF) which got 24%, and the Fatherland-All Russia party, which got 13% despite the beating it took in the Kremlin-controlled media, plus Zhironovsky's 6% (he is both nationalist and pro-government), and the government's victory looks less like victory.

In essence the government did win, because there is no real electoral opposition. All the parties are pro-capitalist, and with the exception of Grigory Yavlinsky's liberal Yabloko party (which got 6%), all the parties are for the war in Chechnya. In other words all the parties except Yabloko are patriotic-chauvinist, or nationalist.

Yet the result of the election is that 68% of the electorate voted against the parties of power. Meanwhile 40% didn't bother to vote. The lack of enthusiasm for the election and the existing parties shouldn't be surprising—there is no party representing the working class.

No party is even social democratic. The Fatherland-All Russia party may seem so, but that is only because it opposes unmitigated market reforms. The KPRF is labeled left-wing by right-wing commentators, but is more accurately labelled a semi-fascist populist party that is nationalistic and anti-Semitic.

The Duma has no left whatsoever. That is the reality. It represents only different factions of the elite. Putin and the Unity party's fortunes are tied to a nationalist war policy. Never mind the reality—which is that Russia's scorched earth policy in Chechnya can neither solve the underlying secessionist impulse, nor deliver a better economy and a higher standard of living.

That is why Yeltsin had to resign now, so that presidential elections could be held in March before the truth is out. Even so, Putin and the Unity Party may have short political lives.

While there is nationalist hysteria over the supposed Chechen bombings of Moscow and the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and as long as the war in Chechnya is being won, the government is in a strong position.

At the same time, the fortuitous massive devaluation of the ruble, from six to the dollar to twenty-six to the dollar, has protected the Russian market, allowing Russian industry and agriculture to have a limited but real revival.

The devaluation was against all the rules of globalization and free trade, but it has given the free market government the aura of economic success. Fortified by the success of an economic policy to which they do not subscribe and by a war which is condemned by all Western allies, the government, representing the finance capital section of the elite, had to go to the polls while it could still win.

Staging the Transition

Yeltsin has left at a good time for himself and his family. Putin has given him immunity from prosecution, something which he desperately needed as a future president or Duma might well put him on trial for his various coups, or his alleged illegal financial enrichment.

A new government could remove Yeltsin's immunity, but that may well happen after he is long dead or forgotten. This deal was cooked up in advance, not by Yeltsin, but by the shadowy oligarchs and power brokers behind the scenes. The choreographed firing of Yeltsin's daughter Tatiana Dyachenko further evokes the desired image that Putin will cleanse the government of corruption, just as he is cleansing the country of Chechen “terrorists.”

The whole scenario gives credence to the prevalent rumors that it was just these men who had arranged for the Moscow bombings. It sounds improbable—but then, much of what has happened there seems far-fetched.

The behind the scenes power-brokers are on a winning streak. Holding elections within three months virtually assures Putin's victory, as planned.The other candidates have little time to gather the required half million signatures necessary for running.

For demonstration purposes, an alternative candidate like Primakov, whose party got 13.5% of the vote, might stand. It is more likely that the KPRF's Zyuganov, whose party got 24%, will face Putin in the second round. If there is no disastrous change in the economy or the war, Putin will win. If either fails then Putin is finished.

Pundits and commentators no longer champion Russia's successful transition to capitalism. Now they declare that at least it has democracy, and thus power can be transferred through elections.

Production is less than half of what it was in the late eighties, investment less than 20%, the standard of living a fraction of what it was under Stalinism, the economy running largely through barter, and the political-economic elite are closely connected with criminals. The so-called transition has patently failed, as Yeltsin came close to admitting in his farewell address when he asked for forgiveness.

Putin has been described as pro-market, but a “master” spy—just like George Bush, who headed the CIA before becoming president. Putin was a protégé of the secret police but equally important was Anatoly Chubais, the chief privatizer who became notorious for distributing industry to the so-called oligarchs, or captains of finance capital.

Putin represents these so-called oligarchs' return to center stage, but under the new aegis of nationalism.

Nationalism serves their interests: politically, because they can remain in control through “democratic elections,” and economically because they suffered severe financial jeopardy or bankruptcy through their debts to the West in the August 1998 devaluation.

Nationalism also serves their interest socially because it has led to higher levels of employment, greater internal demand, and a growth in indigenous industry.

The danger exists that a future Russian government will undertake further adventures to ensure the survival of the Russian elite, supported by most of the Duma parties. Although the workers have no voice in the electoral process, it is their discontent that is forcing the elite to take a nationalist line in order to misdirect their discontent and opposition to the failed economic reforms.

There are no market reforms that can be introduced that will improve the situation. Nationalism is their last refuge. The last time it was used so openly, in World War I, it led to the revolutionary crisis of 1917.

ATC 85, March-April 2000

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