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The 2016 Russian Elections: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life

How do the upcoming Duma elections threaten the regime?

1st stage of United Russia Party's 15th Congress in Moscow
1st stage of United Russia Party’s 15th Congress in Moscow

Today, it would seem that the upcoming September elections to the State Duma are a cause of growing concern only in the Kremlin. While polls continue to record a low level of public interest in the event, and the tiny number of parties allowed to run in the election wanly prepares to fulfill their usual roles, the president and his entourage are increasingly talking about possible threats.

The rationale of radicalization
At a recent meeting with activists of the Russian People’s Front, Putin noted that external enemies would preparing ever more provocations to coincide “with elections to the State Duma, and then with the presidential election. It’s a one hundred percent certainty, a safe bet, as they say.”

Regardless of their real value, the upcoming elections have been turning right before our eyes into a point of tension on which the state’s repressive apparatus has focused. Beginning with the establishment of the National Guard, the process has been mounting. Each security agency has now inaugurated its own advertising season, designed not only to remind the president and public of its existence but also to show off its unique capabilities, inaccessible to other competing agencies, for combating potential threats.

Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has uncovered a plot by the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, while in his programmatic article, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin essentially suggested canceling the elections since holding them could prove too dangerous. He made a direct appeal to stop “playing at pseudo-democracy” and provide a “tough, appropriate, and balanced response” to the country’s enemies “in light of the upcoming elections and the possible risks presented by the stepping up of efforts by destabilizing political forces.” With the appointment of Tatyana Moskalkova, even the previously neutral office of the human rights ombudsman has, apparently, been turned into yet another bastion of the fight against conspiracies.

This nervousness is certainly due to the fact that the growing economic and social crisis has had no visible political fallout for the time being. There have been no mass spontaneous revolts or sectoral strikes, although there has been an overall uptick in isolated labor disputes.  The political realm has long ago been securely purged of any uncontrollable opposition, while the president’s personal rating has remained phenomenally high. Nothing, it would seem, portends serious grounds for political destabilization this autumn. The absence, however, of real threats itself has become a threat to the internal stability of the state apparatus.

Where does the threat lie? In recent times, it has become obvious that decision-making at all levels and whatever the occasion has been subjected to a rationale of radicalization. Its principle can be described roughly as follows: no new decision can be less radical than the previous decision. Bureaucratic loyalty is measured only by the level of severity. MPs must propose more sweeping laws against latent traitors. Law enforcement agencies must expose more and more conspiracies, while the courts must hand down rulings that are harsher than the harshest proposals made by the security officials and MPs. Permanently mounting radicalism enables officials to increase budgets, expand powers, and prove their reliability, while any manifestation of moderation or leniency can cost them their careers. This radicalization, whose causes are rooted in the political psychology of the Russian elite (which suffers from an almost animal fear of uncontrollability), has set off an extremely dangerous bureaucratic momentum. Its main problem is the inability to stop. It is not only unclear where the bottom is, but who is ultimately interested in reaching that bottom and leaving it at that.

All this generates a strange situation vis-à-vis the elections, which have generally functioned primarily as a political balancing mechanism for the Putinist system, and even now function in this way. Elections have always been a reminder—not to voters, but to the elite itself—that varying opinions within a clearly defined framework have not only been possible but have also been encouraged. This reminder has been important not out of faithfulness to an abstract principle, but as confirmation that political bodies (first of all, the presidential administration) have had the monopoly on deciding domestic policy, not a military or police junta.

Fixing the broken mechanism?

Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin's puppeteer-in-chief
Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin’s puppeteer-in-chief (left side)

For the Kremlin, the upcoming elections are overshadowed by the political trauma of 2011, when the smoothly functioning system of managed democracy suffered a serious breakdown. The current chief political strategist Vyacheslav Volodin has more or less consistently focused on making sure the failure of five years ago is not repeated. Volodin’s mission is to fix the broken mechanism with political methods, not by force.

It is worth remembering that, for the greater part of the Putin era, parliamentary and presidential elections were parts of a single political cycle, in which the same scenario was played out. The triumphal success of the ruling United Russia party was supposed to precede and ensure the even more resounding success of Vladimir Putin. In December 2011, however, the cycle’s unity backfired against the Kremlin’s plans. The interval between elections enabled the protest movement to maintain its grassroots energy for several months.

The political rationale of Putin’s third term is now aimed not only at technically but also at conceptually disrupting this cycle. Amidst a sharp drop in confidence in the government, the Kremlin decided last summer to move parliamentary elections up from December 2017 to September 2016, and, on the contrary, postpone the presidential election from March 2017 to March 2018. The point of the maneuver is obvious. The presidential and parliamentary elections must now represent not two parts of the same script but two completely different scripts. In the first script, a limited number of parties, which make up the symphony of the Crimean consensus, will criticize the government and each other, thus competing for the sympathies of the dissatisfied populace. In the second script, the natural patriotic instinct of voters should leave no doubt as to the need to support Putin unconditionally.

The new ideological content was embodied by Volodin’s famous statement: “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” This personification virtually means that, as a symbolic father, Putin transcends everyday politics. You can be a liberal or a nationalist, a proponent of greater intervention in the economy or a fan of the free market. You can choose not to like the government or government officials. But the nexus Putin-Crimea-Russia is beyond any doubt. Those who fundamentally disagree with it are simply removed from the Russian political spectrum and branded “national traitors.”

In keeping with this rationale, responsibility for the sharp drop in living standards and the consequences of the neoliberal “anti-crisis” measures has been borne by ministers, MPs, and governors, by anyone except the president. Even now, when the propaganda effect of the “reunification” of Crimea has obviously begun to fade, the president’s personal rating remains high. Thus, according to the latest opinion polls, 81% of respondents trust Putin, while 41% do not trust Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and 47% do not trust his government overall.

Within the new-model Crimean consensus, United Russia will no longer play the role of the backbone it played in the noughties. Untethered from the non-partisan figure of the president, it will take on the burden of unpopularity borne by its formal leader, Dmitry Medvedev, and his government. The mixed electoral system will enable candidates from local “parties of power” in single-member districts to dissociate themselves from United Russia, presenting themselves as “non-partisan Putinists” criticizing the soulless federal authorities. Volodin’s scheme involves loosening United Russia’s grip on power and slightly increasing the value of the pseudo-opposition as represented by the Communist Party and A Just Russia.

It is worth noting that the very existence of a bureaucratic mega-party previously played a stabilizing role by dampening intra-elite conflicts. Now they will inevitably come out into the open, including in the shape of inter-party struggles. Of course, the presidential administration counts on being able to effectively ensure compliance with the clear rules of this competition, but there are no guarantees. The managed multi-party system with the “father of the nation” towering over it consummates the new architecture of the Putin regime as a personalistic regime, and becomes more and more vulnerable.

United Russia's "People's Primaries"
United Russia’s “People’s Primaries”

In the new reality of the crisis, Putin’s depoliticization also facilitates a more intensive “natural selection” among bureaucrats at all levels by culling those who have not mastered the art of maintaining the conservative sympathies of the populace while simultaneously implementing what amount to aggressively anti-social policies. The September campaign is supposed to go off without a hitch, culminating in a predictable outcome. Having given a human face to the Central Elections Commission, which was seriously discredited by the previous leadership, Ella Pamfilova is meant to increase this manageability and predictability. It turns out that the upcoming elections are the primary pressure test of the new, post-Bolotnaya Square design of managed democracy. The future of Vyacheslav Volodin and his team, as well as Putin’s willingness to trust them with the extremely important 2018 presidential campaign, probably depends on how smoothly they come off.

From the foregoing it is clear that the objective of reestablishing the rules of managed democracy is directly at odds with the above-mentioned rationale of radicalization, whose standard-bearers are the competing law enforcement agencies. Their individual success in the internal struggle is vouchsafed by the failure of the political scenario, which would give rise to the need for a vigorous intervention by force. After all, the National Guard’s value would be incomparably increased if it put down real riots instead of sham riots, and Bastrykin’s loyalty would all the dearer if, instead of the endless absurdity of the Bolotnaya Square Case, he would uncover real extremists. To scare someone seriously, the ghosts have to take on flesh and blood.

Life is everywhere
Marx said that putrefaction is the laboratory of life. Now we see how Putinist capitalism has embarked on a process of gradual self-destruction. The upcoming elections provide a clear picture of how this has been facilitated by two opposing rationales, the political rationale (Volodin and the presidential administration) and the law enforcement rationale. Thus, the first rationale, in order to generate the necessary momentum and expand the range of opinions, must respond to social discontent by providing United Russia’s managed opponents with greater freedom to criticize. Restoring the internal political balance will inevitably lead to the fact that topics related to the crisis and the government’s anti-social policies will become the centerpiece of the entire election campaign. On the other hand, the security forces will destabilize the situation outside parliament. Together, they will do much more to undermine an already-flawed system than the long-term, deliberate efforts of any western intelligence agency.

Of course, Russian leftists should in no way count on events following an automatic course. But it is absolutely necessary to take into account the conflicts of interest within the elite and understand their decisive influence on the shape of the upcoming elections. These elections have nothing to do with the real struggle for power or traditional parliamentarianism in any shape or form. But they are directly related to the internal decomposition of an authoritarian, anti-labor, and anti-social regime. So our policy vis-à-vis these elections should be flexible and remote from all general conclusions. That means we can and should support certain leftist candidates in single-member districts. We must use all the opportunities provided by the leftist, socialist critique of the Medvedev government’s so-called anti-crisis policies. We must be ready to go to the polls. Or we must be ready to reject them, taking to the streets when the time comes.

Originally published in Russian at Translated by TheRussianReader.

By Ilya Budraitskis

Ilya Budraitskis(1981) is a historian, cultural and political activist. Since 2009
he is Ph.D. student at the Institute for World History, Russian Academy of
Science, Moscow. In 2001-2004 he organized Russian activists in
mobilizations against the G8, in European and World Social Forums. Since
2011 he has been an activist and spokesperson for Russian Socialist
Member of Editorial board of "Moscow Art Magazine". Regular contributor to
the number of political and cultural websites.

One reply on “The 2016 Russian Elections: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life”

Both in Russia and the US, leftists seek the most effective way to make fundamental change in systems overwhelmingly controlled by stratospherically wealthy elites. Our primary source of power across the globe is grassroots mobilization by everyday citizens. In the US, many leftists believe the movement to elect Bernie Sanders may promote breakup of a rigged economic system. As an environmental activist in New York, I mobilize alongside fellow environmentalists pushing for restoration of a planet perhaps irreparably damaged by the likes of the American Koch brothers and their fellow billionaires, who have funded a vast pro-oil industry propaganda machine of climate change denier think tanks, university institutes, and talk radio stations. I recently discovered that the typically generic sounding “National Center for Policy Analysis,” which published a well-known, fake but deceptively scientific looking “research study” “proving” the American plastics industry’s position against environmental legislation, is one of the many foundations birthed and funded by David Koch.

Ilya Budraitskis debates whether large-scale popular mobilization will recur in Russia despite today’s record low level of interest in the upcoming elections and Putin’s 81% approval rate. Ilya sees Putin’s current political machinations as a possible sign of the putrefaction of the current system, from which new life may be born. I hope he’s right, just as I hope that here in the US, the power of the far right is now rotting from within, collapsing of its own absurd internal contradictions, with Republican voters turning away from billionaire-sanctioned primary candidates to anoint the demagogue Trump.

What I’d love to understand about Russia today is whether the current economic crisis will bring the government crashing down, as happened in 1917 – or whether Putin’s increasing centralization and repression after the post-Soviet period’s relative freedoms are more parallel to 1930s recentralization of state power following the decade of social, artistic, and economic experimentation and relative freedom after the Revolution. The 1917 revolutions began when, due to World War I’s Russian military monopolization of the railway system, the country’s food distribution system was shattered, and working class women in cities and factory settlements began uprisings to seize food to save their starving children. Is today’s Russia somehow a parallel to that? On the one hand, Russian/Soviet elites have historically been able to seize for themselves a vast proportion of the country’s wealth without popular anger coalescing into effective radical activism. What was different about 1917? What pushed/s the broad population from acceptance of the Russian national leader to mobilization against him? Today, what are the effects on the Russian economic situation of, for example, the fact that so much Russian wealth is sent outside the country and invested elsewhere in the world? Will Putin be able to force repatriation of some of those national riches?

Ilya describes Putin’s particular current political machinations – separating the presidential election in time from the parliamentary elections – as designed to let ministers, MPS, and governors take the blame for today’s sharp drop in living standards, while Putin emerges “as a symbolic father transcending everyday politics.” This seems to me like an echo of a pattern established through centuries of Russian history: the “father” of the highly centralized system – whether Tsar, Stalin, or now Putin – have been considered the embodiment of goodness, while the population directed all blame for oppressive conditions at local government functionaries. For centuries, Russian peasants commonly believed that if only the Tsar – or Stalin – knew how badly his representatives were treating his people on the ground, the ever-good “Father” would step in and rectify everything.

I love Ilya’s darkly comic description of the various Russian security services:

“Each security agency has now inaugurated its own advertising season, designed not only to remind the president and public of its existence but also to show off its unique capabilities, inaccessible to other competing agencies, for combating potential threats…. Permanently mounting radicalism enables officials to increase budgets, expand powers, and prove their reliability, while any manifestation of moderation or leniency can cost them their careers.”

At the same time, as we try to divine whether centralization of the Russian system is currently growing in strength or about to collapse, I agree with – as I’m sure Ilya does – Marx’s proposal that the political sphere and its developments don’t exist on an independent plane, but derive from the material base. Elites in all political situations seize as much power as they’re able to within the constraints they face. This is as true for the US as for Russia. The difference between the US and Russia isn’t the eagerness with which its elites pursue power grabs, nor the supposed morality of their ideology, but rather the different opportunities their varying geographies provide for amassing wealth and power.

I believe it’s important to delve ever deeper into trying to understand the material bases of political power in different parts of the world not to resuscitate the Cold War, but to better understand the opportunities leftist activists might seize to push their programs forward.

In the US, protected by two vast oceans and two weaker neighbors, with – due to pure luck – the most provident geography on earth for producing wealth, there have historically been numerous independent bases for accumulating money and power. So American elites have always had to compete with each other, with no individual member ever able grab as much power as a tsar, a “Communist” secretary, or Putin have in Russia. The American frontier was first settled by farmers and ranchers able to easily transport their goods via the largest fertile, temperate zone land-and-river system on earth. Once the American genocide against native populations was achieved (helped immeasurably by numberless deaths from European diseases brought to defenseless immune systems), our cities were “safe” to develop based on their geographic suitability for manufacturing, transshipment and processing of agricultural goods.

Russia’s geography, on the other hand, did not support organic development of independent wealth-and-power centers because for centuries its wide open steppes neighbored the most powerful entities on earth (Mongols, slave-trading khanates, the Ottoman Empire hungry for slave labor, an expansionist Germany). The very flatness of the steppes meant there were no natural barriers preventing constant, yearly slave raids and invasions. (see Russian cities founded southward across steppes were created as military garrisons by tsarist fiat during the centuries-long military struggle to give the indefensible, wide open frontier a safe, defined border. Capitalism didn’t organically develop independently of the tsarist government because Russia always had to be on a war footing, with the economy subsumed under the government.

The historian Michael Khodarkovsky, author of RUSSIA’S STEPPE FRONTIER, calculated the costs to Russia’s built environment of defending its southern frontier. By the first half of the 17th century, the cost for ransom alone of upper class abductees was the equivalent of constructing four small towns per year:

“In other words, in the first half of the 17th century, Russia was short 1,200 small towns. That Russia was underurbanized in comparison to its Western European neighbors is an undisputed fact, but that this shortage of urban centers may, in no small degree, be related to the nature of Russia’s southern frontier is poorly understood.

“The numbers of towns and cities not built and fields not plowed would present an even starker illustration of the nation’s stunted growth when one considers the full range of costs and resources diverted to the defense of the southern frontier: the lost manpower of those Russians who were captured and sold into slavery; cattle and various valuable items seized as booty; physical damage to villages and towns; presents, ransoms, and other payments to native elites; continuous construction of the new fortification lines (the “great Wall of Russia”); and the maintenance of the garrisons and auxiliary military.

“Long after the disappearance of the Mongols, the existence of the southern frontier continued to debilitate the Russian economy in a variety of ways.”

By the early 20th century, European and American militaries and economies were well on the road to industrialization. To maintain Russia’s defense, wealth, and power, it too had to industrialize its vast, overwhelmingly peasant economy. Because the country hadn’t industrialized organically, its main historical task now was to industrialize by centralized force. Marx too knew the importance of industrialization as a prerequisite for socialism, because the stage of capital accumulation is always exploitative, and gathering of workers from their scattered rural lives into pre-organized agglomerations in factories and cities is a necessary precursor to the effective mass political organization of Socialism.

The greatest disservice to the good name of Socialism was to falsely label this repressive, centralized forced industrialization system Communism/Socialism.

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