Russia united — for the time being

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With a 60 per cent turnout, United Russia’s solid 49.5 per cent plurality in the 4 December Duma elections, giving it 238 of the 450 seats, is the envy of any Western political party. But it is nonetheless a disappointment after its 2007 sweep, where it gained over two-thirds of the seats. Very, very few parties ever approach the magic two-thirds that lets them ignore the opposition and change the constitution, and Prime Minister and president-virtually-elect Vladimir Putin even put a positive spin on the results: “This is an optimal result which reflects the real situation in the country,” Putin, 59, said coolly. “Based on this result we can guarantee stable development of our country.” (He will be recrowned president in pro forma elections 4 March.)

Post-Soviet Russian politics over the past two decades has been a rollercoaster. Until the founding of United Russia in 2001, a short decade ago, the Russian Communist Party was the largest political force in the country. By uniting the Westernisers and soft nationalists around his charismatic leadership, Putin was able to push the Communists aside and capture 1/2 the seats in 2003, UR’s debut. Within a few weeks an additional 78 MPs climbed on the bandwagon, giving UR the magic two-thirds. With this election, the Communists have now recovered, almost doubling their vote to 20 per cent, an underestimate of their real support, given who has the money and who controls media and election procedures. “The Communists are the only real party out there,” admitted one Western banker in Moscow, and are now attracting even liberals disillusioned with UR.

In his first two terms as president, Putin transformed Russia, with UR his political figleaf, restoring state power in the economy, centralizing political control, guaranteeing a piece of the pie for almost all, while hiding the many deep social and political problems –” corruption, violence, gangs, mafia, drugs, despair, and on and on. Relying on Soviet-era prestige and Russia’s vast material resources, UR has been the vehicle for creating a crude but powerful national force that keeps chugging alone, even as the West descends into financial chaos and self-inflicts wounds in pursuing will-o-the-wisp imperial wars around the world.

Of course, the Duma is not much more than a prestigious sandbox, an expensive talk shop which can’t take any real initiative without a nod from above. The whole electoral process is heavily in UR’s favour, with a brutal 7 per cent popular vote necessary for initiation into the club, and persistent rumours that the also-ran Communists, Liberal Democrats and Fair Russia quietly cut deals to divvy up the seats in less than transparent proportional elections. UR is able to mobilise the vast administrative apparatus, the fortunes of oligarchs, the private and public airwaves. It is for all intents and purposes invincible. The elections, however, are still an important barometre of public mood, and the almost daily opinion polls make too blatant vote-rigging a risk, given the Russian elite’s proclaimed insistence that Russia is “democratically” governed.

The general outlines of post-Soviet Russia as shaped by UR-Putin have now become clear: Russia will not join the West as a subservient “postmodern state”, the neocon version of Kant’s world order, where nations give up their sovereignty to a “higher” organisation in the interests of world peace. (Kant envisioned a neutral United Nations, as opposed to the unipolar imperial order established with the collapse of the Soviet Union.) The early post-Soviet Yelstin crowd seemed willing to join the US-led imperial order, but there were enough savvy patriots who were not duped by US professed intentions and who raised the alarm and put the breaks on this process in time.

It will do whatever is necessary for its security and national/ federal sovereignty (Chechnya and Georgian wars, missile defence), and work with others to lessen dependency on the US order (Latin America, India, China, gas/ oil deals with Europe). To pursue this, it is developing new international structures especially in Eurasia (SCO, CSTO, the new regional customs union and proposed Eurasian Economic Community) to counterbalance US-controlled structures and prepare for the inevitable collapse of US empire.

But at the same time, the new Russian political-economic elite is still very much a part of the US-led economic order, based on the dollar and the Bretton Woods financial institutions, with billions of dollars stashed abroad, and children attending elite foreign schools both in Europe and now in the heart of capitalist Russia. But US hopes to wipe Russia as a major force off the political map were dashed, and even the most Atlantophile Russians balk at becoming the latest Latvia.

In contrast to old Soviet-era policies, this Russian strategy is manageable in the face of hostile powers. It accepts the international framework the US established after WWII and even new additions like the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocols which the US rejects, and thus does not face the anticommunist reaction of Soviet years by Western liberals and conservatives. It no longer threatens the interests of the ruling elites of other countries, making Russia an attractive partner for many countries who seek to remain free from US imperial control. These polices enjoy a broad consensus inside Russia, ensuring UR-Putin’s continued domination of Russian politics for the time being.

For an objective outside observer, the Russia fashioned by Putin and UR plays a positive force in world politics and economics, though it is not above playing its own games; for instance, in Belarus, possibly in Kyrgyzstan, using its transit route to Afghanistan as a bargaining chip with the US, regardless of the justness of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan. It let down longtime ally Gaddafi in Libya, has jilted Iran on nuclear power and weapons sales in the interests of placating the US, not done much for the Serbs, especially in Kosovo (yet). If NATO pushes hard, Russia will back down, unless its direct and vital interests are threatened. The best Russia can do for countries threatened by US empire is support their appeals to international law and wield its veto at the UN Security Council.

It should no longer be “empire vs Communism”, the zero-sum game which the US fashioned in the 20th century to counter the “Soviet threat”, though just what the game adds up to now is entirely the responsibility of the empire to determine, rather than the non-empire independents like Russia, all of whom are trying to survive in the face of pressures to accept a subservient role as “postmodern states”. Russia has forfeited claims to be the gravedigger of capitalism and by extension imperialism, and just wants a fair shake in a fairer world order. At the same time, leaders in the Kremlin are under no illusion about the reality of US empire; that, for all their smiles, its leaders see Russia (along with China) as the enemy; and that “Western policies always aim at the eventual dismemberment and demise of Russia,” writes vineyardsaker.blogspot.

“They just don’t believe that the Soviet way to oppose the US was the correct one,” the Russian-American analyst continues. Rather than being an active midwife of a new world order opposed to imperialism (Soviet policy), Russia is playing a waiting game — the age-old policy of retreat used against the Mongols, the French and the Nazis. “Americans play Monopoly, Russians chess,” quips Spengler at Asia Times. Afghanistan looms large as another Vietnam, and the US is busily adding Libya, Syria, Iran, who-knows-where next to its overfull plate of indigestible goodies. At times, it is wise to sit back and wait for the straw that breaks the ogre’s (excuse me, camel’s) back. A fool’s mate comes about when your opponent is bankrupt, and it certainly looks like this is how the current game is shaping up.

UR will no doubt continue its slide, and even Putin himself come 4 March may find himself in a runoff with some dark-horse challenger, as it is also clear that UR-Putin are unable to face down the corrupt administrative minions who keep “the party of crooks and thieves” in power. However, the cautious, patriotic policies of the 2000s as sketched above have been set for the near future. Perhaps the world financial crisis will turn Russians back to their tried and at-least-partially true socialist heritage to make sure the country survives. But its domestic and foreign policies will not be too much different from the ones UR has put its (rubber) stamp on, policies which are effectively the work of Putin as Mr UR.

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Tahrir Square continues to send out its beacon of light. Thousands of Russian riot police were deployed in Red Square to prevent it from being turned into another Tahrir last Saturday, when demonstrators, without any resources except cell phones and fur-lined winter coats, pulled off the largest uprising since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, in 60 Russian cities, across nine time zones, with at least one repeat performance scheduled for 24 December.

The uprising united the usually fractious liberals, nationalists and Communists, with slogans “Swindlers and Thieves!”, “Russia without Putin!” and “Churov Resign!” –” references to United Russia (UR) and election commission chief Vladimir Churov. Russian expats in more than 20 countries also demonstrated in a show of solidarity outside embassies and consulates.

To date under Putin, rallies have been forbidden or limited to a few hundred. Unauthorised attempts bring beatings and arrests. But most of Saturday’s protests had official sanction; Moscow officials authorised a crowd of 30,000 and did not send riot police into action when 40,000 turned up, and the follow-up rally has been authorised for 50,000.

This new embrace of Western norms indicates that Putin is deeply concerned about his weakened position. 42 per cent of Russians in September said they would vote for Putin in the presidential election, but only 31 per cent by November. And that was before the 4 December debacle. Whether this new leniency shows yet another face for the inscrutable autocrat, or is a nod to advisers, who warn that a harsh crackdown could threaten the wobbly “Restart” button and even the precious 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, is a good question.

If the latter, this would be an especially cruel irony, as the last Russian Olympics in 1980 were boycotted by the West because of Soviet actions in Afghanistan, signalling the beginning of the end of that version of the Russian bear. Just as the Soviet Union let itself be seduced by Western human rights talk resulting in the Helsinki Accords in 1975, which became a weapon in clever Western hands, so Putin et al are forced to hold their noses (or plug their ears) faced with noisy, persistent protests if the Sochi Olympics are to be a successful showcase for the new Russia.

Uncharacteristically ploddingly, Putin charged Western interference: “They heard the signal and with the support of the US State Department began active work.” It was the protesters who showed wit and resourcefulness this time: “Are we here because Hillary Clinton texted us?” Some protesters carried badminton rackets, a reference to Putin and Medvedev’s squeaky-clean sportiness. A riot police officer was photographed holding a white flower, a symbol of the protest, behind his back.

The fact is there was blatant vote rigging in some areas. This was documented, especially in Moscow, central Russia and the North Caucasus. The FOM (Fund for Social Opinion) exit poll, the most comprehensive in Russia, estimated the UR vote in Moscow at 23.6 per cent, a full 23 per cent less than the official results. Similarly in the Caucasus, there was a difference of 20.8 per cent, and in Russia as a whole a gap of 6.3 per cent between official and exit polls. FOM’s regional breakdown was mysteriously removed from the FOM site, but not before it was saved by enough observers to verify its authenticity.

The North Caucasus is dominated by local clans who are part of the power structure, so vote rigging is to be expected. But fiddling with the vote in Moscow and other large cities, where an independent-minded middle class has the latest in communications gadgets is no longer acceptable. People were observed voting in a “carousel”, taking a bus to vote up to 15 times at separate polling stations. One voter was told that if he voted for Putin’s party, there was a present waiting for him outside the booth, a bottle of vodka and plastic cups inside a plastic bag. Moscow voting stations with electronic voting machines, which are hard to mess with, reported 30 per cent for UR vs the 46.6 per cent average. Communist headquarters received thousands of calls from regional offices about ballot-box stuffing and other violations. A flustered President Dmitri Medvedev finally agreed to ordered an investigation into reports of election fraud, according to his Facebook page.

It appears the fraud was indeed necessary to preserve UR’s majority, but unfortunately for UR, it was more that the 1-2 per cent that is the upper limit of acceptable fraud in close elections in, say, the US (remember Ohio’s cliffhanger vote in 2004, with a Republican controlling the voting and a Republican company providing the notorious voting machines, that gave George W Bush just enough extra votes to steal the election from John Kerry?). Or the 2006 Mexican presidential election, which almost all observers acknowledged should have gone to the socialist Obrador?

What Russians are now living through is the neoliberal version of democracy which Russia adopted after 1991, better described as polyarchy, where factions of the ruling elite allow for some cosmetic change of faces, but where elections are controlled by the corporatised state and commented on by the corporatised media, all in league. When a populist (or even a Kerry) tries to buck this formidable machine and his support approaches a danger zone, the necessary stops can be pulled, allowing an illusion of “almost” victory for the underdog but keeping the system in tact.

Of course, the corruption charge is not just about stuffing boxes or bribing voters. It is about the entire post-Soviet economic and political structure, the result of massive economic theft of state resources and widespread official corruption, resulting in personal dynasties where the 22-year-old niece of the governor of Krasnodar owns a major stake in a massive pipe factory, poultry plant and other businesses, and the 18-year-old daughter of the governor of Sverdlovsk owns a plywood mill and a dozen other local businesses. “How does all this wonderful entrepeneurial talent appear only in the children of United Russia members?” asks rising opposition star Alexei Navalny.

What about claims of Western interference? Of course. Opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov’s World Movement for Democracy (WMD) is a veritable franchise of the National Endowment of Democracy’s WMD. Opposition stars recently attended the NED-funded seminar “Elections in Russia: Polling and Perspectives” along with sundry Soros groupies and USAIDers. Navalny is a co-founder of the NED-funded DA! (Democratic Alternative) activist movement, as stated in his Yale World Fellows bio.

But it is far worse in, for example, Egypt, where US aid has gone and continues to go to both sides — Mubarak/ the army and democracy activists — just in case. But even here, US interference can backfire. It is no secret that Egyptian revolutionaries were trained and inspired by Colour Revolutionaries from Serbia and American pacifist legend Gene Sharp. That in itself is not a sin, nor are all recipients traitors. Western media/ election-savvy young people mustering all the latest technology and strategies and precipitated the toppling of their dictators. Who can possibly deny this was a good thing? And now disaffected Russians and even Americans themselves are taking inspiration from their Arab fellow-dispossessed. Wow.

Besides, the Russian state has full access to all the gadgets and pamphlets and is quite good at hacking computers and devising counter-strategies, and if all else fails, beating up and arresting (and possibly worse) gadflies who dare to defy authority. All’s fair in love and war.

But at the same time, whether or not Hillary’s twitters inspired the Russian unrest, it is clearly in America’s interest is to keep Russia weak, and encouraging political unrest is the perfect vehicle. Russia’s defiance on Western plans to invade Syria and Iran infuriates Washington. Washington gambles that “democracy” will bring its flunkeys to power in the Kremlin, just as it hopes that pro-US Arab liberals can be put into power with a little scheming. Very risky politics, but this is clearly what’s going on, and NED is doing its part, as it did throughout eastern Europe in the 1990s. Putin has a point.

Protest organisers met on Sunday, trying to pull together some sort of leadership council. It is most unlikely, even if a few recounts are allowed, that UR will lose its majority, but the momentum of the demonstrations will make the presidential campaign in February very heated. Putin will now face at least four serious candidates: charismatic billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the perennial Communist Gennady Zyuganov, Sergei Mironov of the Just Russia Party, and rising star Navalny.

Those elections will be much harder to falsify with box-stuffing and vodka payoffs, and Putin will most certainly face a runoff. Again, it is unlikely that he will lose to the corrupt playboy oligarch, the dour Communist, the ex-Putin groupie who ran as token opposition to Mr UR in 2004, or the 35-year-old black sheep of the Yabloko Party, who was kicked out for racist threats. But he will have a rough ride.

The up side of this electoral tempest is that Russian politics has come back to life. Russians are taking electoral politics seriously, and new parties are in the works as the UR begins to unravel. The new middle class that Putin’s decade of one-man rule produced is on the march, much like in Pinochet’s Chile, where a new middle class also rose up against the strongman to demand their political rights. If Putin is a true statesman, he will see the writing on the wall, seize the opportunity to entrench honest elections, and retire early, leaving a legacy as important as his role in saving Russia from the predatory neoliberals a decade ago.

Egypt’s uprising, too, started not with the starving peasants (though they soon joined in). The result, which is still in process, despite much turmoil and many setbacks, is probably the freest election in modern history anywhere, as the corporatised Egyptian state, with its control of the media and elections, was pushed aside. This allowed what was, until a few short months ago, the illegal opposition — the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis — to gain a constitutional majority virtually overnight, much like in Russia in 1917.

Russians, too, want to know that their dysfunctional state apparatus can be successfully challenged, so that real elections can take place. And how long will it be before Americans see the light and push their dysfunctional state apparatus aside and enjoy the “democracy” that the NED and Soros croon so beautifully about?

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