This month’s election will likely see Putin returned to office for another term. Robert Behan looks at the prospects of genuine opposition — from right and left.
The presidential elections in Russia this month will see the continuation of Putin’s rule in Russia for another six years. Such has been Putin’s grip over the Russian political institutions and the media throughout his reign that any other result would be unthinkable.
However, the political landscape in Russia has shifted in recent years. During the 2000s Russia was courted into the World Trade Organisation and G8; more recently Russia’s forays into Ukraine and Syria have isolated it from the West and created an atmosphere of hostility and competition on the global stage. The sanctions imposed by the US and its allies in response to Russia’s actions have been used to shore up patriotism, nationalism and Islamophobia inside Russia, creating a hostile atmosphere where dissent against the regime is met with a heavy hand, and isolationist sentiment is rife.
The turmoil created by Russia’s foreign policy actions has destabilised the Russian ruling class, whose members have sought to consolidate their positions within the power structure. These divisions among the ruling elite have the potential to destabilise Putin’s regime, especially as debates set in over who will take the presidency in 2024 when Putin’s constitutional mandate runs out.
Interfactional fighting among the Kremlin clans of the Russian elite has loomed significantly in the background in the run up to the elections. In December 2017 former finance minister Alexei Ulyukaev was sentenced to eight years in jail for soliciting a $2 million bribe from Igor Sechin, chair of Rosneft, one of Russia’s largest state oil companies, and a key Putin ally. In what many regarded as a sting operation, aided by Ulyukaev’s acceptance of “a hamper full of sausages”, Sechin sought to send a strong message to his political enemies about the extent of his power and influence by removing an enemy in the government at a critically important time.
Sechin has risen through the ranks to become a fearsome presence in the Kremlin. Also on his list of scalps is the ostracised oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenko, from whom Sechin wrestled control of Bashneft, a regional oil company based in Ufa, in 2014, amid a flurry of accusations of money laundering.
Incidents and behaviour of this nature indicate not only a jostling for position among the Kremlin autocrats, but are key indicators of the internal struggle for control of Russia’s rich oil, gas and mineral resources. A vast number of Russia’s largest national and regional companies are partly if not fully owned by the state, and their Kremlin-appointed chairs use their positions to expropriate money. Sechin himself has become a billionaire under Putin’s rule and prime minister Dimitry Medvedev has been criticised for his vast real estate holdings.
Despite this infighting Putin seems assured of victory given the lack of candidates running against him. The regime’s strong-handling has thwarted candidates who are overly critical of the regime and only allowed those who can be controlled by the Kremlin to run.
Candidates such as the ultra-right Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the ultra-liberal Yegor Yavlinsky have run against Putin a number of times before and are seen as non-threatening. The Communist Grundinin is a former businessman whose candidacy has provoked howls of derision from the left. Many see it as a co-opting of the Communist Party even further into the Russian power structures. Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of Putin’s political mentor Anatoly Sobchak, is also seen as a handpicked candidate, designed to promote the outsider vote.
While these candidates provide soft criticism of the regime, they do little to challenge the basic premise and foundation of Putin’s Russia: corruption.
The second backdrop to the election has been the fragmentation of small parts of the electorate behind anti-corruption and far-right movements. First among these is Alexei Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner and savvy user of social media. His popular, satirical YouTube channel uncovers the accumulated wealth of government officials and oligarchs. His vlogs are increasingly popular with a younger generation of Russians who feel disenfranchised and left out of the country’s political decisions.
Navalny has sought to expose the opulent conditions in which the economic elite live, accusing them of embezzlement and defrauding Russian workers of the wealth that they produce. He has dubbed Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, as the “party of crooks and thieves”. He has taken aim at Sechin, Medvedev and Alisher Usmanov, a major shareholder in Arsenal football club — exposing Usmanov’s donation of an expensive property to Medvedev’s foundation.
Navalny was a key figure in the 2012 protests against the apparent rigging of elections when Putin won his third term and has sought to build on his growing popularity by taking part in regional elections in the interim. The regime has responded to his activities with typical force: he has been arrested on many occasions for violating Russia’s authoritarian protest laws, and been charged with embezzlement in a highly politicised case which has barred him from standing in the presidential race.
Such is the paranoia regarding Navalny that Putin, when asked at a press conference about Navalny’s exclusion from the ballot, refused to mention him by name, referring to him as “that person you mention”. Navalny has since issued a call for his supporters to boycott the election.
Despite this admirable work in exposing the corruption of the Russian elite there are contradictions in Navalny’s position. He regards himself as a free marketeer with a liberal economic world view and has been seen to support Russian chauvinism. He backed Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, and helped set up the nationalist Russian march in Moscow, which has become one of the largest regular ultra-nationalist demonstrations in the world, and he has addressed ultra-nationalist crowds. So, while he campaigns against the growing concentration of wealth among Moscow’s elite, he relies too much on a Great Russian nationalist base to genuinely promote greater democracy and diversity.
The more worrying response to the authoritarian nature of Russian politics, however, has been the rise of the far-right in Russia. Anti-regime sentiments are cultivated by extreme nationalist groups to form an opposition to the regime that criticises not only the hoarding of wealth by the elite but also Russia’s immigration policies.
Nationalist demonstrations that carry a current of open racism are common in Russia, more so as Russia’s material conditions worsen in the face of growing inflation. Through official rhetoric and the state media the population is fed a stream of hostile sentiment about the outside world combined with the narrative of Russia’s greatness and historical mission. Russia’s intervention in Syria has largely been justified by the threat of “Islamofascism” that has produced terror attacks such as last year’s St Petersburg metro bombing and the ongoing hostilities in the north Caucasus.
The response of far-right groups has been murders, attacks, intimidation and beatings of those who come from Muslim backgrounds and their supporters. In 2016 there were 1,450 incidents of reported hate crimes, a significant increase from the mid-2000s when commentators were worried about the number of reported hate crimes hovering in the hundreds.
State-sanctioned homophobia has also provided an opening for far-right groups to organise. The anti-LGBT laws introduced in 2014 that prohibit the promotion of non-heterosexual relations have resulted in waves of attacks on the LGBT+ community. Yet the laws are widely supported by the general population, especially when promoted through mainstream channels by orthodox reactionaries like state parliament representative Vitaly Milonov.
The manufacturing of nationalist sentiment is an important prop to the Russian regime. When groups like the nationalist Russian National Socialist party, the Union of Orthodox Banners, or even the more mainstream Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (which is neither liberal nor democratic) lurch further to the right, Putin’s regime appears more moderate.
Here Putin makes a dangerous gamble. Like many other aspects of Russia’s managed democracy, state control of pluralism (a policy advocated by Putin’s long-time adviser and media guru Vladislav Serkov) means that a proliferation of groups are able to operate with minimal interference. Many far-right groups have been banned by the Russian courts but the conditions which create them have been cultivated, such as relying on the orthodox church for moral guidance for the nation; the promotion of Russian values through the state media; the growth of nationalism as a mainstream youth movement in the youth group Nashi.
While this creates a facade of democracy, in reality it narrows political and social activism into channels that support Russian capitalism, nationalism and orthodoxy and which struggle to find a way out of the paradigms that have been created for them. Some forces have shifted to ultra-nationalism in an attempt to break out of official patterns. But the regime tolerates this, preferring the growth of ultra-nationalism to giving ground to the left. However, far-right nationalism is a Pandora’s Box which, once opened, has the potential to spin out of control. Should Russia’s economic position drastically deteriorate in the coming years the far-right may find a more captive audience and more potential to make inroads politically and socially.
Forces on the Russian left are small. With its co-option into the mainstream political culture and acceptance of its Stalinist past the Communist Party of the Russian Federation does not really constitute an active opposition. Left Front has been active in supporting local demonstrations against the regime, as have small workers’ collectives and discussion groups.
The relative stability that has been provided by Putin, as well as some modest economic gains, has contained resistance. Russian workers have not been militant since the 2008 financial crisis when they banded together to collectively take wage cuts or reductions in working time rather than face redundancy individually. There have been some strikes in recent years, mainly among the auto workers in the Leningrad and Kalyuga regions, but trade unions prefer to find common ground with employers rather than engage in disputes.
Addressing the questions of alienation and class consciousness remain priorities for the left in the workers’ movement.
However, as material conditions worsen, characters such as Navalny demonstrate the opportunities that can be carved by tapping into people’s frustration at the corruption and patronage that characterise Putin’s Russia.
There is still a very real sense of the workers’ history and tradition in Russia that produced the 1917 Revolution. Organised action is very difficult in the face of the repressive anti-protest and internet restriction laws. A repeat of the 2012 demonstrations which were launched after Putin’s third election victory would help the left build, but there is no guarantee that they would have a lasting effect. The real key to shifting the political debate to the left would be to capitalise on the discussion generated by Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign.
Putin cannot last forever. The struggles against Russia’s imperial rivals will continue and this will only put the squeeze on the Russian working class further. They will pay the price of the sanctions through restrictions on food imports and inflation, while the ruling class will benefit from tax breaks for those targeted by the sanctions and continued access to the spoils of the Russian economy.
However, the economic outlook depends largely on energy exports. An ageing infrastructure and potential switch to green energy sources in the global economy threaten this. Russia’s strong political centralisation and inability to diversify may therefore create further tension if there is an economic slowdown or reduction in oil prices.
Tensions in the Russian elite will intensify in the run up to 2024, when Putin’s mandate expires. The far-right will not go away, and has the potential to make further inroads in a stagnant political and economic situation. Uncertainty and unpredictability lie ahead — the very opposites of Putin’s reputation for stability. The key to success for the left will be if they can build organisations that tap into the popular mood of anti-corruption without succumbing to the lure of ethnic nationalism that undermines modern Russia.
Robert Behan is a lecturer in history and politics based in London