Arkady Ostrovsky’s article “A Difference in Class” in Sunday’s Financial Times proves to be an interesting read. Ostrovsky, who left from the Soviet Union as a youth only to return years later as FT’s
“A Difference in Class” is not some lament of a
Instead of the communist ideology Ostrovsky learned as a member of both the Pioneers and the Komsomol, capitalist ideology seeks to shape students like Andrei Martinyuk and Artem Streletsky into the archetypes of the New Capitalist Man. These lads are cosmopolitan, liberal, individualistic, well traveled, and armed with the dyad of middle class entrepreneurialism and the intricacies of global pop culture. Concepts like “business,” “banking,” “economics,” and “real estate” roll off their lips as easy as “socialism,” “internationalism,” “class,” and “dialectical materialism” probably once did off of Ostrovsky’s. So much so that the school’s director, Yuri Zavelsky estimates that “that some 20-30 per cent of the school’s alumni end up living abroad,” presumably to take advantage of the opportunities in the West. Yet Andrei and Artem want to stay despite the fact that they worry that one day Putin’s behemoth of a state might interfere in their prosperity. Still like the sons and daughters of the Soviet elite, there is a consciousness that in many ways they are the state. “I like this country because I was born here and if we don’t pull this country up who will? We, the graduates of this school, are the elite,” Andrei tells Ostrovsky.
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Boris Kagarlitsky, the Director of the Institute of Globalization Studies, is one of my favorite commentators on Russia. He is one of the few that examines Russia from a left social democratic perspective with the hopes that a popular Russian movement against global capital would emerge. It is because of this that I frequently feature his columns in the Moscow Times and Eurasian Home.
Kagarlitsky’s new opinion, “Putin’s Corporate Utopia,” is worth giving some thought. Among many things, he argues that corporate capitalism in Russia is an agreement amongst the political and economic elite. In exchange for politically deferring to the Kremlin bureaucracy, the economic elite gets a government that exercises power in their interests. Kagarlitsky argues that this is no different that in Germany or America in the sense that “Putin lobbies interests of the Russian business just as Angela Merkel lobbies interests of the German business, which strives to own a part of the Russian lucrative energy market.” Russian corporate interests are thus intertwined with Russian political interests. As Kagarlitsky explains:
Does the Russian state try to grip control over big business? The answer is: positively it does, but only in political sphere. As for the economic policy, few Cabinets in Russia’s history depended on capitalists more than the present Cabinet depends on the interests of big business. Corporations dictate today’s agenda in Russia – they got this right in exchange for their loyalty not only to the existing political system but to the President and any high-ranking official in the Administration.
And as the things stand today, they have all reasons to be loyal – authorities provide favorable conditions, profits and prices on shares grow constantly. Why would business beware of the Putin’s regime – because of the problems with the free press? But the business press covering mostly changes in securities quotations doesn’t suffer from the state’s pressure. Or is it because of the problems with human rights? Well, don’t you know that in our country people are different, and while some have no rights, the others have no problems at all? As for the problems with ethnic Chechens, any Chechen possessing several milliards of dollars can afford to buy amnesty and respect. As for bureaucratic pressure on small and medium businesses, doesn’t it serve the interests of big business? As a matter of fact, big business is even more practiced in making small enterprises bankrupt than the corrupt bureaucrats. Putin’s bureaucrats are ready and willing to do business themselves. Thanks to their business interests they better understand concerns of the Russian entrepreneurs. Thus, they have ousted foreign enterprises from lucrative oil business. But in doing so they opened way to domestic businesses.
For Kagarlitsky, this is a lesson Russia learned from the west. And it has been a good pupil.
There is more. To say that Russia’s general approach toward corporate capitalism is without particularities would be an analytical mistake. Capitalism’s particular qualities are a reflection of a nation’s history, culture, social structure, i.e. what Marxists call the superstructure. Many forget that the relationship between base and superstructure is dialectical. The former and latter are locked in a perpetual process of mutual influence. But it should be stressed that these Russian particularities never move from a position of quantity to quality because in the end the general character of global capital remains determinant in the last instance.
Still these superstructural additives to Russian capital are of great importance. This is what makes Putin’s capitalism more an outgrowth of the practices of Sergei Witte than that of England or America, let along the Soviet state. Kagarlitsky even cites the Count Witte to suggest that “as for the economic policy, I don’t think there has ever been more liberal government in Russia, except for the earl Sergey Witte’s ill-fated administration, which as you might know, let the country plunge into the 1905 Revolution. In a strange way, all the current free-market measures not only have failed to fight monopolies but strengthened them. After privatization the majority of corporations retained their status of natural monopolies, abolishment of state control being the only novelty.”
One many disagree with Kagarlitsky’s splitting of economics and politics into two distinct spheres as if one can be held without the other. I would purpose that instead of looking at them as in a static equilibrium (the political = the economic) or even a static hierarchy (the political over the economic or vice versa), it might be more fruitful to think of them as in a shifting relationship where in some instances, the economic trumps the political while in others the political subordinates the economic.
The tie that binds these two spheres is what Kagarlitsky defines as bureaucratic capital. It is this that gives Russian capital its particular character:
President Putin’s vision of the capitalism ? la Russe is quite plain: strong centralized power based on and supported by big private corporations. The two elements are linked by bureaucratic capital, which is permanently bread within the state and permanently privatized. Through this the state accumulates resources and sustains the order. New business projects are nourished by the state and when a chance occurs it is ceded to business or becomes a private corporation itself. Needless to say that bureaucrats are rewarded for their services – they take bribes, have their interest in flourishing businesses and enjoy loyalty from the part of big capitalists.
Bureaucrats want the oligarchs to respect certain rules, a kind of code of honor but the problem is that in this country it is ridiculous when a bureaucrat appeals to morality.
President Putin’s conception is based on a viable market approach similar to American or German corporatism, but with specific Russian character. It is that in systems of peripheral capitalism bureaucracy always tends to be outsized, corrupted and incompetent.
Being “the leading national force”, “the locomotive of development” bureaucracy can rule the state; at any rate it copes much better than private business would do. And it is accountable to the people unlike the foreign capital and its servants in Russia. For the Russian capitalism bureaucracy is the lesser evil.
The very thing that binds the two spheres is potentially its own undoing. Kagarlitsky positions the 2008 Presidential election as the test for how strong the “agreement” between politics and economics is. The election will open up a space for factions to renegotiate their positions within and in relation to each sphere. This is why the choice for the next President will be so tricky. He is going to have to be a good mediator to keep the system stable and beneficial to the major players in each sphere. It is out of these potentially irreparable cracks that Kagarlitsky hopes a popular opposition movement will arise.
The absence of Hama and Hezbollah from Russia’s “List of 17” terrorist organizations was been met with charges of hypocrisy, suspicion, and scorn. The omission certainly didn’t sit well with the Israelis or the Americans. The absence of the Kurdish Workers Party even angered Turkey. Such is the problem with the term “terrorism.” Its application is completely relative in relation to national interests, foreign and domestic policy, and cultural and historical factors. Russia has been curt in its explanation. Hamas and Hezbollah weren’t listed because they don’t pose a direct threat to Russia’s national security.
Andrei Smirnov doesn’t buy it. Writing for the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasian Daily Monitor, Smirnov accuses Russia of listing mostly “virtual groups”, groups whose existence can no longer be confirmed. Two of Russia’s top ranked groups, the Supreme Military Council of the Caucasian Mujahideen and the Congress of the Nations of Ichkeria and Dagestan, have not been heard from since 1999. There is question whether the Islamic Party of Turkestan or the Egyptian Al-Ghamia-al-Islamia still exists. Further, Smirnov charges that the list makes one wonder if Russia really knows who they are fighting in the North Caucuses since they don’t list the three most active organizations in the region: the Chechen State Defense Council-Majlis-ul-Shura, Dagestani Sharia Jamaat and the North Ossetian Kataib-al-Khoul.
In addition, if Russia’s list only includes groups that pose a direct threat to Russia, then how do they explain including the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Toiba or Jamaa al-Islamiya but not the Shura of Iraqi Mujahideen, which claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and execution of Russian diplomats in June. Smirnov goes on to point out more inconsistencies in the Russia terror list.
But the real issue is their leaving Hamas and Hezbollah of the list. This is where politics enters the fray. Even though FSB terror chief Yuri Sapunov admitted that Hamas and Hezbollah both “use terrorist methods in their national liberation struggle,” according to the Ekho Moskvy, this statement was omitted from the published interview in Rossiiskaya gazeta though it was in the original Interfax interview. Here is Smirnov’s explanation why Hamas and Hezbollah are absent:
It is not surprising that Hamas and Hezbollah are excluded from the Russian terror list, as the Kremlin is known to be sympathetic towards these organizations. Earlier this year Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Hamas representatives to Moscow to meet Russian officials, while Hezbollah is supported by Syria and Iran, two countries that have close ties with Russia. Nevertheless, Sapunov hinted that the Russian government could add the two groups to the list in the future. He said, “We recognize international terror lists, for example, the lists of the United Nations and the lists of such superpowers as the USA and the European Union. We consider them when we communicate with the special services of various countries.”
The Russian authorities do not recognize Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations not only because they believe they pose no threat to Russia, but also because the Kremlin is very angry at Western countries that do not recognize the Chechen rebels as terrorists. During a press conference after the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in July, Putin crossly said that if Syria and Iran are branded state sponsors of terrorism, then Great Britain should also earn that designation because London refuses to extradite Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakaev to Russia (Newsru.com, July 16).
The Kremlin’s decision to omit Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi insurgency from the list of terrorist organizations sends a clear message that terrorist threats to the West will be recognized only if Western officials recognize the Chechen insurgents as terrorists.
As it stands now, the US State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) does not list a single Chechen or Caucasian terrorist group.
Perhaps a better explanation for certain groups’ absences on Russia list has to do with its policy in the Middle East. According to Pavel Baev, Putin’s Middle East policy has to do with a pragmatic approach to the region that is balanced with ensuring high oil prices and arms sales. Instead of the active role Putin hoped for in nuclear talks with North Korea in 2000, the Kremlin is now much more cautious with the Middle East. Even media coverage of the Hezbollah-Israeli war has been “remarkably balanced.” Writes Baev,
Moscow’s self-confidence is also supported by the assessment of the conflict dynamics in the Middle East that suggest a very probable strengthening of its quietly advanced position in a matter of a few weeks. This position is by no means moral but entirely pragmatic: No international framework for Lebanon could be negotiated without involving Syria; no agreement with the government of Lebanon could be implemented if Hezbollah is not a part of it; no stable arrangement for Gaza could be hammered out against the resistance of Hamas. The Kremlin calculates that it would take a few weeks for Israel to recognize that the spectacular devastation of Southern Lebanon could not significantly weaken the military capabilities and political influence of Hezbollah, much the same way as the full-blown invasion in 1982 did not bring about the destruction of the PLO. Meanwhile, the outrage in the Arab states and the indignation in Europe about the scale of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe would predictably reach such levels that a ceasefire becomes imperative whatever reservations Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might state. That is why Moscow was not in the least upset by the failure of the Rome conference last week, where Syria was not represented, expecting that the forum would be reconvened when Washington is forced to swallow its objections against sitting at one table with a representative from Damascus.
Three days ago, Russian MVD commandos raided the offices of Garry Kasparov under the auspices of the “On combating extremism law.” The law, which was passed in July of this year, expanded the definition of “extremism” to include public slander of officials, as well and include acts of vandalism, racism, and other forms of political extremism. The law was originally passed to target the far Right, but hearings held by the Federation Council in October argued that the law should be expanded to include the far Left. A report prepared by the Prosecutor general’s Office for the hearings stated, “members of such informal groups of extremism inclination as skinheads, Russian National Unity and the National Bolshevik Party not only spread the idea of national, racial and religious enmity and hatred, they commit crimes on those grounds against the lives and health of citizens that cause public reaction.” The raid on Kasparov’s offices is a direct result. Kommersant described the raid as follows:
At around 3 PM today, 15 commandos from the Internal Affairs Ministry’s anti-terrorism unit stormed into the Moscow headquarters of Garry Kasparov’s political party, the United Civil Front (OGF), and presented a warrant authorizing them to search the premises. The warrant stated that the unit had received a tip that the office contained literature that activists from the National Bolshevik Party and the “Red Youth Vanguard” plan to distribute at the “March of Dissent” on December 16. The premises were searched for information “about the possible dissemination of literature that contains public incitements to extremist acts.” OGF managing director Denis Bilunov told Kommersant that the police removed some books and newspapers from the office, including the books “Nord-Ost: The Unfinished Investigation,” “Beslan Against the Hostages,” and “The Putin Regime: Ideas and Practice,” as well as OGF newspapers, stickers, and agitprop materials for the “March of Dissent.”
The MVD press secretary claimed that there was “no search,” that the raid was “precautionary” and that “nothing was seized.” This is an obvious lie. The Kommersant report states that the MVD confiscated literature to examine for “extremist” content. While the “extremist law” provided the method, the real purpose was clear: outright political intimidation. The oppositionists, however, weren’t deterred and vowed to hold their march.
In a press conference on Thursday, members of the “Other Russia” coalition, which includes Kasparov, Eduard Limonov, and Ivan Starikov blasted the raid as “an absolute violation of our constitutional rights.” Kasparov added, “Without a doubt, such actions are an attempt by the authorities to apply the law against extremism…to those who do not belong to Putin’s ruling party. Now the authorities and the president understand that the opposition has finally united, and thus they are using their full repressive mechanism of intimidation.” Those familiar with protest politics in the United States will hear an eerie echo in Other Russia’s complaints. American activists often have to deal with the same types of preemptive raids, arrests, and intimidation.
Such statements about the violation of rights, while ideally true, might have no material legal weight. Here the Russian extremist law reveals its janus face: it expands the definition of extremism to uphold one’s “constitutional rights” by cracking down on political activity that falls outside the mainstream, but at the same time violates those constitutional rights by defining the mainstream itself via the exclusion of what has been deemed extremist. The extremist law therefore upholds and the same time it violates “constitutional rights.”
One shouldn’t be surprised that this. And it is apparent that Kasparov isn’t. It’s clear from his above statement that he understands that the extremist law is an attempt to not only exclude certain groups and ideologies from politics, but to define the very borders of acceptable politics itself. All laws that categorize certain groups outside the law (i.e. extremists, fascists, anarchists, terrorists, enemy combatants) inevitably re-inscribe them back into it. That is to say, the very law that ensures, protects, upholds freedom at the same time regulates, violates, and undermines it.
In this sense “Other Russia” is morally right but perhaps legally wrong. The MVD raid was a violation of their rights in that they do have a right to express their political views without state intimidation and coercion. But they are also wrong in that the state itself has the right to define what legally constitutes “extremism” and therefore the constitutive meaning of the very democratic rights Other Russia claims were violated.
The theoretics of law and political rights aside, Other Russia held their march in Moscow despite the mayor’s office banned it. Estimates put it at 2000, but possibly up to 3000 demonstrators. A portion of these numbers were decimated in preemptive arrests by police. Reports say that hundreds were detained as they came off of buses and trains. At the march, protesters chanted slogans like “Freedom” and held banners reading “No to Police State” and “Russia Without Putin.” According to police spokesman, Yevgeny Gildeyev, about 8,500 police were deployed throughout the city. A thousand of them were perched in riot gear with police dogs in hand at the march itself.
The question will now be whether “the March of Dissent” will be more than a symbolic gesture. It is true that it shows an opposition united. But unity is not enough for such a small group of outsiders looking to make inroads with an electorate. The same analysis that one applies to the leftist opposition in America can be applied to their Russian counterparts. A successful movement cannot generate support if their message is simply being against power. It must provide its own alternative course that appeals to people’s lives. Shouting about freedom and democracy is fine, but these are abstractions that have no stable definition and often no material affect. Most citizens go throughout their lives never feeling the injustice that the opposition is claiming.
Politics, however, is rarely played among the masses. It is more often the game of the few. Here the over the top police presence was certainly a sign that the state was watching with concern. However, some may say that the protest was unsuccessful because protestors only outnumbered police by 2 to 1. But really, it was the state that lost this one. First, the state’s unwarranted intimidation and coercion made the “March of Dissent” news. The English language press is already eating the story up. Second, having so many police shows that Other Russia poses a threat to someone and something in the government. Other Russia can therefore take this as a sign that they have some political impact since their political influence is nil. Third, the fact that Other Russia successfully defied the city’s ban on the march and got a decent turnout gives them an emotional and moral victory. Whether that can be harnessed into real political action remains to be seen.