350. That’s the number of foreign election observers Russia plans on having monitor the Duma elections in December. 350 is about 700 observers less than than elections four years ago. The reason was simple explained Central Elections Commissioner Vladimir Churov. Having observers at all 95,000 of Russia polling stations would amount to foreign interference. “Tell me where in any international or internal (Russian) document it is written that the legitimacy of the elections depends on the number of international observers,” he said at a press conference announcing the slashing of election observers on Monday. Well true. After all, Russia has its own election monitors in the form of especially trained Nashi activists. Plus Churov said that invitations will be sent out to “colleagues” from countries well known for their fair elections: Jordan, Spain, Italy, Mongolia, Poland, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine” in addition to more palatable countries like Britain, Germany, France, and Finland. Sounds like the elections will be fun.
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By Sean — 3 years ago
I was on Brian Whitmore’s Power Vertical podcast this week. In thinking over some of my comments, I realized that I was basically giving the Russian elite advice on how to be a functioning bourgeoisie. The bourgeois class project in Russia has been a historical failure. Russia’s third bourgeois is currently too busy with its head buried in the trough or is too paranoid to see the reality before it.
You can listen to my appearance on the Power Vertical here:
It’s so pathetic that me, a Marxist, has to tell it how to be a functioning bourgeoisie.
But I feel that I must. Because let’s face it, the Russian elite sucks as a ruling class.
Here’s my open letter to the Russian elite.
Dear Russian elite,
I understand you’ve historically had a rough go. Your forefathers have been decimated three times in the last 100 years. It’s difficult to reconstruct yourself as a class over and over again. But you must.
There are many types of bourgeoisies. You don’t have to be like America’s or Europe’s. You should take some lessons from them, but you can be your own Russian bourgeoisie. Find the right fit for you.
Now, I don’t think you’re currently teetering on the precipice. But the next few years will pose challenges. You have economic crisis, parliamentary elections, and a presidential election. Elections are supposed to be legitimizing rituals but as Putin’s tenure has dragged on, they’ve increasingly become periods of potential instability.
So it’s time to use this opportunity to get your shit together.
Your problem is a simple one, but indulge me, and let me put it in Marxian terms. You are a class in itself, but not for itself. That is, you exist as a sociological category but you don’t collectively pursue your class interests. Sure, you do this individually but that leads to inter-class cannibalism. You’re a lawless creature without inter-class rules. This is why you always need an arbiter to keep you from killing yourselves. Becoming a class for itself means coming up with collective rules of the game: fight amongst yourselves but don’t destroy, expropriate but do it legally, rule but mostly through consent.
So, you need to make a decision and there’s no time is like the present. The question is simple: Are you going to ever become a proper capitalist ruling class?
If so, then you first need to learn to govern. Not rule. Govern. Governing requires a few things at this historical moment.
1. Rebuild your institutions.
You had them in the past—the zemstvo, real courts that settled real disputes, competitive Dumas (think about it, the Fourth Duma (1912) was far more competitive than Putin’s today. It had 15 Bolshevik representatives. Bolsheviks! And ten political parties. Real ones.), the soviet, the Party, and many, many social and cultural organizations.
Today’s Russia is not totally de-institionalized. It’s just that institutions merely act as fiefdoms for ravenous elites. You just can’t help yourself from eating them up or hollowing them out.
Do you want to have your cake and eat it to? You need to start the Atkins diet. You can still feast very well. You just can’t eat everything.
2. Nationalize the Navalny Experiment
You have Duma elections coming up. Face reality. You’re really not as popular are you think you are. Your provincial elites know this. But the Kremlin and its puppies in the Duma still think they can manage popularity by crude propaganda, stuffing the box or, worse, letting uncle Bastrykin talk to the guests again. You need to take a political hit. All you’ve done is pass idiotic laws just to let the media know you exist. What was the 6th State Duma’s great legislative achievement? How did it represent its constituents?
You don’t have to continue like this. Just look to Navalny as your savior.
Navalny’s 2013 mayoral campaign was a class success. You had a more or less free election. You let an opposition candidate run and allow him to get 27 percent of the vote. The election helped pull the opposition’s plug, not that Navalny and the urban “creative class” pose any real class threat. They just want to be part of the club. And you should let them in (see item #5). But in all you let him run and you’re still securely in power.
My advice here is simple: nationalize the Navalny experiment.
3. America is out to get you but not in the way you think.
The United States would love to see the Putinists go. But the United States does not have wondrous powers. Yes, it plays all sorts of dirty tricks and interferes in other people’s countries. It does love to bomb. It has a lot of power but its ruling class has forgotten how to effectively use it. It’s slowly decaying because it’s bourgeoisie gave up governing. But besides military power, its influence is rather circumscribed. But for some reason you keep eating its bullshit up. Stop acting like you’re a besieged fortress. You just aren’t.
4. Putin can’t keep driving you.
It’s time to learn to drive yourselves. Ruchnoi kontrol’ is not governing. It’s a substitute for governing.
5. If there is any lesson you should take from the American and European bourgeoisie it is how to build hegemony.
Let an autonomous civil society exist. Don’t see it as a threat but as another transmission belt for strengthening your hegemony. Gramsci described civil society as a system of “fortresses and earthworks” that propped up the state when it was in crisis.
6. Cut a deal amongst yourselves.
Stop using corruption and anti-corruption as an inter-class disciplinary mechanism. Come to some collective class agreement that if you stop stealing, you’ll actually make more money in the long run. And get this. Governance can help you! This is called the Rule of Law. And guess what? You get to write the laws! For the time being, you just need to accept a lower annual rate of return. If anyone steals, you bust them. You don’t have to be perfect. Property is theft after all. But keep corruption at politically acceptable levels. And if you still want to be corrupt, then follow the American example: legalize it.
7. Start thinking about life after Putin.
Botox doesn’t prolong life. Come to an arrangement where Putin will gracefully retire and receive all the benefits of being an elder statesman. He’ll go down in history as one of Russia’s greatest leaders. Put forward a class compromise candidate and establish rules of succession. You almost had it with Medvedev, but you let Papa come back.
8. Put your trust in Kudrin.
Alexei Leonidovich is the perfect shepherd for your journey in becoming a class for itself. He gets it. You just have to listen to him.
These eight points are my advice to you. I could elaborate on each of them more, but I assume you get the point. You don’t have to be successful all at once. Take some time. Just resist your inner Stalinist urges.
By Sean — 5 years ago
The latest round of US sanctions imposed on Putin’s associates assumes that if you squeeze the oligarchs orbiting Putin, then they will in turn compel him to change his policy toward Ukraine. The idea an oligarchy rules Russia, where the tsar acts as an arbiter over elite conflicts is a staple of Kremlinology. It was Edward Keenan who most systematically put forward this argument in his seminal article “Muscovite Political Folkways.” Then Keenan wrote, “the Muscovite, and later Russian, systems tended to prefer oligarchic and collegial rule, to avoid the single leader, and to function best when the nominal autocratic was in fact politically weak.” Indeed, Keenan’s schematic of this oligarchic rule resembled an atom where the tsar sat and the center and oligarch neutrons and electrons orbited him. Keenan’s argument was significant because it suggested that the idea that Russia was a pure autocracy was a myth. The all-powerful tsar was a fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy to conceal the real and often conspiratorial nature of power in Russia.
Keenan’s argument was and remains compelling. It has also endured. In December, Andrew Weiss wrote of Putinism in the New York Times:
Yet Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well. The supposedly all-powerful Mr. Putin actually devotes much of his time to refereeing bitter disputes between oligarchs like Igor I. Sechin, the head of the state oil company Rosneft, and Gennady N. Timchenko, a co-owner of Russia’s largest oil trading company and an independent natural gas producer. These latter-day oligarchs, many of whom have built vast business empires on the back of longstanding connections to Mr. Putin, are part of a political tradition that dates back to the rapid expansion of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 1400s.
Given events over the last few weeks, does this analysis of Putin still hold? With Crimea are we not witnessing Putin’s transformation into a truly autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by the oligarchs orbiting him? If this is the case, then the underlining premise of the US sanctions is a miscalculation.
Indeed, press accounts say that Putin’s decision to take Crimea was ad hoc and made with the counsel of a shrinking group of advisors from the security apparatus. As Shawn Walker recently reported in the Guardian:
Despite the staunch support for the move in Russia’s parliament, it is clear the decision to seize Crimea was taken by a very small circle of people. Russian newspapers reported that all their government sources had been taken completely by surprise by the move.
The president now takes counsel from an ever-shrinking coterie of trusted aides. Most of them have a KGB background like the president and see nefarious western plots everywhere.
They are also less likely to hold any assets abroad. Consider this with Putin’s calls over the last year for Russia’s elites to renationalize their assets so they wouldn’t be vulnerable to the west. Indeed, some in the Russian press argue that the US sanctions will strengthen Putin’s grip over the elite rather than loosen it. Now he has the patriotism card at his disposal along with “I told you so” to any elite who feels the financial pinch from sanctions. The sanctions could also be inducing a patriotic fervor causing Russian elites to pull their money out of the west. The last time something like this happened was at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. In fact, in a television interview, Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s so-called banker and US sanctions victim, warned other oligarchs that “people intuitively understand which side of the barricade a business is on.” He added:
“You can have an apartment abroad or a villa on the (French) Riviera. Fine. The question is, where is your home? And one’s home is not just money. Where is your family, where do your children go to school, where do they work? . . . And what sports team do you sponsor? Businesses are different – one might sponsor, say, a serious soccer team in the premier league, another a sandlot (unorganized) team. That’s not important – the question is, where is the team – here or outside your country?”
While there have been rumors of elite grumbling and dismay at Putin’s actions, none have said a thing publicly. Why? Because Putin holds all the cards. With Crimea he has the power and a patriotic public behind him. He is no longer beholden to oligarch whispers. And perhaps thanks to US sanctions he can further subordinate the “fifth column” in the elite and become a true autocrat.