Henry Hale is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs in the Eliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and Co-Director of the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia or PONARS Eurasia. He’s the author of many articles and books on post-Soviet politics. His most recent book is Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective published by Cambridge University Press.
Richard Hell, “(I Belong to the) Blank Generation,” The Stiff Records Box Set, 1976.
You Might also like
By Sean — 3 years ago
Recent reports in Vedomosti and RBK dovetail nicely with the editorial I’ve translated below from the folks at OpenLeft.ru. Vedomosti predicts that in 2016 Russia’s economy will only worsen—the price of oil will be cheaper, inflation higher, incomes lower, and the ruble weaker. Along these lines, RBK evaluates the growth of social protests in 2015 and suggests that the trend will only continue after the new year. These social actions are a different animal from the protests of 2011-2012. Then Putin could simply wait out angry urbanites with only yielding to a few minor, and mostly cosmetic, concessions. The subsequent tightening the screws effectively neutralized the more radical remnants.
But Putin did something else in 2012 that was no less important to neutralize the threat from the streets. He shifted his constituency away from the cosmopolitan urban classes to the so-called “silent majority” of the working classes in the provinces. This Nixonian move incorporated heavy doses of populism, patriotism and conservative identity politics. Putin’s “populist turn” never contradicted elite rapaciousness. It was never meant to. Elite acquiesces was the other side of coin, and in many ways only continued, not contradicted, the tenor of his first two terms. And until recently, this unity of opposites worked.
As the editors of OpenLeft.ru write below, the social protests of 2015 symbolize the potential fracturing of the “Putin consensus.” It is this splintering of “national unity” that poses the greatest threat to the system. This is not to say that the Putin system is teetering on the precipice as many would like to imagine. Rather it looks to face challenges that expose one of the “third term’s” inherent weaknesses—the system’s lack of political and economic flexibility and dynamism. One of Putin’ successes has been his ability to sell “stability” as legitimization for his continued rule. Now legitimacy is under pressure as “stability” slides into ossification. As the editors suggest, in the context of the economic downward slide, attenuating those pressures might require pitting the two inherently contradictory elements of the “Putin consensus” against each other.
Editors, 25 December 2015
Summing up the past year
The system Putin built wants to appear unchanging: it is based on “stability”, that is, the illusion that there is no alternative to its policies and authority. Analysts’ numerous apocalyptic prophecies signaling the impending collapse are the flipside to “stability.” This past year has witnessed the end to “stability,” but the collapse has not occurred. Instead, a third option between stasis and disaster has prevailed: The quickening oscillation of a downward spiral.
The main elements of the Putin system remain in place, but it’s clearly obvious this very system cannot cope with the deep and extensive crisis. It’s a crisis of incomes of the population (their unprecedented fall since the 1990’s); the crisis of the social sphere (the authorities’ rousing populist statements are not able to conceal their deadly policies of austerity: pervasive “optimization”, budget cuts and the increased pressure on the public sector, and the freezing of pensions); the crisis of regional budgets, upon which the federal center unloaded the main burden of social spending; and the crisis of the Putin economy and its inability to find new engines of growth.
In the context of contracting incomes Putin’s politico-economic system can no longer conceal its predatory nature. The novelty of the past year has been the attempts to resolve budget shortfalls while at the same time filling the pockets of officials and businessmen close to the government with the help of new taxes and fees. It’s not just the Platon system, which provoked the most significant social protests this year, but also tax increases on small businesses, the introduction of paid parking, and additional charges for utilities. The population will pay, that is those who still have something to pay with, for the crisis and so that state corporations and Putin’s friends will have “a very large amount of money.” The conflict is unequivocal: the minority of haves are against the majority of have-nots.
This conflict is becoming more pronounced. It’s not just about the truckers’ protests. The number of labor protests is rapidly growing. According the Center for Social and Labor Rights (TsSTP), the number of protests has increased by more than a third, 37percent, compared to last year, and more than half, 53 percent, to previous years (2008 – 2013). Petr Biziukov, an analyst at TsSTP, concludes that the quantity of protests has transformed into quality. “Physicians’ protests across the country, as well as the truckers’ protests comprised dozens of regions, and showed that the new kind of protests will be connected by a network rather than by local actions. Interregional, multisectoral and even intraregional actions arise more often. It seems that in this instance, the transition from local (isolated) protests emerging in disparate industries to networked actions uniting workers and organizations from different industries, cities and regions under the same slogans is a qualitative shift in the Russian protest movement.”
The “patriotic” consolidation over the last two years, the only purpose of which has been to mask the fundamental conflict of Russian society—the minority haves against the majority have-nots—has stopped working. The “Crimean Consensus” presaged this rift. Surveys show a decline in the public’s confidence in the media which throughout the “third term” has played a major role in maintaining the illusion of national unity against numerous internal and external enemies.
Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the perpetual “Bolotnaya Case” has completely demoralized the urban White Ribbon movement. However, though today’s urban middle classes are forcibly denied political rights, it doesn’t mean that they will not try to go back into the streets. This return, however, won’t be a simple replay of 2011-2012 but will be tied to the current crisis. Only time will tell what form it will take: part of a broader social coalition against austerity or an attempt to mobilize around the 2016-2018 election cycle.
The “Putin majority’s” potential collapse contributes amazingly to Russia’s cynical and unprincipled foreign policy which experts prudently call “the predominance of tactics over strategy.” Faced with a deadlock in the Donbas, Russia “has shifted the theater of war” and rushed into Syria to restore relations with the West. For the Kremlin, the bombing of Syria is a trump card in the “Great Game”, but it is by no means a game for Syrians: it’s a horrific civil war, the end of which Russia’s participation only delays, and whose bombing results in civilian deaths. Russia’s bombs are no less deadly than those of the United States, England, and France.
It’s unknown how much longer the authorities will be able to spin their adventurous imperialism for “restoring Russia’s place in the world.” To keep its own citizens eyes on the illusion that the Syrian adventure is “a war without consequences,” the ruling elite has resorted to regularly falsifying the numbers of military casualties. Another glaring example of this information strategy was the two weeks of deliberate deception about the true cause of the passenger deaths in the A321 Russian airliner over Sinai. In Russia itself, the mass production of external enemies has acquired the traits of a petty and despicable farce. The harassment of Turkish citizens in the last weeks of the year are an especially disgraceful page in this history.
The accelerating economic and social crisis exposes the existing regime’s limited room for maneuver and its stunning lack of flexibility. At the present moment it is practically incapable of reforming itself, or at least, significantly restraining the elite’s appetites. The regime with the country in tow can only barrel downward and bitterly defend “their own” from public criticism, intensify repression, defiantly refuse to make concessions to demands from below, and cut off any possibility for unauthorized political participation from above.
The country enters a new year fearful of the still hidden future, but the “grapes of wrath” are clearly ripening.
By Sean — 10 years ago
The results of the mayoral election in Sochi were as expected. United Russia’s candidate Anatoly Pakhomov won. No repeat of the Murmansk mayoral contest allowed. The losers, Solidarity’s Boris Nemtsov and the Communist Party candidate Yuri Dzaganiya, have already charged massive fraud, dirty campaign tricks, and use of a variety “administrative resources” to hoist Pakhomov to victory. Both candidates were systematically barred from local television, their billboards removed, and campaign literature confiscated. Local Sochi tv even smeared poor Nemtsov with a 20 minute film claiming he was a South Korean spy. And what dastardly plot was he hatching for the east Asian nation? Conspiring to move the Olympics to Seoul. As if.
Early voting served as the perfect opportunity for stuffing the box in favor of Pakhmonov. And if that wasn’t enough to tip the balance, then mobile poll buses were dispatched to the Abkhaz border. Last week, Sochi’s electoral committee ruled that citizens of Abkhazia with Russian passports and Sochi residency could cast ballots. As a result, this election is probably the one of first to make a serious effort to enfranchise the homeless.
There isn’t much more to say about a contest which began as a circus and closed with a magic show. Votes were made to disappear and reappear at the behest of the electoral committee’s magicians. Nothing says this more than the enormous gap between exit polls and the election results, via Ezhdnevnyi zhurnal:
The surveys of exist polls gave the following results: Pakhomov, the candidate from United Russia, 46 percent; Nemstov the candidate for Solidarity, 35 percent. In other words, a run off. Yuri Rykov, the head of the city electoral committee, offered entirely different figures to the court of public opinion. Pakhmonov – almost 78 percent, Nemtsov 13.5 percent.
One candidate had to score 50 percent to avoid a run off. United Russia wasn’t going to take a chance even if that meant making electoral fraud even more blatant than usual. After all, it ain’t called “managed democracy” for nothin’.
By Sean — 11 years ago
Ninety years ago the Bolsheviks took power. Or, really it was given to them. The Bolsheviks hardly took nothing that the masses in Petrograd had been trying to give them since July. The antiwar protests against the Provisional Government’s military offensive became bloody, Lenin went into hiding, the Bolsheviks went underground. The masses threw the ball to the moderate socialists, but they dropped it. Then enter Kornilov. The Russian Right strikes back but is driven off by a mostly Bolshevik dominated Red Guards. Kerensky and his Government was bankrupt. The SRs and the Mensheviks did exactly how Eisenstein did in October. Peering out cracks in the windows and doors watching the revolution march past them.
Between July and November 1917, the Bolsheviks grew in membership, electoral, and political support. The Bolsheviks, I think Alexander Rabinowitch once wrote, rode a wave of discontent into power.
Lenin’s small band of revolutionaries had ballooned from 24,000 in early 1917 to 390,000 in March 1918. This gave them a potential cadre to pull from and, more importantly, target their slogans, propaganda, and other forms of agitation. The Bolshevik Party became a small mass organization in a very brief period. Moreover, this new membership comprised workers and soldiers–the revolutionary vanguard in Lenin’s eyes.
Membership wasn’t the only indication of Bolshevik popularity in the countries’ centers of power. Bolsheviks were capturing increasingly winning soviet elections. A graph of Petrograd Soviet returns shows a steady Bolshevik rise. Shortly after Kornilov, the Bolsheviks became the majority. I guess that bolshevik finally meant something. More importantly, notice the SR collapse. By the Constituent Assembly, the Bolsheviks had around 50 votes. The minority parties were too fractured to form any opposition; a chronic problem that led to their defeat two years later.
In Moscow, the Bolsheviks peaked later. The September 24 election to the Moscow soviet wielded around 70 votes. Their closest competition, the Kadets, had a paltry 38 or so. By November, the Bolsheviks had tailed off a bit with 50 votes with the Kadets making a surge. Moscow was polarized between far left and tolerable right. The SRs, Mensheviks, and others had collapsed. Moscow was a two horse race.
The Bolsheviks were riding a democratic wave to power. If political parties in the center aren’t enough evidence, the next electoral returns were the Constituent Assembly shows a similar pattern. The elections totals show the following: SRs 38 percent; Bolsheviks 23.7 percent; Kadets 4.8 percent; Mensheviks 3.3 percent. But these totals become meaningless when you look at the Bolsheviks support in Russia’s power centers. The Bolsheviks carried Central Russia, the West, and tied with the SRs in the Northwest. The SRs were popular in the Black Earth and Siberia. Read: peasant. In Kursk Province the SRs got 82 percent of the votes. And it is likely that SRs were the only party peasants even knew. SRs and their protogenes had been agitating the countryside for years. As to their popularity in Siberia, in addition to aforementioned, don’t forget many of them were exiled there.
Perhaps the most important number on this graph is for the army. The Bolsheviks and SRs were neck and neck. But not really where it mattered. This graph of votes from the Western Front show the Lenin and his bunch carrying a landslide with 66.9 percent of the votes. The SRs were nothing at 18.5 percent. As for the Mesheviks and Kadets, who cares? With control of garrisons through Trotsky’s baby, the Military Revolutionary committees, and about half the army, you have power.
But does this mean the Bolsheviks came to power democratically? Well, first that depends on what you mean by democracy. If it means popular, well the Bolsheviks were popular. No, they didn’t have a straight majority. But they had the mass popularity where it mattered. The calls for the Soviets to take power had been cried since the July Days. Their voices became a fever pitch after Kornilov. “All Power to the Soviets!” And the Bolsheviks heeded their call.
People will probably scoff at the idea that the Bolsheviks came to power democratically. I asked my students what they thought when I taught these figures to a class on the Russian Revolution. “Do these voting returns say that the Bolsheviks came to power democratically?” I asked. Silence. Then one of my students blurted out, “It is if you consider it like our Electoral College.”
I hadn’t thought of that before.