Where is Putin’s Russia going?

April 22, 2014

Ilya Budraitskis is a historian and spokesperson for the Russian Socialist Movement. In this interview with Anton Thun for the German magazine Marx21, he explains the political situation in light of Russia's intervention in Ukraine, including the recent annexation of Crimea--and the possibilities that exist for the left. Translated from German by Sean Larson.

DEMONSTRATIONS FOR Putin, demonstrations against Putin--the reports from Russia are inconsistent at the moment. What is the situation?

A LARGE demonstration that was critical of Putin took place on March 15. At least 50,000 people participated. The demonstration was aimed against the threat of a military conflict with Ukraine, and thus had the title "March of Peace." But demonstrators were also protesting the restrictions of free speech in Russia. A few days prior, multiple leading editors were dismissed because their coverage was too critical in the eyes of the government.

The "March of Peace" was supposed to show that not only are the people against a war with Ukraine, but they will also not accept the developments within Russia having to do with the tightened measures from the Kremlin.

FIFTY THOUSAND is a lot, but still not proof of an anti-Putin sentiment in society.

THAT'S RIGHT. Putin is currently at the height of his popularity. More than 70 percent of respondents in every poll support his policies, and 60 percent would vote for him in the next election. Putin's party, United Russia, is currently riding on a patriotic wave and will certainly do well in the next parliamentary elections. There were also some pro-government demonstrations in reaction to the "March of Peace."

Some 50,000 people marched in Moscow against military intervention in Ukraine
Some 50,000 people marched in Moscow against military intervention in Ukraine

However, the support for Putin is both passive and contradictory. People aligning with the government are not prepared to actually mobilize in order to express their support. There were many government employees on the pro-Putin demonstrations who were pressured into participating. There were many paid demonstrators there as well.

THE POLLS you cited indicate that the support for Putin is not merely staged though.

THAT'S THE active support at rallies, however. We're not seeing any spontaneous outburst of love for Putin by the Russian people here. On the streets, it's activists from organizations loyal to the Kremlin, who are either paid for it or derive advantages from their pro-state activism, whether business advantages, work or the like.

Then there are people who take part for money. There are various commercial websites advertising offers to take part in demonstrations for pay. For example, the website massovki.ru. Here, there are various options: how one should look, how long the activity lasts, if one has to wave a flag around, and the respective amount of money one gets.

Generally, the demonstrators purchased this way aren't very expensive. So it's not a matter of huge sums. People who take up these offers come from poorer strata. So this second manner of obtaining participants also exists, but these demonstrators are by no means well prepared. If a journalist comes up to them and asks a question, they will most likely turn away and say nothing.

Third, there are demonstrators who were in some form or another coerced into participating in actions. These mostly come from the public sector, which, of course, is dependent on the state apparatus. These could be teachers, construction workers, janitors, etc. They are quite honestly put under pressure to show up. If they don't, they are threatened with pay cuts or other penalties at work.

SO THERE are really no citizens for Putin?

THERE CERTAINLY are those people, but they are quite few, and of course, the organizers of these actions don't rely on them. That is characteristic of this political regime's mobilization. It was like that when Putin was running for president for the third time, just as it was before that. The actions are designed to simulate support for the regime from below. But the people in Russia know what is going on, and don't allow themselves to be so easily deceived by these images.

All of that does not mean that many people don't passively support government policies. Many people think the annexation of Crimea to Russia is a good move.

But if you compare the number of people who would actually go out on the streets for or against the government, the number of people coming out against is considerably higher. In society as a whole, they are in a minority, but among the people mobilizing, they are stronger.

PUTIN CLAIMS that the occupation of Crimea is for the protection of the Russian population there. What do you think as a left-wing activist?

THERE CAN be no doubt that, in fact, the majority of the population in Crimea was for joining Russia. There was a referendum, and the majority of residents voted for it. The question is: How did the referendum come about? Was it the result of a mass movement from below that arose as an answer to the success of the Maidan movement in Kiev? No. It happened in exactly the opposite way.

First came the Russian soldiers, then it was made to seem like there was a movement for support of this referendum, then the referendum was undertaken. So formally, the right of self-determination of the people was realized. But the people who were then allowed to determine themselves were not the ones posing the question. The people therefore didn't decide their fate themselves--just as in the past, Crimea was made a part of Ukraine without their consent.

WHY IS the population of Crimea for an annexation to Russia?

THIS HAS, above all, social causes. Crimea is a very poor region. Even in Ukraine, it ranked among the lowest in terms of standard of living. If Russia will now pay for social services there, as it does in other regions of the country, the people of Crimea will, of course, benefit from this. Pensions and wages will probably increase.

SO THE fear of repression by the ultra-nationalists in the new Kiev government was not an important reason?

IN THAT regard--i.e., to what extent the rights of the Russian-speaking parts of the population were being suppressed--it's hard to answer. It is difficult to make judgments about the feelings of people.

Here, the subjective aspect particularly plays a role. Objectively, Crimea was always a Russian-speaking region within Ukraine. The education system, the mass media, those in power, etc., were all completely in Russian.

The threat of Ukrainian nationalists coming in, wanting to meddle and persecute people, is a propaganda myth. The population of Crimea never developed a loyalty to Ukraine. The idea prevails that affiliation with Ukraine was a historical error. But it should be clear that the events in Crimea have nothing to do with delayed historical justice. It was a Russian military action, reacting to the events in Ukraine, and not some form of help for the people in Crimea.

One would do well to remember that there are Russian-speaking populations not only in Ukraine, but also in other former Soviet republics, such as in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan, in Moldova--in regions where the Russian-speaking people are in greater conflict with the nationalist regimes than in Ukraine.

Putin certainly doesn't have a problem with the rulers in Kazakhstan, for instance. An authoritarian regime is in power there, which shares much more of Putin's approach to politics, and Putin gets along with it well. The 7 million Russian-speaking people in Kazakhstan will not be asked by anyone, even in the future, what they want to do with their right to self-determination.

What happened in Ukraine is thus a cynical exploitation of real national or language contradictions. This process is being cloaked in the watchword of self-determination, while the people never get the opportunity to pose this question themselves.

THE GERMAN media recently reported that Russia is on the brink of a big recession. What is the economic situation in Russia, and what effect does it have on the class struggle there?

THE SIGNS of a recession have already been visible since the end of last year. It was already officially confirmed at that time that an economic stagnation was beginning in Russia.

Already before the events in Crimea, the predictions of economic development were very cautious. The forecast was for only 2 to 3 percent economic growth by the end of the year. Economic growth slowed down rather suddenly. Now they are already talking about the possibility that growth will perhaps stay at 1 percent. Rating agencies have announced that economic strength in Russia could sink still further in the event of an escalation of the conflict with the West.

IS THE economic situation a result of the crisis in Crimea?

NO, IT preceded the present crisis. Russia is not an attractive land for investments. The money currently leaving Russia exceeds the amount being brought into Russia and invested. This trend has intensified, and the crisis in Crimea has contributed to it.

The main economic problems, therefore, do not arise because of any sanctions imposed upon Russia, which caused the economy here to break down, but rather because more and more capital is flowing out of Russia. This will also impact the big Russian corporations that are integrated in the world market.

WHAT WILL the outcome look like for the population?

THERE WILL be layoffs in many companies, and unemployment will rise. The public budget will be slashed, which means that salaries for public employees will be reduced, and social services will be cut. That will have political consequences. The relatively high salaries and wages in the public sector are a big reason for Putin's popularity. In May 2012, the government decreed a continual rise in the salaries for federal employees. In this way, Putin wanted to shore up the social basis for his power. The economic situation will not allow for this in the future.

Government propaganda has already begun trying to adjust people to such negative economic changes. In Putin's speech on Crimea, he justified his actions on the one hand, but then also said, "Our enemies could exploit the discontent with the worsening of the economic situation in Russia," and equated the voicing of this discontent with a betrayal of national interests. In the pro-government press, it is often stressed that "our strength as a nation consists in the fact that we respond to the worsening of our own economic situation with understanding."

BUT NOT every economic crisis ends in a crisis of government.

THAT'S RIGHT. But we shouldn't forget that, despite its size and ambitions, the Russian state is actually weak. It is incredibly corrupt. Among all levels of public employees a very low level of motivation predominates, and moreover, the government is always battling a difficult economic situation and increased discontent.

It is not at all clear if the rulers can hold up against a real pressure from below. We are currently at the beginning of this economic crisis, which will sooner or later give way to a social and political crisis. It will either split the elites, with some of them coming out against Putin while capitalizing on discontent, or they will close ranks when backed into a corner and respond to the movement with concerted repression from the Kremlin. The latter could end with a storming of the Kremlin and a revolution.

COULD THERE be strikes or other direct forms of class conflict?

THAT IS difficult to predict. It seems to me that right now, the majority of people don't understand what is currently happening. The measures that are already taking effect now, whether cuts in pay or layoffs, are thought of as temporary and isolated. People don't sense that this economic system is being driven into a crisis. I think the social struggles will only pick up once a consciousness of the crisis spreads, when people understand that they, and not President Putin, are meant to pay for the crisis.

WHAT ARE you as left-wing activist doing in this tense situation?

AFTER THE big demonstration in Moscow, there is a lot of talk about the future of this movement. At the same time, this also has to do with how the crisis in Ukraine unfolds. Recent weeks have clearly laid bare the splits within the Russian left. A part of it believes that it is possible to critically support the course of the Russian government. The other part considers this the wrong approach. These new rifts are also apparent in the boycott of the "March for Peace" by a section of the Russian left.

CAN YOU describe this section in more detail? From which tradition do these activists come?

THERE IS, for example, the "Left Front" organization. They supported the Russian government's line on Ukraine. These parts of the movement come from more of a Stalinist political tradition.

There are different motives. Of course, no one says, "We support Russian imperialism and an invasion by the Russian armed forces." Rather, they maintain that the danger primarily comes from the Ukrainian government--that Ukrainian fascism is a danger for the Russian-speaking minority, and hence the position of the Russian government is understandable. It's clear that images like the demolition of Lenin statues in Ukraine have made a strong impression on many people. That is why they do not support the Maidan movement, but its opponents.

First published in German at Marx21. Translation by Sean Larson.

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