Russian voters have choices but no alternative

March 7, 2018

The Russian left hopes to gain a hearing despite the barren electoral options in the March 18 presidential election, explains Kate Seidel, a U.S. socialist living in Russia.

SOCIALISTS IN Russia are calling for a boycott of the upcoming presidential election on March 18, which is all but certain to see Vladimir Putin re-elected for a fourth term.

The approaching election features many choices, but no credible alternatives to Putin.

Among the many opposition candidates are perennial challengers who have been on the ballot during most elections since 1996. Virulent right-winger Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky are among them, along with newer, younger faces, such as Ksenia Sobchak, is a liberal reporter, reality TV host and the daughter of Putin's former boss.

The Incumbent Autocrat

For his part, Putin has done little campaigning--I've only spotted one of his "A strong president, a strong Russia" billboards here in St. Petersburg--because he doesn't have to. He hasn't even bothered participating in any of the presidential debates.

All in all, the elections look like less of a competition than a patriotic ritual, especially considering that they are timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Russia's triumphant annexation of the territory of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine.

Commuters pass an election billboard on a Moscow highway
Commuters pass an election billboard on a Moscow highway

Politely bland ads for the election itself far outnumber Putin ads. On bus stations and in apartment building stairwells, they mockingly announce: "Our country, our president, our choice" and "Choosing a president, we choose a future."

Russians, however, sensing that no real choice regarding the future is being offered, may not turn out in large enough numbers to give Putin the show of support he craves.

Russia's track record of elections in the years since the 1991 collapse of Stalinism hasn't been stellar.

Twenty years prior to widespread accusations of Russian meddling in Trump's election, the U.S. political establishment bragged about tipping the scales in favor of Boris Yeltsin in the aftermath of the breakup of the former USSR.

In 2000, the Yeltsin era gave way to Putin's reign. In Russia's 2011 election, there was widespread evidence of vote rigging in favor of Putin, including ballot box stuffing and alteration of vote tallies.

In response, massive protests flowed through Moscow's streets, and leaders of the protest movement, from liberals to Stalinists, were arrested and jailed.

Direct repression of opposition figures, a monopoly of state media controlled by the regime, and limited choices expressed by loyal opposition parties all help to maintain Putin's legitimacy by preserving the idea that there is no credible alternative to his rule.

Putin has depicted his rule as a stable alternative to the traumatic 1990s, when neoliberal reforms fleeced Russians of their savings, eliminated any sense of job security and led to an unprecedented collapse in life expectancy.

But this picture conveniently elides the fact that Yeltsin chose Putin to succeed him as acting president when he stepped down, handing over the presidential powers he won in 1993.

In practice, Putin and his party United Russia claim to courageously resist the Western liberal consensus while scapegoating LGBT people, decriminalizing domestic violence, and repressing unions.

The Loyal "Left"

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF, the descendent of the Communist Party of the USSR) has run the same candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, for president since 1996.

This year, they decided to switch it up: Pavel Grudinin, chair of the prosperous Lenin Collective Farm outside Moscow, was put forth as the (not-so) "unified candidate of left forces" after Sergei Udaltsov's Left Front hastily organized voting.

Running on the KPRF ballot line, Grudinin has a platform described here as "left patriotic" or "left conservative." It includes renationalization of large industries, vague overtures towards democratization, a nationalist foreign policy, a welfare state and "protecting the spiritual health of the nation," presumably through "gentle" censorship.

Which is to say, Grudinin's program is barely even recognizable as left wing. Nowhere does it support workers defending their rights from below by organizing and striking. Instead, it aims to replace Russia's oligarchs with state control, via nationalization.

As Ivan Ovsyannikov has noted, at his press conferences, Grudinin reverts to strange formulations such as "my collective farm," "my company" and "people in business should be able to trust the state."

Grudinin supports introducing a visa requirement for visitors from Central Asian countries whose citizens can currently come to Russia and get work permits without visas.

This won't stop these workers from trying to earn a living, just criminalize them and render them more vulnerable to the Russian state. In fact, immigrants make up more than a third of the workforce on Grudinin's collective farm--though they apparently don't share in the benefits of "socialism on one farm."

The KPRF, like Putin's ruling United Russia party, has aligned itself culturally with the Russian Orthodox Church--Grudinin has come out firmly against gay marriage and other protections for LGBT people.

Activists on the ground half-heartedly supporting Grudinin might paint this program as a "compromise" forced on the KPRF by the apparent conservative consensus in Russian political life.

However, socialists must discern between compromises that the working class is forced to accept in the course of its struggles--say, only some of the demands made during a strike being granted--and pre-emptive "compromises" that are the result of tacit support for some sectors of the ruling class, or cowardice, or attempting to find a shortcut around the long process of building workers' political consciousness and commitment to solidarity.

Even if Grudinin's policies were left wing, votes for him wouldn't pressure Putin to move in that direction without a corresponding mass movement. Instead, they are more likely to represent nationalist or conservative dissent from the status quo.

The Militant Liberals

Lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, barred by the government from running for president because of a dubious embezzlement conviction, has called for a boycott of the elections and organized significant protests through his now-repurposed presidential campaign. (A boycott is not necessarily passive: it could involve volunteering as an election observer, or at least checking in at a polling place at the end of the day to make sure that no one has fraudulently cast a ballot in your name.)

For this supposed transgression, volunteers for his campaign, as well as leftists supporting the "voters' strike," have been arrested, and their houses and offices searched.

Navalny isn't a socialist or social democrat, although his anti-corruption rhetoric has drifted leftward from his liberal nationalist roots as he looks to appeal to a broader audience. His social-media feeds reflect his hatred of being labeled a radical and his enthusiasm for the free market--as long as it is free of government-aligned oligarchs.

Navalny's actual policy proposals imitate the politely racist measures of Western countries--for example, introducing immigration controls for people from Central Asia and the Caucasus, while eliminating visas for Europeans and Americans--and support retaining Russia's current flat income tax. Navalny's campaign is well organized, but technocratic, based on mobilizing volunteers from above.

While Navalny certainly isn't a standard-bearer for the alternate political system we seek in the future, it's not even clear that he can pose even a mild threat to Putin's rule, as some mainstream U.S. publications hope.

Nonetheless, it is important to understand that people support his call to boycott the elections for diverse reasons, and we should look for potential in this moment, instead of dismissing it. In response to an exchange in Jacobin last summer about an article that bafflingly compared Navalny to Trump, Ilya Matveev, a political scientist and part of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD), set the record straight:

Navalny is trying to get business that doesn't have clientelist connections with the authorities, business that would stand to gain from placing limits on government overreach, on his side...Navalny's liberal nationalism shouldn't be compared with Trump's ferocious nationalism. This [distinction] is important not because Navalny's liberal nationalism is permissible, but because it defines his social base; it is much different than Trump's. Navalny draws his allies in not with nationalism, but with a consistent critique of the authorities.

It is especially important for those of us in limited but nevertheless bourgeois democratic systems--where parties that represent capitalist interests peacefully exchange power every few years--to recognize that in more autocratic countries, even centrists can point toward an exit from the existing system.

Many people turn out to protest in his name, even when Navalny is not their ideal candidate, because he is loudly and clearly pointing out that the elections are a sham--especially as other protest currents, like those working with the Communist Party, have faded or collapsed into the mainstream.

What Should Socialists Do?

Left-wing political forces looking to build opposition outside the political system--the RSD, Left Block and Revolutionary Workers' Party, among others--have participated in protests around the country advocating for a boycott of the elections.

The calculation of many independent socialists is that they can better preserve their political independence and meet other potential revolutionaries within a protest movement that demands reforms that the system is unable to accommodate--such as free elections and an end to corruption--than they could campaigning for a bigot with a hammer and sickle above his name.

Their talks, chants and flyers--one is titled "A strong society doesn't need a leader"--are for those who want to go beyond Navalny's surface-level critique of corruption.

In a statement about the elections, the RSD says:

We leftists working outside the political system can't be content with the role of satellites of Navalny or the "left-patriotic" camp...The upcoming elections reveal that the Putin elite is incapable of renewing or reforming itself. But the system still has a margin of safety. In these next years, we will most likely encounter a phase of inertia as the regime gradually loses public trust. Real leftists should use this time for structural reinforcement, revamping their programs, and winning popularity among broad layers of the population.

But supporting the election boycott is only one of many parts of this project of developing a serious, openly socialist organization.

For example, electoral freedom in Russia is closely tied to workers' rights: One of the key ways that Putin's United Russia party manipulates turnout is by pressuring state employees, employees of companies with ties to the state, and those who are dependent on welfare or pensions to turn out to vote.

It will take the work of independent public-sector unions like Teacher, University Solidarity and the medical professionals' union Action to resist that.

Throughout the Russian elections and their aftermath, those in the tradition of socialism from below will be working to present a convincing, neither-neoliberal-nor-Stalinist alternative to the fragile pro-Putin consensus.

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