A new Russian revolution? Get real
Another Russia, the anti-Putin campaign group, commands the front pages of the Western press. But it hasn’t impressed the Russian people.
The protest movement Another Russia clashed with riot police this weekend, and its leader Garry Kasparov was briefly imprisoned. But do these self-styled dissidents really offer any alternative to President Vladimir Putin?
Kasparov was prevented from taking part in the Moscow demonstration called to oppose President Putin’s clampdown on unofficial political actions, while his supporters were forced into backstreets by riot police. Still, the former chess champion and would-be dissident – fined 1,000 roubles (£20) for his trouble – claimed a victory in the Western press, for having exposed Putin’s paranoia.
In the 1980s, Kasparov upset precedent to defeat the Soviets’ preferred champion, loyalist Anatoly Karpov; he then proceeded to take on IBM’s super chess programme Deep Blue. In the 1990s, he was an active supporter of Yeltsin’s absentee presidency, and of the crash course privatisation that saw the creation of a handful of super-rich ‘oligarchs’ while many experienced hardship.
Now, with the rise of the austere former KGB man and Karpov look-a-like Putin to the Russian presidency, Kasparov has reinvented himself as the head of a movement of dissidents, which goes under the name Another Russia. Already, Another Russia has clashed with police in St Petersburg by holding protests in defiance of draconian new rules on public order. Now, the weekend’s set-piece clash in Moscow casts Putin in the role of Stalinist autocrat and Another Russia as a new Charter 77.
But the Another Russia bandwagon is a pretty shaky contraption. Kasparov was an unremarkable politician in the Yeltsin era and was implicated in the lost years of privatisation. His allies are a peculiar mix. The mainstream liberal opposition party Yabloko has shunned the campaign, but Putin’s one-time privatisation adviser, Andrei Illarionov, having slipped from power, has signed up. The punk-existentialist author turned extreme nationalist leader, Eduard Limonov, has brought his tinpot National Bolshevik party on-board – giving them a greater sense of purpose than their previous campaigns to hold a church congregation hostage with a fake grenade, and organise a Russian army to invade Kazakhstan. (Limonov, who volunteered as a sniper for the Serb Republican Army in the Bosnian civil war, has the copyright on ‘Another Russia’ – it’s the title of his personal manifesto.)
And, having fled to Britain with the billions he made from the fire sale of Russia’s state assets, the colourful oligarch Boris Berezovsky can command the front page of the Guardian to add his support to the anti-Putin demonstrators, calling for a new revolution to overthrow the president. Berezovsky poses as the avenger of those critics of Putin’s government who have been assassinated – writer Anna Politkovskaya and Berezovsky’s own private security officer, Alexander Litvinenko. It is hard, though, to see the tycoon’s platform as anything other than an attempt to regain power by a man who is nostalgic for a time, under Yeltsin, when he had direct access to the president and the levers of power. Berezovsky even organised Putin’s first campaign for the Russian presidency.
One thing that Another Russia does have in common with the dissident intellectuals who clashed with the Soviet authorities in the 1970s and 80s is its disconnection from the mass of the people. All of the new so-called dissidents are characterised by an ostentatious disdain for ordinary Russians, in inverse proportion to their lionisation of the ‘Other Russia’. It seems bad taste to mock the murdered Politkovskaya, but having suffered the serialisation of her diaries in our sycophantic newspapers, can we ignore her endemic snobbery?
‘Whatever happened to public opinion?’ Politkovskaya demanded to know (1). ‘The country is sinking into a state of collective unconsciousness, into unreason.’ (2) She continued, ‘Today’s Russian, brainwashed by propaganda, has largely reverted to Bolshevik thinking’ (3) and complained over Russian support for the war in Chechnya that: ‘No storm of indignation swept over the country… there was not a single protest demonstration, no defenders of civil rights.’ (4)
The late Politkovskaya’s attitude of superiority over the befuddled Russian masses is sadly all too like the rest of the ‘dissident’ outlook. ‘Another Russia’ seems to mean ‘us’, the intellectuals, who cherish our independence from the hoi polloi – that is, from Russia and its people. In London, the would-be mastermind Berezovsky (disowned by Kasparov and the rest of the protesters and not included in the Another Russia signatories in Moscow) told BBC TV’s Newsnight two months ago that he had given up all hope for the Russian people, and had no ambitions there – a judgement he seems to have quickly traded in for one of conspiring to overthrow the elected government.
There is a reason for the oppositionists’ rejection of public opinion. Public opinion has rejected them. The backdrop to the latest feverish flapping is not an increase in public support, but its falling away. More to the point, Putin’s government, thuggish as it has no doubt been, has succeeded in giving ordinary Russians a degree of security and even prosperity for some that lacked it in the 1990s – something that these new ‘dissidents’ never did when they had influence by default in the Yeltsin era.
While the economy collapsed under Yeltsin, it has recovered to become one of the fastest growing industrialised countries in the world. Since 1999, Russia posted growth rates averaging six per cent of GDP (compared with a Group of Eight industrialised nation’s average of two per cent). Under Putin, Russia paid off most of the debts accrued in the Yeltsin era. Government bonds counted as junk before are now rated a good investment.
The critics point to the re-nationalisation of Yukos, and the high-profile jailing of its chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as proof that the old command economy is returning. Putin has been denounced as a new Stalin for reining in the oligarchs. But according to America’s defence think-tank, the RAND Corporation, the positive outcome of Putin’s economic nationalism has been ‘the husbanding rather than the dissipating of economic rents from high oil and gas prices’ (5). By comparison to the Eurozone, Russian government spending is quite low.
If Putin is loathed in Western liberal circles, it is primarily because of his assertion of Russian authority. Yeltsin, who led the country to bankruptcy, was always praised for his pro-Western outlook. Under Putin, Russia has declined to be put in the same category as those Third World states who kowtow to Western advisers. The law limiting the input of Western non-governmental organisations in Russia has provoked outrage in Washington and Brussels.
This is the ill-kept secret of Putin’s success – he has delivered a degree of stability and even prosperity for the middle classes, and managed to lift Russia’s standing in the world. Some of it is luck – he inherited a situation so bad it could only improve. Oil wealth, though its contribution is overstated, has helped. But to the chagrin of oligarchs and intellectuals alike, Putin’s biggest success is to re-motivate state authority over civil society in a way that Yeltsin singularly failed to do.
His methods have been blunt – crushing the Chechens’ cowboy republic and prosecuting the most obviously crooked of the oligarchs – but they have also been undeniably popular. The ‘organised democracy’ that emerged is authoritarian in its control of the political process. But the freedom to mess around without consequences, characteristic of the Yeltsin era, is missed by too few people to make a difference.
James Heartfield is a writer and researcher in London. Visit his website here.
Julia Svetlichnaja and James Heartfield wrote about the reaction to their interview of Alexander Litvinenko and James Heartfield discussed the way Litvinenko’s assassination put all Russians in the frame. Tara McCormack wondered what happened to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Brendan O’Neill illustrated the international connection to the Beslan school killings. Or read more at spiked-issue: Russia
(1) Diaries, September 2005, Guardian, 19 March 2007
(2) Diaries, 5 March 2004, Guardian, 17 March 2007
(3) Putin’s Russia, 2004, p. 47
(4) Putin’s Russia, p 101
(5) Charles Wolf and Thomas Lange, Russia’s Economy, 2006
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