Yeltsin and Putin

Russia

Report on the recent Russian parliamentary elections



77% of Russians are dissatisfied with the results of Sunday's parliamentary
elections. Callers to a TV show who said they thought the elections were
honest and democratic were outnumbered 4 to 1 by those who thought the
opposite. Despite this, the Kremlin are crowing over their apparent victory
after the new Party "Unity" formed just 3 months ago by Premier Putin won
23% of the vote and approximately 30% of the seats. Other parties that won
seats (The Union of right forces with 8,7% of the vote, Jirinovskii's party
with 6% and at least part of Moscow mayor Luzhkov's block with 12%) will
help the government maintain a majority in the Parliament.

The communist party gained the highest percentage of votes with 24% but saw
the number of places it could count on in the duma slashed from over 200 to
less than a 150. Although the percentage vote was up, the actual number
who voted for them was significantly down but where the party really
suffered was that other parties that were allied to it in the last election
such as the agrarians did not this time participate. If in 1995 the CP and
its allies gained nearly 35% of the votes, these parties gained a total of
only 27% this time. The current speaker the Communist Selyeznov is likely to
be replaced - an event he obviously expected as he ran for Governor of the
Moscow region.

In third place was Fatherland-All Russia, the party led by Moscow Mayor
Luzhkov and former premier Primakhov. This bloc gained 12.5% and won
overwhelming control of the Moscow City Parliament. This vote was achieved
despite an extremely viscous campaign of vilification by the Kremlin and
mass media. The Kremlin in particular feared that if this party came to
power it would review the privatisation programme and start a process of
redistribution of the privatised assets to Luzhkov loyalists. Until about 6
months ago, it looked like this party would win over a large part of the
state bureaucracy and regional governors, which would have guaranteed it
victory, but these people deserted Luzhkov when Putin formed his Unity
Party. There is now speculation that those regional leaders who stayed loyal
to Luzhkov in the elections may well split from his Duma fraction, going
over to Putin. This makes success for either Luzkhov or Primakov in June's
Presidential election less likely.

One of the surprises was the relative success of the Union of Right forces
lead by former Premier Kiriyenko (who was sacked as a result of the rouble
crisis in August 1998) and with open backing from Kremlin insider Anatolii
Chubais. This party, with neo liberal politics used very populist slogans
such as "We want to live in Russia, but live like Europe" and against
conscription into the army. Having received considerable backing from the
mass media and clearly the Kremlin, it was able to gain support from a layer
of urban youth and intelligentsia. Support for such parties however is
shallow. It had to pay people to work for it and comrades working on one
polling station were able to convince some of their activists to visit our
meetings.

Jirinovskii was lucky to cross the 5% barrier. Having won 23% of the vote in
1993 and 12% in 1995, his 6% this time shows he is clearly a spent force. He
undermined his own election campaign by nominating leading mafia figures as
party candidates. He argued that as the black economy is the only successful
sector, he was proud to have its representatives in his party. With little
support in the big cities, he attracts a layer of lumpenised supporters who
would probably otherwise vote for the CP, so it is in the Kremlin's
interests to keep his party alive for a while.

The sudden growth of Unity demonstrates that the bourgeois have no stable
party on which they can rely in elections. In its place they have the
"party of power" in other words the powerful state apparatus, which defends
its own interests in elections. These people, senior bureaucrats, regional
governors and businessmen, not forgetting of course the armed forces,
cynically decide who they will support and then use the state apparatus to
mobilise the support of the population. Local authorities delegate staff to
work in the election campaign and assign premises, private companies second
senior management. Money is promised, wages paid, threats suggested. In
1993, this party of power put its weight behind Gaidar's "Democratic Russia'
. In 1995, they backed Chernomyrdin's "Our House". Six months ago they were
edging towards Luzhkov only to swing behind Putin when the Chechen war was
launched.

But this does not explain the victory of Unity. Both in 1993 and 1995, the
Party of Power was given a bloody nose gaining only about 10% of the vote.
The western mass media explain this as a sign of overwhelming support for
the war in Chechnya. That also is a very simplistic answer. The chattering
classes in Russia clearly do support the war but comrades who were working
in the industrial cities during the election report that people's attitude
to the war was not jingoistic and many are against. First of all, parents of
conscripts were very worried their sons would be sent to Chechnya and there
was widespread hatred for Putin and Yeltsin. Secondly, the issues that
concerned workers most in the election were very concrete questions of wages
and the fate of their factories. Campaigners were almost never asked about
the war. At the same time, there was no disagreement amongst the parties on
the war. Zyuganov spoke at meetings where he would spend 15-20 minutes
talking about his life in the caucuses - Russians are civilised but
caucasians have a different culture, they are brought up to be bandits and
thieves was his theme.

The real reason for Putin's victory is that there was no better alternative
on offer. The communist party waged a completely ineffectual campaign. It
started badly by announcing it was fighting a three pronged attack by
supporting two other parties - one to attract the left, the other to attract
nationalists. These two parties promptly defected to Luzhkov or Putin and
between them gained less than 0.5% of the vote. Then the CP voted to endorse
Putin as premier, offered no opposition to the Chechen war and has been
quite about the government's policies particularly in the economy. None of
the other parties did any better, indeed many voters complained that all the
politicians ever did was say how bad things were without offering any
alternative.

Although not many youth voted for the CP, many workers did. Even amongst the
traditionally anti-communist miners of Vorkuta a significant number voted
for them. They did so often denying any evidence that the party would betray
their interests. In one region where comrades were working, the Regional
Governor was third on the CP national list. This character is well known for
sending the riot police against strikers. When comrades tried to convince a
group of CP members that the Governor was on Zyuganov's list, they refused
to listen, calling him a provocateur.

It is clear looking at the results that a layer of people voted for unity
for no other reason they didn't see any better alternative. Some Vorkuta
miners did so arguing that at least there were signs of stability under
Putin, the war was not an issue, it was too far away. After 10 years of
chaos, people are tired and have been prepared to give Putin a chance as his
first move in Chechnya appears at first glance to have been successful. The
government has also had a $1billion a month windfall from oil price rises.
In this context it would be wrong to see these results as marking a big
swing to the right in public opinion. The temporary victory of Putin could
well be as short lived as the popularity boosts that have pushed other
politicians into the limelight - Nemtsov, Jirinovskii, Lebed and most
significantly Yeltsin himself. It is not even excluded, but not very likely,
that Yeltsin could even dump Putin - he has a habit of using such people for
as long as they offer no threat to his position.

It should also be pointed out that there was a drop in turn out by about 4%
and the number of voters who voted "against all" increased to about 3.5%.
Many people were not able to make up their mind until the actual day of
voting. This reflects a growing despair by some that no party is worth
supporting.

The elections were far from democratic. OCSE observers who called them
fundamentally fair either did not understand what was going on or where
intentionally whitewashing over the infringements. Even in Central Moscow
polling stations where comrades were acting as observers there were many
undemocratic practices - such as people being told by the electoral
commission who to vote for. In the Moscow region a row has broken out over
the clear falsification of voting. What it must have been like in further
flung areas can only be a matter of speculation.

Our position in these elections was to explain the need for a workers' party
but in the absence of one to give super critical support to the block formed
by a couple of the smaller CPs and trade unions. This block gained 2.5% and
was the party with the biggest vote that failed to clear the 5% barrier. We
helped this block in Moscow and actively participated in the campaign of one
of the better candidates of this block in Tula - in the region where last
year workers took over the Yasnogorsk factory. He got 3% of the vote overall
with 10% in Yasnogorsk. Our flyposter calling for a workers' candidate was
actively used in his campaign.

Elsewhere, in Astrakhan a victory was won by Oleg Shein and active
independent and left trade unionist. He gained a seat in the Duma with just
over 20% of the vote despite a very dirty campaign against him. He promises
to use his position in the Duma to fight for workers' rights and socialism.
Oleg participated in last May's workers conference we organised in Voronezh.
Notwithstanding any doubts we have about Oleg's programme (he is a state
capitalist supporter and reflects many of the sectarian attitudes of such
people) this is still a big step forward.


These elections have really been the first round of the Presidential
elections due for June next year. Candidates and strategies have been
tested. Many found wanting. But between now and June there can be many
upsets, in the economy and particularly around Chechnya.

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