Former KGB spook Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia through force and fraud for the last 18 years. He will firm up his rule for another six years after the Russian presidential elections on Sunday.
Putin rose to power by promising order in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
And his brutal suppression of Chechen separatists in the south and a high oil price in the 2000s shored up his support and built him a popular base. They played to Greater Russian chauvinism and created a new middle class (see below).
Yet Putin has faced opposition—and relied on repression to deal with it. He has poisoned former KGB rivals such as Alexander Litvinenko. And he has killed critics such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on the Chechen war.
Anti-protest laws passed in 2014 carry a five year prison sentence for those who protest without official permission.
But the Putin regime can’t just rely on repression. It has tried to undermine any genuine outlets for ordinary Russians’ grievances through mass subterfuge.
A key player behind Putin’s success is Kremlin chief strategist Vladislav Surkov. He describes himself as the “author of the new Russian system”—and uses duplicitous methods.
He set up the right wing United Russia, the majority party that backs Putin. And he is also rumoured to have financed the smaller For A Just Russia party. It has largely acted as a left face for the regime—other nationalist parties have acted as the regime’s right face.
These sorts of manoeuvres show both Putin’s power—and that he is nervous of opposition.
But why set up a fake opposition party unless you’re worried about the potential for a real opposition?
Genuine opposition hasn’t broken through because it’s trapped by either defending elements of the old Stalinist order or looking to the free market as an alternative.
Recent protests against corruption brought tens of thousands onto the streets of Moscow and other major cities last summer.
They were called by imprisoned oligarch turned opposition politician Alexei Navalny.
He joins a long list of Russian oligarchs who have discovered their love of liberal democracy since they’ve fallen out of favour with the Kremlin.
Navalny’s alternative is based on more free market shock therapy—and he still plays to Greater Russian chauvinism. As Russian capitalism dips further into crisis, there’s real anger at Putin’s failed promise of prosperity for all and the regime’s corruption.
If it’s to translate into real change, it will have to look beyond both the Putin regime, the old order, and the free market.
Regime’s base not as strong as it likes to make out
Russian president Vladimir Putin is the new bogeyman for liberals who blame him for any discord in the West.
Yet when he became president in 1999 Putin was hailed both in the West and Russia as a stabilising force who could push through free market reforms.
After the collapse of the Stalinist dictatorship in 1991, Russia was plunged into chaos as rival sections of the old ruling class sough to enrich themselves and jockey for position.
Communist Party politicians transformed themselves into democratic politicians. Party bureaucrats and managers of state-owned firms took over privatised firms and became powerful oligarchs—politically connected businessmen.
But the free market shock therapy pushed by president Boris Yeltsin saw both national output and living standards fall through the floor.
And the competing interests of rival oligarchs threatened to tear the newly formed Russian Federation apart.
By 1999 the erratic Yeltsin was no longer a safe pair of hands in the eyes of the West. Russian capital saw the need for order if it was going to restore its profits and project its interests in the world.
Capital united behind Putin’s promise to bring order to a Russia of warring oligarchs.
Despite Putin’s trampling on some oligarchs, the majority of capitalists supported him because he effectively managed Russian capitalism in their interests.
But the oligarch’s unity was underpinned by a boom in oil and gas prices.
Now with the Russian economy facing pressures and the threat of crisis, a significant minority of capitalists are breaking and looking for alternatives to Putin.
They see the alternative to Putin in normalising relations with the West and more free market reforms.
Russian capitalism’s difficulties are also creating discontent in other layers of society. Alongside profits for the oligarchs the oil boom also fuelled the creation of a new middle class, which shared in the benefits of growth but was still locked out of any political control.
With diminishing opportunities to get on, they are no longer a stable base.
Workers are the key to change
Working class opposition has failed to break through in Russia.
That’s partly to do with Putin’s success in pushing reactionary ideas.
Putin has successfully repackaged the Stalinist regime’s nationalism in the clothes of the Orthodox Church and appeals to Greater Russian chauvinism.
His homophobic laws have portrayed liberal opposition as Western plots against “traditional Russian values” and conservatism.
And they have helped unite groups that might otherwise oppose him, such as the Chechen government, behind Russian nationalism.
But the workers’ movement also faces its own political problems.
The official trade union federation has tried to protect the remnants of the old Stalinist regime by cooperating with bosses and allying itself with the Putin regime.
And the free trade unions that sprung up in the 1980s and 1990s have gone from organising rank and file strikes to relying on Western funding and looking to the market as an alternative.