Middle ground knocked out of Russian politics

First published: June 1997

Since the beginning of March this year the middle ground has been smashed out of Russian politics. On one side, at the beginning of March President Yeltsin re-organised his government around the neo-liberal politicians closest to the United States – notably the architect of the corrupt privatisation program, Anatoly Chubais, and the governor of Nizhny Novgorod Boris Nemtsov. The new government immediately announced plans for a second wave of economic shock therapy – to remove state subsidies on housing, heating, electricity and transport while simultaneously acceding to US demands to attack the power of Russia’s remaining giant monopolies.

On the other side, all of the classical signs of a rising mass radicalisation of the population are apparent. Millions participated in the trade union day of action against non-payment of wages on 27 March. Given their limited economic muscle, workers are resorting to more and more desperate tactics ranging from hunger strikes to seizing local officials and buildings, blocking roads and railways and in parts of Siberia setting up local ‘salvation committees’ – embryonic soviets.


The radicalisation is reflected on the electoral level with a string of defeats for the regime in regional elections and politically in a sharp shift of the main opposition party – the Communist Party of the Russian Federation – to the left, as well as the strengthening of more radical left wing communist currents inside and outside the party.

Underlying the political polarisation is the continuing collapse of the economy and the resulting meltdown of state finances. With output at half its level prior to the capitalist economic course, it fell another six per cent last year. The International Labour Organisation reported this year that: ‘There should be no pretence. The Russian economy and the living standards of the Russian population have suffered the worst peacetime setbacks in any industrialised nation in history.’

An attempt by the state statistics office to claim that output had started to rise in the first quarter of 1997 was discredited when it was revealed that the books had been cooked to include a larger estimate for the shadow economy this year, without revising the corresponding figures for previous years – thereby creating a false impression of economic growth.

Any idea that foreign investment might revive the Russian economy is simply laughable. In 1996 foreign direct investment totalled $2.2 billion – less than Peru and a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated $38.5 billion capital outflow last year. With various studies indicating that nearly half of the economy is controlled by criminals who are draining resources and transferring the proceeds abroad, the World Bank estimates the total ‘unexplained residual’ outflow since the beginning of capitalist economic reform in January 1992 to be $88.7 billion.

As the economy has continued to collapse, many companies have run up months-long backlogs of unpaid wages and taxes, while the government is facing what First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais described in April as ‘a monstrous budget crisis which calls into question the ability of the state to perform its functions’. According to the government, only 57 per cent of budgeted tax revenue was collected in the first quarter of 1997. It is therefore proposing even more savage cuts in public spending – totalling $19bn.

For the population, this situation manifests itself in the non-payment of pensions and wages for months at a time. Workers in many regions are owed three to six months’ back pay, in a country where the majority of the population has already been reduced to abject poverty and the average wage is £93 a month. Immediately after the presidential election in July last year, Yeltsin issued decrees reneging on his election promises to clear wage and pensions arrears.

Following the presidential election the regime debated how to deal with the situation. Anatoly Chubais, who is linked to the banks which have benefited from astronomical interest rates and the privatisation of state assets, argued for a rapid confrontation with the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament. This would have included calling off the elections of regional governors and dissolving parliament. Chubais had strengthened his position by organising Yeltsin’s presidential election campaign and by provoking a purge of the more nationalist wing of Yeltsin’s entourage.

Nonetheless, Chubais’ tactics were opposed by Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, who is based on the energy sector – the most powerful section of Russia’s capitalist class. Chernormyrdin argued that Yeltsin’s election had cost up to $30 billion in tax breaks, wage and pension payments and subsidies. With payments on loans taken out at 200 per cent annual interest rates falling due, that effort was unrepeatable. Furthermore, if it came to clashes on the streets, the army was disintegrating and could not be relied upon to defend the regime which had systematically starved it of funds and humiliated its officer corps. Therefore, Chernormyrdin argued, the regime had to compromise with, not confront, parliament – which effectively means the Communists.

The terms of the deal were straightforward. Regional elections would be allowed to take place and parliament would not be dissolved – by the time of the budget vote President Yeltsin had the constitutional power to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. In exchange, the Communists would allow the budget to get through parliament.

The chair of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), Gennady Zyuganov evidently reasoned that in these circumstances the Communists should ally with the section of the regime prepared to allow events to proceed democratically – Chernomyrdin. In this way it could block a premature dissolution of parliament designed to consolidate Yeltsin’s victory in the presidential elections. Zyuganov argued that the government was split between puppets of the US like Chubais and more national groups led by Chernomyrdin – while also stating that he saw Chernomyrdin as a ‘temporary fellow traveller’ not a strategic ally. Some on the left of the CPRF accepted this approach because they said the opposition needed a couple more years to consolidate its forces and come to power. In the meantime they believed it made sense to ally with the wing of the regime maintaining a democratic framework of politics.

The CPRF therefore agreed to vote for the budget. At the same time the elections of the regional governors proceeded with the regime’s candidates losing in the majority of regions, the Communist Party and its allies winning a third and the rest going to capitalist independent candidates backed by the Communists.

The alliance with Chernomyrdin was given more strategic significance by the most right wing of Zyuganov’s close advisors, Alexei Podberyozkin, leader of the well-funded Spiritual Heritage and a chair of the National People’s Patriotic Front.

Although Podberyozkin attends their parliamentary fraction he is not a member of the Communist Party. He is a bourgeois nationalist who states: ‘the class interest is but one of many interests. There are interests enjoying higher priority, e.g. state (national) interests’. He calls for a coalition between the Communists and the ‘patriotic’ wing of the capitalist class – often conceived as led by Chernomyrdin. Voting for the budget, Podberyozkin argued: ‘The opposition has entered the ruling power, it has become a part of that power, albeit not yet the decisive part.’

Podberyozkin’s line is, however, rejected by the left wing of the Communist movement inside and outside the CPRF – who criticise Zyuganov’s tactics and believe that the job of the party is to overthrow the government, not collaborate with it. And the rising radicalisation of the population has strengthened these currents. They argued that the negative effects of disorganising the working class supporters of the Communists by backing the budget out-weighed any immediate tactical advantage of keeping the Chubais wing of the regime at bay.

The Russian press reported that 23 out of 26 speeches at the Central Committee plenum before the vote on the budget were directed against Podberyozkin so that Zyuganov had to step in to defend his adviser. In parliament, only 54 Communist MPs actually carried out the party line and voted for the budget in December, while 45 voted against and the rest abstained.

Symptomatically, the calls for disciplinary action against the left-wing rebels came to nothing, while, on the other hand, a dozen or so right wing Communist MPs who formed a group to link up with Lebed were summarily expelled from the party.

Similarly, the Communist-supporting press – Pravda, Sovietskaya Russiya and the extreme nationalist Zavtra – while broadly supporting Zyuganov, also began to carry reports critical of the budget vote and de facto alliance with Chernomyrdin. Zavtra took the tone of trying to save Zyuganov from himself. For example, in an article on why the CP should vote against the budget they explained it as a plot to split the CP from the masses.

Sovietskaya Russiya is very pro-Zyuganov but told him during an interview before the CPRF congress ‘many letters from the provinces criticise the [parliamentary] fraction because the deputies supported Chernomyrdin for the premiership and adopted the state budget’. The paper has opened itself up a bit to the left, but not the right, opposition in the CPRF.

Pravda has run articles warning Communist MPs to be more concerned about their voters than their own parliamentary seats.

Also, for the first time a small minority, but not marginal, group within the party called for the removal of Zyuganov as party leader in an open letter in the newspaper of the 21,000-strong Communist Union of Youth – the official youth wing of the party. This is not the dominant view on the left – which is against voting for the budget but for putting pressure on Zyuganov to change course, rather than calling for his removal. Following the April congress of the CPRF, at which their leader was unable to speak, the Young Communists have gone further and declared their organisational and political independence from party.

Outside the CPRF, the Communist groups to its left have also become more coherent. The Russian Communist Workers’ Party (RCWP), which has roughly 50,000 members and took 4.6 per cent of the vote in the parliamentary election of December 1995, expelled its best known leader Anpilov, following the condemnation by the party of an electoral platform he had signed in Moscow which included concessions to anti-semitism.

Criticism of the course of allying with Chernormyrdin became stronger as the budget inevitably failed to solve any of the problems of the economy and the wage and pension arrears mounted – accompanied by more and more desperate protests. The mood on the most extreme wing of the alliance of forces around the Communist Party was exemplified by the front page exhortation of Zavtra following the armed uprising in Albania: ‘Russian workers – study Albania!’

But if Zyuganov was coming under mounting pressure from the left, the most United States-aligned wing of the government was also chafing against the modus vivendi with the Communists. From the point of view of the regime, the agreement only made sense if it was a question of gaining time while the economy recovered and then allowed them to regain popular support. But, in the absence of any economic recovery, what actually happened was that the Communist Party continued to advance under the momentum of the radicalisation of the population, in particular, winning a series of elections for regional governors. Given the size of Russia these are immensely powerful positions. Furthermore, the Upper House of parliament is composed of each regional governor plus a representative of each regional legislature. With elections for the latter due this year and the Communists certain to do even better in those contests, Chubais et al argued that there was a real threat that the Communists would win control of both houses of parliament. Even given Russia’s autocratic constitution that could make Yeltsin’s position untenable – and without governmental power the capitalist political forces would be utterly helpless. Yeltsin’s concern on this score was underlined by the fact that he spent more time attacking the regional governors than even the CP-dominated parliament in his state of the union address in March.

Thus the middle ground occupied by the agreement between Zyuganov and Chernomyrdin became increasingly untenable, and Yeltsin used his state of the union address to signal a sharp change in tactics. With everything moving against them the regime resolved upon a course of drastic action to try to break up the dynamic of the situation.

All government ministers, except Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, were dismissed. Anatoly Chubais was charged with reconstructing the government as first deputy prime minister in charge of economic policy. Chubais is one of the most hated politicians in Russia – only slightly more popular than Hitler according to one deputy. A nationwide opinion poll published in Vek in March showed that 85 per cent of people disapproved of his previous activity as Yeltsin’s chief of staff and 99.5 per cent of people would vote against him if he were to run for president.

In these circumstances, the neo-liberal governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Boris Nemtsov, was given the same rank as Chubais, to broaden the regime’s regional support. Nemtsov was charged with removing subsidies on domestic housing and utilities and breaking up Russia’s remaining natural monopolies, including in the energy sector.

Chubais’ first announcement was that the government would have to cut $19bn from this year’s budgeted spending because of the shortfall in tax revenue. Under the terms by which parliament approved the budget any cuts have to be approved by parliament and certain items – wages, pensions, healthcare, nuclear facilities and the financing of government debt – are supposed to be protected.

The cuts are due to come before parliament towards the end of May. That means the Communists will again be faced with the issue of whether to back the government over the budget or risk an attempt to dissolve parliament – only this time any deal with the government will be even more unpopular and meet even stiffer resistance within the CPRF.

Furthermore, the threat to dissolve parliament carries less weight given that new elections would probably result in a still more left wing body of MPs.

The new government’s programme was worked out in close collaboration with the IMF. It boiled down to trying to eliminate the deficit in public finances by massively reducing the government’s spending commitments. The key proposals are:

• to end subsidies on domestic housing, heating, electricity, transport and other utilities – which would have a shattering affect on living standards. At present citizens pay an average 27 per cent of the cost for housing and municipal services, including water and heating bills. Under a decree signed by Yeltsin on 28 April the public would pay 35 per cent of the cost of housing and services this year, 50 per cent by 1998, 70 per cent by 2000 and 100 per cent by 2003.

• to reduce the state’s pension and wages bills by allowing sections of industry to go bankrupt and cutting state provision of pensions; to cut spending on an army whose officers are not paid for months on end;

• and, at the behest of the United States, an attempt to weaken the giant natural monopolies which dominate the gas, electricity supply and transport industries – in order to facilitate the entry of foreign companies into those sectors – and action to strengthen the position of foreign shareholders within Russian companies.

The effect of trying to remove subsidies on housing and municipal services (heating, water, electricity, etc) is likely to be a big increase in support for the Communists in the cities, given how far living standards in Russia have already fallen since 1992. The government is planning to make the regional executives the instrument for carrying through this attack to try to shift the political blame onto them. But this could backfire. Yuri Luzhkov, the pro-Yeltsin Mayor of Moscow has not yet implemented the cut and warned that sharp rises in rents and utility charges may cause ‘gigantic upheavals and the dismissal of the government.’

The St Petersburg city government, which earlier announced its own plans to phase out subsidies over five years – which means a five-fold rent increase – now faces a major political revolt. Daily demonstrations of 5–10,000 people took place for the three weeks following the announcement and there is growing momentum behind initiatives to remove the governor. The St Petersburg demonstration on 27 March was even bigger than that in Moscow – where 100,000 demonstrated – because the communal reform has been enacted in the city. The decree detailing when the reform will be implemented has repeatedly been delayed in publication, indicating tensions in the regime.

At the same time, moves to attack the natural monopolies threaten to push the government into a collision with the most powerful capitalist groups in Russia. The oil industry has already been broken up into separate companies and opened to foreign competition, with the consortium exploiting the gigantic oil fields in the Caspian Sea 40 per cent US owned and now planning a pipeline to ship oil which does not have to pass through Russia. But the same does not apply to gas, electricity and rail.

With a third of the world’s known gas reserves, supplying half of Europe and accounting for eight per cent of Russia’s GDP, Gazprom, for example, is an immensely powerful company with controlling interests in its own banks, newspapers and other media. Talk of tightening government control over Gazprom, forcing it to pay its own tax bills and bankrupt many of its customers by demanding prompt payment, as well as opening up the gas industry to foreign multinationals and possibly breaking the company up led the chair of the company, Rem Vyakherev, to immediately seek allies among the opposition in parliament. He pointed out that the company effectively subsidised many companies and regions – having been paid for only 45 per cent of the gas shipped in the first quarter of this year and paid in cash for only 5.7 per cent.

Zyuganov and the Communists argued that to break up the natural monopolies and allow US and other capitalist companies to move into the gas, rail and electricity industries would accelerate the break-up of the country, which is so vast that it requires powerful state-controlled transport, electricity and energy industries. The Communist parliamentary speaker suggested that Russians would take US concern about promoting free competition more seriously if Washington started breaking up Boeing, General Motors, Intel, Microsoft and other US giant monopolies.

There were also signs of divisions in the government. Victor Chernomyrdin, former head of Gazprom, told journalists: ‘Natural monopolies and primarily the United Energy Services of Russia and Gazprom are the spine of the Russian economy which we will keep as the apple of our eye.’

But the biggest problem facing the new government is that its plans to dismantle the last elements of the Soviet system of social security – cheap heating, housing, electricity and water – threaten to ignite what is already a massive anti-government radicalisation. This poses a qualitative extension of the opposition to Yeltsin within the cities, which up to now have been relatively economically cushioned and where support for the regime has been greater than elsewhere.

The most clear-cut expression of this on the streets was the scale of the 27 March day of action. These were the most significant mass demonstrations in Russia since the attack on parliament in October 1993. Although not on the same level of militancy, they were far larger, and, for the first time, distinguished by the overwhelming preponderance of the working class on them. They lent a clear class character to the opposition to the government.

The Ministry of the Interior underestimated the turn-out, claiming that only 1.8 million took part in marches.

But even if the government’s figures were correct, they would be equivalent to demonstrations involving 600,000 people in a country with the population of Britain. No one would seriously suggest that such a scale of mobilisation was insignificant.

The CPRF and Zyuganov campaigned flat out in support of the 27 March – pushing a resolution in support of it through parliament and calling upon every single party member to personally participate in building for it. The Communist-influenced press ran blanket campaigns in support of the actions – Sovietskaya Russiya, for example, ran it as its main headline in every issue for three weeks.

The day of action was a massive political event in the country. It was the first item on the television news for three days beforehand and a big item for the preceding week. The government and media did everything in their power to demobilise people. They warned of bloodshed, conspiracies by armed groups, the threat of riots, chaos and so on. Some ‘independent’ trade unions close to the government even issued a last-minute appeal not to take part because of the danger of violence. Sixteen thousand paramilitary police armed with submachine-guns were deployed in Moscow. Chubais went to the mining areas with the firm promise of billions of roubles in back pay – which did succeed in temporarily demobilising most of the miners.

Nonetheless, there were huge demonstrations of workers throughout the country – with 100,000 marching in Moscow – and instead of intimidating the marchers the police on duty were totally sympathetic, mingling and joking with the crowds. The majority of the demonstrators were organised by the trade unions with between a quarter and a third organised by the Communists. Although the top leaders of the unions made anti-communist statements (Mikhail Shmakov the chair of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia is close to the Mayor of Moscow and a supporter of Yeltsin) there was no animosity at all at a rank and file level between trade unionists and Communists.

The general mood of the marchers can be gauged by the fact that General Alexander Lebed was pushed out of the demonstration in Moscow – because he is correctly seen as in cahoots with Washington – and had to be rushed away by his bodyguard. Boris Nemtsov was booed down in his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod.

Most importantly, 27 March, marked a new qualitative development for the Russian opposition because for the first time it was very explicitly a working class demonstration. It was a great step forward because it began to pose the solution to the key question to which Zyuganov, for example, does not give a clear answer – which class will lead the struggle to save Russia from capitalism. This was also very much the view of the left wing of the CP. The MPs who had voted against the budget clearly felt that it strengthened their position. It had an enormous impact. Zyuganov, for example, when asked on the eve of the CPRF congress what had struck him most in the four years since the previous congress replied: ‘The 27 March protest action’.

The march had been preceded the week before by a string of election defeats for the government. They lost five out of six regional legislative elections, a Communist was elected governor of Amur and an unrepentant leader of the August 1991 Brezhnevite coup was elected governor of the key military region of Tula, with 62 per cent of the vote in a field of 11 candidates. It was a kind of Russian equivalent of the Wirral South by-election. One of the right wing newspapers, Segodnya, summed it up with the headline: ‘Red Sunday comes before Red Thursday’.

This elimination of the middle ground in Russian politics – with the regime planning a new wave of shock therapy and rising radicalisation of the population – was the context in which the congress of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation met, in Moscow in the middle of April. The changing relation of forces was shown by the fact, that whereas in 1994 Zyuganov’s alliance with Chernomyrdin (including voting for the budget) had lasted nine months and seriously set back the CPRF, this time it lasted little longer than two months and the Communists continued to advance, particularly on a regional level. The left wing of the Communists also grew significantly.

The breakdown of the agreement between Zyuganov and the government, symbolised by the promotion of Chubais, together with the scale of the 27 March actions, set the scene for a shift to the left in the CPRF’s tactics at its congress. This in turn defused the growing discontent with Zyuganov’s strategy within the party – so that he was re-elected party chair with just one vote against and the action of the parliamentary fraction was endorsed. Even so there were sharp criticisms of Zyuganov’s tactics, particularly his support for the budget. MP Tatyana Astrakhankina, for example, condemned what she called Zyuganov’s ‘pernicious policy of compromise’ with the government. She also attacked Podberyozkin as an ‘ideological saboteur’. Following the Congress, criticising the leadership from the left, the Komsomol youth organisation announced its political and organisational independence from the party. But overall the party emerged united precisely because the congress signalled a shift to the left.

Zyuganov told the congress that the time for compromise with the Yeltsin administration was over and that the party would have to go onto the offensive including by a campaign of extra-parliamentary mass protest.

A message of ‘reconciliation’ sent by Yeltsin to the congress was met by whistling and jeers. Zyuganov told reporters ‘We do not agree with this. We do not trust a man who has betrayed… his country’. The congress announced a campaign of ‘extra-parliamentary protests within the framework of the law’ against the Yeltsin regime.

A resolution ‘On attitude to the ruling political regime in Russia’ said the Russian Communist Party ‘can only be in irreconcilable opposition to the ruling political regime in Russia’. This means ‘to oppose the anti-people policy of the authorities, capitalisation and colonisation of the country’. At the same time the document says the party is ‘a responsible opposition’ which stands for integrity of the country and against ‘an offensive of private capital on rights of the working people’. The congress proclaimed the party’s key task to be to fight for ‘a change of the ruling regime, the social, economic and political course’ and for creation ‘of a government of national interests and people’s confidence.’

The resolution summing up the Central Committee’s political report said that Communists are going to adopt non-parliamentary methods of opposition, and, in particular, prepare a national political strike.

The congress issued an appeal ‘to the peoples of Russia’. Calling for a campaign of extra-parliamentary opposition and declaring ‘It is time to act, act and act again; to unite and establish salvation councils, strike committees and other public bodies in villages and towns,’ and prepare for nationwide political demonstrations on 1 and 9 May.

A resolution was adopted calling for a national political strike. It urged local Communist Party branches to ‘evolve into centres cementing all progressive forces, and be active in the preparations for the national political strike, and in the strike itself’.

Another resolution said: ‘Political manoeuvring by the government, changes of ministers, endless promises and assurances cannot conceal the essence of the authorities’ actions – any government created by this regime will serve its goals of robbing the people’. The main task, it added, was ‘to save Russia’s statehood and the country itself which is being turned into a semi-colony in accordance with the will of international capital.’

In line with this, activists were instructed to start collecting signatures on petitions in favour of ousting Yeltsin from power and to change the constitution to increase the powers of parliament vis-á-vis the presidency. Although such petitions would have no legal authority, they would be a means of mass campaigning by the party.

The congress decided to press for radically amending the Constitution of Russia and redistributing powers in favour of the parliament. It instructed the CPRF Duma faction to raise the question of no confidence in the government. However, a proposal for an immediate no confidence vote was deleted after Zyuganov pointed out that this could simply backfire allowing the government to choose the time most favourable to it to dissolve parliament. Under the constitution, the president can respond to a vote of no confidence in the government by either appointing a new government or dissolving parliament.

In his closing address to the congress Zyuganov argued that the Communists would need a threefold numerical superiority over the reformers to come to power. In these circumstances the CPRF’s tactics should be designed to increase its own forces and attract new allies. He said that the Communists need to win the support of the working class and peasantry, and to create an alliance with the trade unions – whose leadership has given de facto support to Yeltsin. Zyuganov argued that such unity would be among the pivotal issues for the left movement.

Overall, the first three months of 1997 have brought the organised working class into the leading role in the opposition to the government. An attempt by the CPRF to go along with Chubais’ budget cuts, and still less the government’s next budget in the autumn, will be even more difficult to agree within the parliamentary fraction.

Within the Communist Party of the Russian Federation the basis has been laid for a deeper political clarification. The left has been strengthened numerically and politically. Zyuganov’s line of uniting and leading the patriotic opposition to the destruction of Russia has been vindicated. But his calls for a coalition with a non-existent ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’, or progressive wing of regime, have resulted in a series of centrist zig zags.

In fact, the distinction between more ‘national’ sections of Russian capital on the one hand and to different degrees forces such as Chernomyrdin, Luzhkov and Yeltsin’s former bodyguard Khorzhkov, who, for example, support a union with Belarus and oppose NATO expansion, and, on the other hand, Chubais, Nemtsov and Gaidar (and also in reality Lebed) who are simply agents of Western imperialism, is a real one – and at times of the utmost importance. On individual issues, such as union with Belarus, NATO or western attempts to break up powerful Russian companies to better colonise the economy, it is necessary to ally with national capitalists when they take the same side as socialists. But strategically, no section of capital is capable of defending Russia – because that requires socialist measures – and even ‘patriotic’ capitalists will put class before nation. That is why no real bourgeois opposition to the Yeltsin regime exists in Russia today. As the Sandinistas put it, only the workers and peasants will go the whole way.

Capitalism has always brought catastrophe to Russia and always will bring catastrophe to Russia. All sections of the capitalist class will betray the country. Faced with the reduction of their country to a virtual colony and the elimination of its industrial, scientific and cultural achievements of the last 80 years, a patriotic struggle to defend Russia from imperialism is essential. But it can only be led by the working class.