The Poverty of Russia’s Protests

Image Source: BBC

Protests flared around the world last week in response to the global economic crisis. Last Thursday, a one day general strike of 2.5 million people brought France to a standstill.  Wildcat strikes hit Britain as workers at two nuclear power plants protested the use of foreign workers.  An action of a few hundred Black Bloc anarchists in Geneva turned violent when police blocked them from entering the city’s center. Protesters responded with bottles, the police returned with clubs and tear gas, arresting 60. A column of Greek farmers consisting of 300 tractors, trucks, and other vehicles protesting the drop in commodity prices were met by riot police.  One farmer tried to ram a police van as protesters chucked potatoes, tomatoes, and rocks at the cops. Clashes between farmers and police continued into this week as more of the farmers pour into the port of Piraeus. Protests in Iceland brought an interim Left-Green coalition to power which promises to implement measures to quell protests. Latvia saw a protest of 10,000 people turn into a riot against their government’s dealing with the economic crisis. Many of neoliberal miracles of the last decade–Estonia, Lativa, Ireland, Ukraine, and Iceland have hit the economic wall.  Experts say that Ireland is the worst hit in the Eurozone. There a job is lost “every five minutes.”

Indeed protest is in the air. More importantly economics stands at the center.   As the Guardian described last Thursday:

It’s a snapshot of a single day – yesterday – in a Europe sinking into the bleakest of times. But while the outlook may be dark in the big wealthy democracies of western Europe, it is in the young, poor, vulnerable states of central and eastern Europe that the trauma of crash, slump and meltdown looks graver.

Exactly 20 years ago, in serial revolutionary rejoicing, they ditched communism to put their faith in a capitalism now in crisis and by which they feel betrayed. The result has been the biggest protests across the former communist bloc since the days of people power.

Europe’s time of troubles is gathering depth and scale. Governments are trembling. Revolt is in the air.

And not just in Europe. There is an estimated 20 million Chinese migrant workers who’ve suddenly become unemployed, adding to the estimated 10 million jobs lost in December when manufactures shut their doors.  The high levels of migrant unemployment are feared to make an already tenuous situation in the countryside worse.  About 50 to 60 percent of rural families’ incomes come from remittances sent from migrant factory workers. Chinese officials are already contemplating a “softer line” to protesters by urging Party officials to address people face to face.  And then there is the shoe throwing copycat in London who failed to plant his rubber sole on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s grill. Some experts are seriously wondering if China is on the brink of an enormous social explosion, if not revolution.

Then there is Russia.  Russia joined the chorus of global protest as thousands rallied in several cities last weekend.  Actions targeted the economic crisis, the government, car taxes and the murders of Stanislav Markelov and Anastatia Baburnova.  Important issues for sure. Still these protests appeared no more stage managed than past ones. Many of the usual protagonists were center stage–Other Russia, National Bolsheviks, anarchists and others from the Russian “Opposition.” OMON played its usual part as dastardly antagonist, though one should recognize that this time its iron fist wore a velvet glove. The dance between OMON and dissenters went according to the usual script.  The only additions were the unknown assailants who attacked a group of marchers in Moscow. Each side appeared to get what it wanted.  OMON (i.e. the state) showed its ability to keep order. Other Russia affirmed its self-importance and secured its foreign press coverage. As one commentator said about the Moscow action: There were “more journalists than participants.”

Perhaps most interesting was Russia’s real political opposition joined the protests’ ranks. The Communist Party attracted large crowds in the provinces.  In the Far East, the communists wedded the unpopular car tax with challenges to the “government of oligarchs'” promises to “make life better by 2020”. Maybe this is the first sign that the KPRF might actually become an opposition in content rather than only in form.

Popular discontent is growing in Russia.  No one argues against this.  Recent polls indicate a increasing drop in Medvedev’s and Putin’s popularity.  The former is hovering around a 51 percent approval rating, while the latter commands a 65 percent majority. A Levada Center survey found that people are increasingly questioning whether the government has a plan to deal with the crisis. “Twenty-eight percent of respondents said their biggest grievance was that leaders “can’t deal with the economic problems in the country,” and 17 percent faulted the Kremlin for not having a “well-considered plan of action,” reported the NY Times.

Growing public discontent also fuels speculations that there is widening rift within the Kremlin elite, particularly between the President and Prime Minister. Is the supposed rift a sign of healthy and needed disagreement at the top? The beginning of the son moving to bury the father? Or is this simply wishful thinking fueled by general social uncertainty? If there is any rift at the top, I don’t think veiled criticism uttered by Medvedev against Putin will be the telltale sign.  If any fissures emerge, they will begin just below the tandem as Russia’s political boyars use the situation to rally around one or the other to better jostle against their rivals.

Despite the growth in Russians’ public frustration with the authorities, one shouldn’t jump the gun and put their hopes before reality.  Granted the police are concerned, particularly about the potential rise of “extremist” youth on the left and the right.  But to call last weekend’s protests “rare” or a sign of the Kremlin’s rule looking “shakier” are more rooted in fantasy.  The problem is not that protests are rare.  One might say there are too many that are too often ineffective.

The reality is that while last week’s protests should be situated within the larger trend of global discontent, they nevertheless show the longstanding poverty of Russia’s self-proclaimed political Other.  National Bolsheviks, Red Vanguard Youth, and Other Russia political celebrities will find little public support with slogans and flares.  Clashes with provocateurs and skirmishes with neo-Nazis may give the taste of a Wiemar flavor, but it occupies a fringe on Russia’s political palate. The truth of the matter is that Russia’s wannabe revolutionaries are either incapable or unwilling to do any real organizing that weds politics and people’s lives. Instead, ephemeral calls for democracy and rights stand in for real political action.

Perhaps this points to poverty of liberalism itself.  And here Russia isn’t alone.  Opposition movements have completely purged the hunger for state power from their gut.  A general strike of 2 million French a century ago would have brought the state down.  If not, it would have certainly lasted for more than one day.  Revolutionaries of yore wouldn’t have bothered calling for the resignation of politicians. They would have demanded the destruction of the state itself.  Russia’s revolutionaries too, except for the hapless liberals, would have spent more of their energies burrowing within the working masses than wasting them on spectacles.

But what makes the Russian opposition so pathetic is that it rejects its own history.  Revolutionaries of the late 19th and early 20th century–whether they were populist, socialist, or anarchist–faced more difficult challenges than the oppositional diletantes of today.  They had no websites or youtubes to organzie and propagate with. The Tsarist regime was far more repressive.  Funding was more scarce and cadres were smaller and even more vehemently fractuous. Yet, they were far more organized, purposeful, and diligent. And more importantly they endeavored to connect with people’s everyday lives.

But Russia’s liberals of today, let alone many of Europe’s former “socialists,” makeshift anarchists, unionists, and environmentalists, decry this past because of its association with Communism.  Well, like it or not, the communists won and they did so not by calling for resignations, democratic elections, human rights, or freedom of speech. Their position was encapsulated in two words that today’s opposition are too incompetent to imagine or too timid to utter: state power.