There will be a number of important elections on the European continent this year. Somewhat out of sights of mainstream media and EU citizens are the elections to the highest legislative body in the Russian Federation – the Duma. What are the issues involved?
In the last twenty years the Russian economy has been characterised by low growth or stagnation. This affects different social groups and classes with different levels of political power, and the effects on the ‘lower’ half of society are worse. The real incomes of most Russians are stagnating, even declining. For example, the median income is € 250, in purchasing-power parity this amounts to € 500, which means that half the population has still less. At the same time, there are great local differences in this vast country. Megalopolises (like Moscow, St. Petersburg and a few others) are centres of wealth, unlike most of the country. Thus, the average wealth of Moscow in terms of GDP per capita is comparable to the indicator of many European countries. However, the Russian Federation (RF) as a whole is at a level comparable to that of a country like Argentina. All this can be deduced from the great regional differentiation. A Moscow teacher has a 2-3 times higher salary than the same teacher in the country as a whole. Even access to health services, transport services, culture, and the like exhibits wide difference by geography.
The labour market is also specific to the RF. It is gradually transforming from a post-socialist to a liberal-capitalist one, which adopts the worst of ‘Western’ experiences. Russia’s well-known precarity (part-time or non-standard employment) also leads to parallel jobs, low-quality employment, the non-use of people’s acquired education, and to a disregard for labour rights. This situation not only threatens the lower strata but also the middle class, people with a university degree, and young people in general. In Russia, although education is based on liberal concepts individuals are released into a society that is illiberal. The middle class (which is always rather liberal in the West) is still weak and not a source of social stability. This is true except for a few large cities and for whole regions only exceptionally.
Two dominant currents gradually established themselves in Russian society: liberal and so-called conservative (traditionalist). The liberal current has the unequivocal support of the West. Its Russian socio-economic base is made up of economic conglomerates connected to the global economy and to financial-economic structures, also linked to global capital. It is no secret that some of its key people do not actually live in Russia but in London, the US, and the EU, and own large assets all over the world.
The conservative current is essentially based on Russian history and culture and on the traditional roots shaped by 70 years of Soviet society. Its economic base is ‘domestic’ industry and capital, often seeing itself as contrasted to the global world order. It is based on mining and raw materials and related industries but also on the developing military-industrial complex. However, this ‘conservative’ direction has local specifics. While it pursues a liberal social and financial policy it at the same time supports Russian patriotism and builds on Russian historical traditions from various epochs. Soviet rhetoric and many symbols from the time of the USSR are often used in the ideological field. But it also has one positive aspect. In Russia, at least for the time being, there is no possibility of any onset of neofascism or anything of the sort. The historical memory of the Great Patriotic War is too vivid and has brought too many sacrifices for the whole nation. On the contrary, its remembrance is carried out by various patriotic and nationalist groups, which enjoy the support of a large part of the population.
There are two tendencies in Russia – the call for change and the fear of change. Many people in Russia, rather than living fully, feel that they are surviving. This causes fatigue. But neoliberals would like to see that liberalism has a chance in Russia and that the “pro-Western” orientation is growing. It’s not this way. The “Navalnyj case” and the way it is presented is here emblematic. Deeper probes into the participants in the demonstrations connected with Navalnyj show that they are far from seeing him as a saviour. Above all, they call for change, and Navalnyj is the tool of this call today. Let’s look at his popularity in the RF. The Levada Institute, which is certainly not Pro-Putin-oriented, has long monitored the position of politicians in Russian society. In the survey monitoring the level of trust in politicians within the population last year, Putin oscillates in the range of 23-34%, Zyuganov (chairman of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, parliamentary parties) 4-5%, and Navalnyj ranks in the range 2-4%, even during the time when he was hospitalised, tried and convicted. Russian citizens know more about who Navalnyj is. His views are a mix of xenophobia (with some features of anti-Semitism, essentially in his past) and liberalism. Such a person has no chance of gaining the position of opposition leader on a country scale. He has a slightly better chance in large centres with a higher degree of liberalism, such as Moscow, but what appears to attract support for him at the demonstrations is above all the need for at least for part of Russian society to express its frustration.
No one really expects the United Russia Party (JR), a key force in the long run, to lose. It is a governing party, it is a presidential party, but it is certainly not similar to political parties in our part of Europe. It is a mass party, its membership now probably amounts to two million citizens, and it has its own youth organisation. Its political focus is not easy to describe briefly. We can characterise it as a catch-all-party, a party promoting “sovereign democracy” (a concept which originated with the ideologue Vladislav Surkov), and has become one of most dominant ideas for almost two decades as well as an ideological pillar of contemporary Russian reality. The party does not seem to identify either with the right or the left of the political spectrum, and claims that it promotes centralism, conservatism, and pragmatism. It is a patriotic party, some say nationalist. In fact, it is also the party of the decisive Russian social forces in the first place, that is, of the Russian capital. Opinion polls (even those institutions that cannot be considered pro-government) have consistently attributed to it (at least for the last two years) results around 30% and more. This is more than twice the score of the second most important competitors — the parties, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KSRF) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDSR) (both 10-12%). The last party with a real chance of having representatives elected in the Duma is Just Russia – Homeland / Retirees / Life (SR). It is a left-wing clone of United Russia, and a member of the Socialist International. It programmatically subscribes (with a certain narrowing of its eyes) to a social democratic ideology.
Other parties are not yet accepted by the population to the point they could have a chance to enter the Duma. Long-time members of the Duma are also not keen on a different distribution of forces, and they do what they can to prevent any change. Non-parliamentary parties include the Jabloko Party, a centrist-liberal party which played a role in Russia’s transformation into a capitalist society in the 1990s, with a place both in parliament and government. It promoted Russia’s ‘pro-Western’ course, and close cooperation with the United States and the EU. However, its current score remains close to 1%. The environmental party of the Greens as well as the “Green alternative” are not doing better. Nevertheless, Russian citizens show interest in environmental movements and ecological issues locally, and there are known cases of large-scale successful environmental campaigns against the destruction of the environment and the power of large industrial conglomerates and of local “governments”. The Communist Party Communists of Russia was able to achieve results around 2-3% in recent years. This party is yet another party deriving its history and ideology from the CPSU. Although this grouping never made it to the highest legislatures, they have representatives at the regional or local level. Communist traditions are to be seen at varying degrees in other, marginal parties. It is characteristic of the Russian radical leftist movement that, with varying intensity, its components support at least some of the historical reminiscences of the era of Soviet history associated primarily with the name J.V. Stalin. From this point of view, the period of the Great Patriotic War is probably the least controversial, other moments of history are criticised by some of these parties, or condemned, and appreciated by others.
KSRF is steadily represented in the Duma. Towards Putin and governmental policies, it holds critical positions on socio-economic issues, but in essence supports the international policy of the RF. It is active in parliamentary work, tries to amend or hinder some decisions by governmental structures and United Russia in the social sphere, and in a certain way it succeeds in that. But Russian citizens do not expect this party to bring about fundamental changes. Supporters and members of this party also took part in the demonstrations caused by the situation around Navalný. Not to support Navalny, but to take part in protests against the Russian reality. As a party, however, KSRF barely takes part in situations of real political conflicts and specific actions from “below”. And paradoxically, there are also cases where young members and activists of this party have been punished or expelled from such participation.
The LDSR stands as a “defender of Russian nationalism and imperialism”. At the same time, it defends the idea of Pan-Slavism and social conservatism. It has a stable electoral base for this, but no growth potential. Yet, it appears as a valued partner to some parties on the very right edge of European politics.
International dimension of Russia’s parliamentary elections
Today, one of the past enemies of “our free and democratic world” displays varying perceptions in the RF. In the 1990s, optimism prevailed on both sides of the original Cold War battle line. It was naively expected that the danger of military confrontation had been definitively averted, there would be a dissolution of the military, abolishment of military blocs NATO and the Warsaw Pact and ways would be sought to integrate the post-Soviet space into the common European home. The winners of the Cold War lacked the generosity that would have allowed them to gain qualitatively different and long-term advantageous international relations. Blinded by victory, some elites in the Euro-Atlantic area not only wanted peace, they also wanted to get “free” access to the mineral wealth of the area in the East, take their last chance to expand economically and conquer dormant resources for capitalist accumulation. Therefore, very soon the promises of expansion to the East, whether military (NATO) or economic-political (EU) were broken, as well as closing the door for the RF and other post Soviet states to these exclusive clubs. Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, and his foreign minister, Andrej Kozyrev, were prepared for concessions, but they were not prepared for expressions of national pride by most Russian citizens. All this, together with the growing feeling among citizens of the former USSR that they were gradually being robbed by the “West”, led to an increase in negative attitudes. If most Russians in the last decade of the last century were prepared for deeper integration with Western Europe as equal partners, they today want less and have less in common with our part of the continent. It started with the war in Yugoslavia, when Russian society saw the USA as an enemy. Even reservations about capitalism are now turned into rejections of the United States and Western Europe as being the “evil of capitalism.” The Russian government has used this to strengthen Russia’s position in people’s minds, with the ideas that what is Russian is also good. Gradually, since the beginning of this century, two goals have been pursued in the Russian Federation the military-industrial complex is being strengthened, modernized and expanded. New plants are being built with good working and salary conditions. The second is the formulation of a new national idea of Russia’s position in the world, its immutability in the face of other world players. In the RF, a large proportion of people are more prepared to agree that money should be used for defence rather than health. The people’s hope lies in a strong government, in army and tradition. The classic illustration of this was the annexation of Crimea and its positive influence on the president’s popularity. Even opposition political parties such as the KSRF, which have many critical reservations about the government’s socio-economic policy, support Russia’s foreign policy almost unreservedly.
To conclude, I would like to report some findings from sociological surveys to illustrate further this shift of opinion. “De-Europeanisation” is taking place in Russia. It is a process where fewer and fewer RF citizens consider themselves “Europeans”. In 2008, 52% of Russian citizens considered Russia as part of Europe, 36% had a different opinion. This year, 29% of the population had a pro-European perception of Russia, 64% of citizens did not consider Russia a “European state”. And it will get worse. The age group 18-24 says they not relate to Europe at 71%, for the category 55+ it is “only” 58%. And how do Russian citizens see the position of the inhabitants of the “West” towards the Russian Federation? The 18-24 age group believes that 31% of (Western) Europeans approach Russia with respect and understanding; 16% with anxiety; 14% with contempt; 9% with fear and 22% without any feelings. For the age group 55+ it is as follows: 17% of Europeans have a positive relationship; 23% feel anxious; 17% contempt; 21% fear and 16% no feelings. Of course, the question is how the citizens in our part of Europe really feel and how much our reality matches theses conceptions by the people of the Russian Federation, but these findings are certainly a warning. Today, it is much easier to further disrupt reciprocity between people of the western and eastern parts of the European continent and sharpen conflicts on both sides. Any improvement in mutual understanding will require mutual efforts. It is also a matter of left-wing political structures to contribute to a better Europe, where the inhabitants of all its parts would feel safer and aware of mutual belonging. And the international situation, geopolitics and the resulting conflicts will undoubtedly affect Russia’s election campaign and most likely the subsequent election results.
Special thanks to my friend, the Marxist Moscow-based Professor at Moscow State University, political economist and one of the leading figures of the Russian Social Forum, Alexander V. Buzgalin, for his support and insights.