By Steve Myers
Many commentators are saying that the replacement of Boris Yeltsin by Vladimir Putin, as acting president of Russia, represents a "new millennium turn" in Russian politics — a turn to a more assertive, nationalistic and militarist Russia. This is not true. Putin is the true political son of Yeltsin, just a more sober and more decisive character.
The "turn" in fact happened last summer, following the United States/British bombing of the former Yugoslavia. This aggression was perceived by the Russian oligarchs as the first step in Anglo-American imperialism's march towards the energy resources of the Caspian region — and their super-profits. The oligarchs feared that Russia would be forced down the Yugoslav road — a Balkanisation along the fault-lines of its many nationalities, dismembering into semi-colonies for Western imperialism to fight over.
The Russian rulers also saw it as a tactic by the US and Britain to prevent a massive European and/or Asian super-imperialist bloc emerging (with Russia centre-stage) to challenge US hegemony worldwide. The Russian oligarchs were correct to fear this from their own capitalist point of view; this is the global picture and an important part of the background to the Chechnya war.
In the Chechnya war of 1994-96, many tens of thousands of lives were lost (one-third of them children). Today, with no end to the carnage in sight, the catastrophe could be much greater. But this time Yeltsin's political son, Putin, is masterminding the whole thing — possibly including the murderous apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia that were used to justify the latest invasion.
It has been well documented how "soft on Russia" the US has been, compared with the European Union. The EU has a different agenda and interests. While the US wants to see the Islamic world (and fundamentalism) and Russia at war for many years to come, the EU wants this fight in "its" backyard to be settled quickly, through negotiations.
Britain's Labour government, trying to straddle the two, is being criticised by the opposition Conservative Party for being too hard on Russia!
From Gorbachev to Yeltsin
Gorbachev's glasnost was the opening up of discussion, a freer media and tolerance of dissent. His perestroika was an attempt to copy the Chinese slow lane to economic "liberalisation" and privatisation towards capitalism. It was hoped that, in this way, the Western billionaires could be kept out and a very large section of the "Communist" bureaucracy could become the new ruling capitalist class.
The arrival of Yeltsin heralded the entry of Russia into almost a decade of fast-lane privatisation. Egged on by the Western powers' promises of heaven and earth, and immense investment which never materialised, Yeltsin and his allies demonstrated the greatest of military brutality against those generals wanting a slower transition.
OThe economic devastation of Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Byelorussia has been worse for their populations than what happened in the years immediately after the 1929 crash in Germany, which led to Adolf Hitler and World War II. Unless this is understood, there is no possibility of understanding the temporary popularity of Putin.
Russia today is a capitalist state with expansionist aims, in the first instance into its old "backyard". We cannot call it imperialist, as there is not any significant export of finance capital yet. And besides, we need to qualitatively distinguish the role of Russia from that of US and EU imperialism which determine so much of global politics.
During Yeltsin's reign, the left disagreed on how best to characterise the Russian state: semi-colonial, degenerated workers' state, moribund workers' state, imperialist, fascist, etc. In reality, the state has been and is capitalist. Its leadership, government, courts and "bodies of armed men" have facilitated the economic restoration of capitalism and the reintroduction of the market.
But it is impossible for Russia to create a Western-style capitalism, in which the rich can afford to pay for social peace through a welfare state and a minimum wage out of their super-profits. This is because the birth of the new capitalist Russia has occurred in a world in which productive power already far exceeds the ability of the masses to buy. Who wants to invest in modernising uncompetitive industries when even competitive ones are being forced to "downsize", when giant multinationals are forced to merge just to be competitive?
Putin's promises for greater state intervention in the Russian economy is no more than a call for a 1930s-style New Deal a la Roosevelt. Except that the call is overshadowed by a Frankenstein's monster created by the West — the rise of ultra-nationalism in Russia.
Putin's Chechnya war
This is the context in which the war against Chechnya is being fought. Our task in the West is to give practical support to the militant workers and their leaders who have led many of the strikes and occupations in the last two years, and who are opposed to this war, to build an anti-war movement. They face serious internal persecution, but this movement has now begun.
The Campaign to Stop the War in Chechnya (CSWC), which has succeeded in involving almost the whole left in Britain, is holding a large public meeting in London on January 27, and a national demonstration to Trafalgar Square on February 5. One of the central tasks of the campaign is to support the Russian anti-war movement, and especially its labour and socialist activists.
International Solidarity with Workers in Russia (ISWoR) is a central participants in CSWC and has already sent donations to a workers'-led initiative to organise a demonstration soon in Moscow against the war. More donations are welcome.