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Putin consolidates his grip on power

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The outcome of the parliamentary elections in Russia can hardly be described other than as a clear victory for President Putin. His party United Russia won 37 per cent of the votes, a substantial increase on the 23.32 per cent gained at the last elections four years ago. The Communist Party (KPRF) who emerged from as the strongest party at the last elections only got half of its share - 12.7 per cent of the vote.

The extreme chauvinistic Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) of Vladimir Zhirinovski came a surprising third - doubling its share to 11.5 per cent; and the fourth party in parliament is the nationalist party Rodina (Motherland) of Dmitrii Rogozin and Sergei Glazev with 9.1 per cent.

All other parties failed to get over the 5 per cent threshold. Turnout dropped to (officially) only 56 per cent of the electorate, i.e. 44% didn’t bother to vote and 5 per cent of those who went to the voting booths made their cross “against all candidates".

Since half of the deputies were elected by party lists and half directly in constituencies the outcome secures a decisive victory for the Kremlin. In the new Duma 48 per cent of the seats or 222 deputies are from Putin’s United Russia party while the KPRF got only 53, LDPR 38 and Rodina 37 seats while 65 other deputies are said to be independent.

Since the LDPR has been shown to be anti-establishment heroes only on talk shows but remained loyal to the Kremlin in every critical situation, and since Rodina is a creation of Kremlin to split the Communist Party vote Putin can safely count on a two-thirds majority in the Duma - enough to change the constitution- enough to allow him to amend the constitution to get a third term.

Now one really understands Putin’s reaction to his electoral triumph when he hypercritically said its another step in strengthening democracy. Well, the Spanish newspaper La Razon got it more accurate when it titled: “Victory of the new czar"

The electoral campaign underlined the Bonapartist character of capitalist Russia. Many oppositionists claim that the elections were unfair and rigged. Most likely this is true. Most media and particularly all TV stations have been put under control of the Kremlin during the last few years. In addition, the vote in the army barracks is known to be rigged. KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov claimed that the real turnout was only 53 per cent instead of 56% and that United Russia received only 3 per cent, his party 13 per cent, the LDPR 12 per cent, Rodina 11 per cent and the two right-wing parties liberal parties Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) 6 per cent respectively 5 per cent.

If true - and exit polls made immediately after the elections tend to support the KPRF claim - the two small liberal parties would have entered the Duma and by this reduced the number of seats particularly of United Russia. Nevertheless, even if the KPRF numbers would be accurate the electoral outcome carries with it a number of political lessons.

Probably, the most important political lesson to be made is that after years of capitalist restoration the masses get more and more appalled with the social consequences and the political system. Half of the electorate didn’t vote or voted against all candidates.

The parties elected got the support to an enormous degree because they campaigned rhetorically against the oligarchs. LDPR, Rodina a party created only three months ahead of the elections and o United Russia undertook a massive propaganda against the oligarchs.

Putin even put YUKOS boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky into jail shortly before the elections. This small class of big capitalists has enriched itself so unashamedly and massively that it is hated by the whole population. Only western pro-market journalists, but no Russian, hails them as bold entrepreneurs representing the future of the country.

But this unrest against the system and the oligarchs remains atomised, apolitical and passive. So it did not lead until now to the formation of a new workers’ party and militant mass unions. First attempts like the foundation of the union Zashita or the Labor Party of Oleg Shein failed to become a real expression for the working class’s resistance. So populist and nationalist forces gain from the confused popular unrest.

Forces like Rodina try to capitalise on this unrest by demagogically calling for a social safety net. Its leader Sergei Glazyev said: “I think Yuri Luzhkov [the mayor of Moscow] put it aptly when he said that we should work in the capitalist way and distribute in the socialist way". And he argues for more state intervention in the economy: “In my opinion, we cannot confine ourselves to the European model of social democracy. We need to come to grips with the economy,” he added. “The state must preserve the regulating role in basic industries; it should keep controlling stakes in the power industry, in the railway transport; the state should be absolutely dominant in the exploitation of natural resources."

The elections massively consolidated Putin’s grip on the Duma via his links with the other parties in the Duma but it does not necessarily reflect a substantial increase in political support for his policy. One must bear in mind that since the last elections Putin’s party Unity Russia fused with the party Fatherland of Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov and their combined share of votes is exactly identical with the 37 per cent they received now.

The defeat of the KPRF is disastrous even if Zyuganov’s claim is correct and they would have get 13 per cent. It is still only half of last elections result. How can this been explained? The KPRF - despite its socialist rhetoric - shows more and more openly its character as a capitalist party. It not only collaborated with Putin on a number of issues but also failed to rally the masses against the regime’s attacks.

It looked openly for support from the oligarchs, nominated some of them to the top of the electoral list and got financial support from hated oligarchs like the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskiy and the recently arrested YUKOS boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Now the party received is well-deserved punishment from the voters.

The disaster of the right-wing liberals shows that the middle-class increasingly turns away from the ideas of the free-market and towards nationalism and a strong state in politics and the economy. After 13 years of real capitalism the idea of the free market got an unceromonial funeral.

However the electoral result also shows the enormous danger of the absence of a working class alternative. As this is the case the confused protest turns into support for chauvinism. Putin himself is personally responsible for waging a cruel war in fact a a genocide - since late 1999 against the Chechen people. Rodina’s leader Rogozin promised he would “close Chechnya” so that not a single Chechen young woman would blow herself up in Moscow in future and the party promised a reward for the head of Basayev, the most capable and famous Chechen guerrilla commander. Zhirinovski made similar proposals.

Now all parties look to the coming presidential elections in March 2004. There can’t be any doubt about a victory for Putin. However huge social unrest is fermenting as an underlying tendency at the moment. But the new ruling class can’t keep working class hatred subdued forever via media control, chauvinist war and repression. Sooner or later Russia will explode. Preparing the working class politically and building a revolutionary workers’ party will be crucial to ensure a socialist victory.