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Russia: The Navalny case and the Putin regime

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On 20 February, the latest act in the legal farce surrounding Alexei Navalny, the figurehead of the bourgeois Russian opposition, came to a close. Moscow's Babushkinsky Court dismissed the appeal against his three and a half year prison sentence. In the same courtroom, a fine equivalent to 9,500 euros for defaming a war veteran was also upheld.

Navalny had already been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison at the beginning of February. The special court dealing with questions of accusations dishonouring the reputation of soldiers, civil servants etc, confirmed this, even though the sentence was reduced by a few weeks.

Neither Navalny’s arrest at Moscow airport on 17 January - announced in advance by the Russian government - nor the court sentence, extended at any time by compliant judges let alone his attempted assassination, should come as a surprise. Putin obviously aimed at taking the figurehead of the opposition out of circulation at least until the next presidential election, if not permanently.

The judiciary's reasoning sheds a telling light on the Putin system. According to the verdict, Navalny had violated parole conditions resulting from earlier criminal proceedings. When he narrowly escaped being poisoned - presumably by agents of the Russian state - he was flown to a hospital in Berlin. Yet, according to the court, he had not complied with the conditions of his probation, which included reporting to the Russian authorities every two weeks. In fact, for much of this time he was in a coma.

The scandalous sentence is anything but an isolated case. Russian opposition members, not to mention activists of oppressed nationalities or leftists critical of the regime, have for years been subjected to such forms of state repression.

In fact, political repression generally hits leftists harder than their bourgeois rivals. A year ago, in the so-called "Network Case", a group of anti-fascist activists in the city of Penza were sentenced to many years in prison. The sentences were based on forced confessions. At the end of December, Sergei Udaltsov, a leading member of the Left Front party coalition, who had already served a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence for his involvement in the 2012 protests, was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in prison for an unauthorised protest action.

Mass protests
However, the crucial difference between Navalny and the countless cases of political repression, including scandalous sentences and long-term imprisonment for exercising democratic rights, lies in the fact that these achieved a deterrent effect because for many years Putin’s regime could rely on a degree of social stability at home, in addition to its repression and monopolisation of the media.

This time it is different. The arrest and conviction of Navalny triggered a wave of mass protests across the country. These became the largest in recent years, with about 15,000 participants in Moscow and over 100,000 in 80 or more cities nationwide. The significance of the unsanctioned demonstrations can also be seen in the number of protesters arrested. According to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights organisation, at least 4,000 participants were arrested in mid-January alone. Criminal proceedings were initiated against many of them, or fines or administrative detention were imposed in summary proceedings.

At least 5,600 participants were again arrested at other demonstrations on 31 January. People were arrested not only for participating in protests, but also for sharing unauthorised protests on social media. Video footage shows police brutalising demonstrators without any reason. Some left-wing organisations also supported the protests critically, that is, without endorsing Navalny's political goals. After the arrests on 23 and 31 January, Navalny's movement is now calling for no further protests and instead to be ready for the Duma elections in September.

Whatever the further mobilisation, the movement signals a significant change in the political situation in Russia that goes far beyond the demands for the release of Navalny. In the face of the economic and political problems of Russian imperialism, Putin's regime itself risks faltering. Navalny and the bourgeois, pro-Western forces hope to capitalise on this situation. It is no coincidence that, unlike in previous years, they are directing criticism of Putin mainly at accusations of corruption and enrichment by him and his supporters.

Among other things, an anti-corruption foundation set up by Navalny published a video that went viral about a $1.4 (100bn rubles) palace on the Black Sea, which it is claimed had been built for Putin, an example of his personal enrichment. With these revelations, Navalny is trying to appeal to a wide range of Putin opponents, ranging from discontented wage earners and the poor to urban middle classes and upwardly mobile people to discontented capitalists, who feel they have been shortchanged in the Putin system.

Navalny and the right-wing liberal opposition
But this should not obscure his political orientation. The accusations of corruption are a means to an end for Navalny and also have the advantage that he can let his actual political, programmatic goals fade into the background.

Navalny is a right-wing liberal who wants to save Russia from Putin. In the past, he has found favour with liberal as well as right wing nationalist groups and organisations and has defended "Russian interests" against the democratic ambitions of non-Russian peoples and nations, quite in line with Putin's own views. He has never distanced himself from his extremely racist expressions - in 2007, for example, he referred to people from the Caucasus as "cockroaches" - but these accusations seem to have either faded with time or been erased by his martyrdom. His racist outbursts against Chechens, among others, show that he is not, and does not want to be, the democratic do-gooder that his Western fans like to see him as. Navalny presents himself as a restorer of the Russian nation. Euphemistically, he describes himself as a "nationalist democrat". As such, he has to compete with Putin for the nation's favour and does not want to fall behind when it comes to playing to the people's "feelings".

Currently, Navalny reduces everything bad in Russia to an alleged corruption of the elite. Firstly, this ties in with the perception of many people that they are being "robbed of everything". While this is true enough, corruption in Russia is more of a side issue compared to the legal privatisation during the restoration of capitalism of what had been supposed to be the people's property. This continued under Putin. Politically, the accusation of corruption is just demagogy if, like Navalny, you do not criticise the political-economic roots of this but only want to get your snout into the feeding trough.

Secondly, Navalny criticises the Russian system's limitation of popular participation - and parts of the ruling class itself – in political power. This does not correspond to his idea of a decent capitalist great power that aspires to be on an equal footing with others, above all the Western great powers. This would mean having corresponding political structures in which, above all, the various sections of the bourgeoisie itself can compete democratically for political supremacy. In his eyes, the structure of the Russian state does not fit in well with an imperialist country that has achieved a new national self-confidence.

Thirdly, this populism also appeals to German and Western European supporters, who prefer to see the present imperialist conflicts with Russia as disputes over "democracy and the rule of law" rather than over markets and imperial zones of influence. These are those who, especially where German business interests are directly at stake, want to continue to cooperate "reasonably" with Russia while, at the same time, creating and increasing their own legitimate, civilised, liberal-democratic political and military threat potential. In order to directly blame Russia's illegitimacy on Putin, it is helpful to present a face of legitimacy, an anti-Putin. Navalny reduces the Putin era to corruption and despotism. This is enough to be ennobled by the representatives of imperialist Germany.

Navalny's politics primarily express the interests of the not too large sections of the bourgeoisie and the urban petty bourgeoisie, who have more to gain than to lose from a greater opening to the West. However, as the scope of the protests shows, he also arouses sympathy among urban youth, workers and the middle classes, who either harbour illusions in his version of a modern, enlightened populism or, despite the absence of such illusions, relate to common goals such as the elimination of political persecution.

For a long time, Navalny was able to mobilise a rather limited circle of voters and supporters with his populism, and this base was far from sufficient to pose a serious threat to Putin. However, this could change. In elections, he propagates the tactic of so-called "smart voting". This consists of always supporting the most promising candidates hostile to Putin, regardless of their party affiliation or programme. So far, Putin's people have often been able to achieve clear majorities not so much by rigging elections, but because of the fragmentation and partial integration of the opposition into the ruling system.

With his election tactics, Navalny is in a sense automatically trying to claim all anti-Putin votes for himself. The candidates he supports may include members of the "opposition loyal to the system" such as the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) or the ultra-right LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia).

However, his limited mass base and lack of legitimacy from within the state apparatus have limited Navalny's influence and, therefore, that of the Western powers. Apart from the desire to open up to the West, Navalny offered himself up to them by leaving essential foreign policy questions - such as military interventions, Middle East policy, etc. - open, or answering them with noncommittal phrases. Conversely, he also defended Russian interests, such as in Crimea or eastern Ukraine.

Even if Navalny's populist method should lead to certain electoral successes and scratch the legitimacy of Putin's system, it does not include a political concept for a "Russia without Putin". For some, Navalny may appear as an authentic and rousing opposition figure because he has been a counterpoint to Putin for years, putting his personal fate on the back burner and not confining himself to the limited options of the parties "loyal to the system". Ultimately, however, he subordinates not only himself but also the movement on the street to his electoral tactics.

Navalny's political programme, as far as it has been explicitly formulated at all, is reactionary. But, of course, that is far from all there is to say about his arrest and the protest movement. The persecution of Navalny is a deliberate act of a bourgeois-bonapartist regime whose political legitimacy has cracked. This is taking place on the soil of a class society, an imperialist power in economic crisis, which has to assert its interests against imperialist rivals.

Origin of the conflict with Putin
The restoration of capitalism in the former USSR has created private capital out of the formerly socialised industries, especially in the energy sector. But the newly created bourgeois class, the oligarchy, did not have a continuous history as such. It failed to pursue a common general capitalist interest; rather, its more or less unbridled appropriation and plunder of the social wealth created by working people and planned by a bureaucracy over a period of nearly 70 years, threatened to ruin the economy.

Russia's future as a major capitalist power was seriously in doubt in the 1990s. This was evident then, when chewing gum, Tetris (computer game) and McDonald's conquered the country, but it threatened to disintegrate under Yeltsin. Not only was the state in decay on the periphery, where peoples and nations made new or old claims to political autonomy, but also internally, where oligarchs bought regional governments out of the federal system, thereby showing how little they intended to pursue any "overall national interest". The desolate state of the political superstructure reflected the internal state of the restorationist bourgeoisie, a class that had no awareness of the challenge of competing globally.

Over the past 20 years, Putin has replaced this chaos with a bonapartist regime characterised by strong centralised power structures, a preponderance of the security apparatus and sections of the bourgeoisie historically linked to it. Putin put an end to the threat of balkanisation and the downgrading of Russia into a semi-colony of the West, a fate that threatened it in the course of the neoliberal shock therapy of the 1990s. Instead, he created a political superstructure with which Russia can once again stand on the world stage as a major capitalist power. This system works in such a way that an "overall national interest" can be established not necessarily through the bourgeoisie itself but, if necessary, against it or over its head. The recognition of Putin as the representative of "ideal total capital" by the various factions of the bourgeoisie is not a result but a precondition for the political representation of their interests. Oligarchs who resisted this received stern lessons, such as Khodorkovsky in 2004. Of course, this is not just a deviation from some "ideal form" of bourgeois democracy, but rather it is its specific form under a certain historically conditioned class constellation. The conflict that Navalny is having with Putin's state apparatus is ultimately a result of the way in which the social property of the USSR had been privatised. Putin's United Russia, the "party of crooks and thieves " as Navalny dubbed it, reflects a bourgeoisie with precisely these characteristics.

Class Struggle and Imperialist Conflict
Russian imperialism faces great challenges. Apart from the arms industry, it does not have strong export industries with which to secure dominance over markets in other countries. The extra profits from the export of fossil fuels make it possible to finance the state pension and health system, which has been an important integrative element of the Bonapartist system due to the insecurity of large parts of the population. However, the fall in energy prices jeopardised the state distribution system and forced the government to launch a historic attack on pensions in 2018.

In 2020, gas export revenues plummeted by 39% and total exports by 24%. Oil and gas exports are also naturally the subject of imperialist rivalry. In the face of the global oversupply of energy sources, the main European consumers are only prepared to import more from Russia on terms that are advantageous to them, i.e. if they share in the extra profit that is made. The above-mentioned aspects describe a crisis-like development in Russia, which can lead to political ruptures in the state apparatus and opposition within the ruling class, and thus to an escalation of conditions. It will lead to social attacks on the masses, which will make resistance necessary.

At the same time, the difficult economic situation goes hand in hand with an inhuman pandemic policy and the extensive abandonment of restrictions on the economy - with fatal consequences for the health of the masses. In total, the country has suffered more than 80,000 deaths.

Political conclusions
This current economic crisis is undermining the social basis of Putin's political system of rule. This affects the mass of wage earners, the middle classes, but also the super-rich and capitalists. In the Putin system, they largely left political power to the state bureaucracy with a bonapartist leader. In return, the latter ensured massive profits for big capital and the stability of business.

This fundamental process of social crisis means that a mass movement could actually form behind Navalny to challenge Putin. The regime is obviously aware of this and therefore locked him away. But the repression against him is only the tip of the iceberg. Well over ten thousand people have been arrested and brutally assaulted in recent months and are now awaiting trial.

Even if Navalny himself is a bourgeois-nationalist reactionary to whom leftists can give no political support and have no illusions in his "democratic" intentions, this condemnation is not primarily about his person or character. After all his defects apply in full measure and more to Putin himself. Rather, it is about the Russian bourgeois-bonapartist regime wanting to make an example, to intimidate any rebellion, any opposition, to nip it in the bud. Hence, thousands more arrests.

The working class and revolutionaries cannot and must not be indifferent to state repression, because the enforcement of these sentences and arbitrary arrests strengthens the state power and is directed not only against Navalny, but also against any future left resistance, against any workers' action. Revolutionaries, too, must demand the release of Navalny and all those detained, and demand that all charges against them be dropped. If demonstrations for his release take on a mass character, leftists should also participate in these protests and appear there with their own slogans and banners.
Moreover, it would be wrong for the left to leave political escalation to leaders from the bourgeois camp. The dispute underlines that Putin's bonapartism, contrary to its outward appearance, is currently a politically weakened and unstable regime that can be shaken by class struggles. The political weakness of the workers' movement and the bonapartist form of rule are two factors that contribute to the fact that a bourgeois populist and nationalist could become such an icon, as was already the case in the mass protests of 2011/2012.

However, the solution to the "democratic question" lies not in the hands of the liberal bourgeoisie, but in those of the working class. To seize it, the working class needs its own programme, which does not count on either a reformed Putin regime, as the CPRF and the trade unions linked to it do, or on hopes for a better Russia under an anti-Putin. Instead, the class-struggle and radical left must do all they can to politically break the workers away from the bourgeois opposition by linking the struggle for democratic rights with the huge social questions of low wages, declining services, precarious jobs, unemployment, etc. Only the building of strong and militant trade unions and social movements independent of the regime, and of a revolutionary workers' party independent of Putin and Navalny can achieve this.