From Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No.219, May 1998.
Copyright © Socialist Review
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Boris Yeltsin’s sudden dismissal of the entire Russian government on 22 March was unexpected but not irrational. It was a government split by internal feuds and soaked in sleaze. There was no obvious establishment candidate for the presidential election in the year 2000. At the same time Russia is confronted by a renewed economic crisis of such frightening proportions that respectable voices are practically baying for the blood of the poor.
Yeltsin’s nominee as prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, was finally accepted by the lower house of the parliament, the Duma, after twice being rejected. Russia’s politicians feared the election which would have followed a third rejection. Sergei Kiriyenko has an impeccable elite pedigree as a former young Communist, banker, oil company director and oil minister. He is also young – only 35 – and untarnished by corruption and scandal. He is little known, so he is neither popular nor unpopular. This gives him, as Moscow News put it, ‘several months’ in which to do ‘the dirty and thankless job’ of hurting ‘a proportion of the population without large scale protests’. If he succeeds he would be the ideal successor to Yeltsin. If he fails he could easily be used as a scapegoat.
Only a few months ago Russia was finally supposed to be stabilising and was described in the Financial Times as ‘the world’s best performing emerging market’. But the Russian economy had shrunk by about half over the previous decade. According to recent figures GDP fell by 28 percent between 1993 and 1996, more than in any major Russian crisis this century. Yet the proportion of tax collected has also fallen over the last five years, from 14 percent of GDP to around 10 percent. World prices of oil, gas and metals, which provide most of Russia’s export earnings, are falling dramatically. The foreign debt now stands at £78 billion.
Russia’s gamble on the market has simultaneously piled up mountains of debt and crippled its ability to pay. Kiriyenko has not come up with any serious ideas for tackling arrears of pay and pensions which have risen to nearly £15.5 billion. By contrast, oil companies – among the worst payers of wages and taxes – have now been allowed to use Russia’s pipeline system for free as part of a programme of government support.
Major parties like the Communists are none too popular. Despite a lot of nationalist and populist rhetoric, they have a record of capitulating at the last moment – as they did over this year’s budget – which gives the government the power to introduce further spending cuts without consulting parliament. They may bargain to the brink over positions in the new government but they are unlikely to risk their considerable privileges by going over it into the unknown.
Such politicians like to blame Russia’s troubles on foreign institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, which wants up to 300,000 job cuts in education and health this year. But these policies suit the core sections of the Russian ruling class in energy and finance. As Sergei Glazyev, a top official in the Federation Council (the upper house of parliament), recently admitted,
‘It means the government is forcing the population to pay for the chaos in government...the main taxpayers are so powerful, they don’t pay tax. It’s easier for the government to cut social welfare, and allow the oligarchy to be relieved of tax.’
Moscow News welcomed the new prime minister with the declaration that ‘the country has long lived beyond its means.’ Yet cuts and economic decline have already had a shattering effect. Life expectancy has plunged; mortality rates have soared. Water and power supplies have failed in the depths of winter. Prisons are breeding grounds of disease. Women have died in childbirth in hospitals without electricity. The homeless freeze to death in the main railway stations. Miners give their lunchboxes away to hungry children. Wages are unpaid for up to three years. Trawlermen’s wives in the far east recently accused the bosses of paying their partners with vodka (recorded as ‘liquid ice cream’) rather than with money.
Despite all this, workers mount a relentless if scattered resistance – bitter, desperate, heroic. Here they go on strike or hold management hostage. There they block a main railway line, go on hunger strike, barricade themselves in and threaten to start a fire. Some strikes are successful, if only temporarily. Some inspire more strikes. There is solidarity, there is class consciousness – it is a huge step forward from the old Soviet straitjacket. But there is no unifying organisation, no systematic vision connecting these struggles with the possibility of an alternative society. The building of a revolutionary organisation could help to begin turning desperation into hope.
Last updated: 29.3.2008