The statistics are as alarming as they are revealing, not just because of the numbers, but also because of the speed in which Russia has been transformed. Since 1990, Gross National Product (the total value of goods and services produced each year) has dropped more than 50 %. Today, about 30 % of the population lives below the poverty-line, and homelessness and alcoholism are on the rise. The decline in life expectancy is so dramatic that the Russian population is actually shrinking by almost one million people a year.
At the same time, the «new Russians» of the business and political elite have become massively rich through manipulating the privatisation of the economy, and controlling the country’s massive oil, gas and other natural resources. Up to one quarter of anonymous bank accounts in Cyprus and Switzerland are thought to be held by the Russian elite, as they hide their illegal gains offshore.
This dramatic social polarisation is one of the most obvious results of Western led-market reform, according to Economics Professor Alexandr Buzgalin, a Moscow-based advisor to the labour movement and community organisations.
According to Buzgalin, «people are so tired from the reforms and disorder, that they are afraid of any changes - even positive ones. This partially explains the support for Putin, who is trying to create an image of a country where everything is in order.» In desperation, some Russians are also nostalgic for the old days, when there were few liberties and freedoms, but everyone had a job and an appartment. Buzgalin believes that «the relatively large growth of Statism is partially a reaction to the destruction of the Soviet Union, and also a result of Americanization of Russian life. For those older Russians, who remember when we were a Super Power, the idea of Russia as an American satellite is catastrophic».
Attempting to figure out who is pushing for democracy in Russia is a political minefield. President Vladimir Putin, is trying to consolidate power in the hands of the office of the President. One of the great paradoxes of today’s Russia is that he is being met by stiff opposition from the opposition Communist Party, which for 70 years enforced an absolute centralisation of power, under Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev and Gorbachev. But the party has changed. According to Buzgalin, «today, the Communist Party is fighting against concentration of power in the hands of the President. They are struggling for more social rights and democracy in parliament. Putin is proposing privatization, and liberalisation of the labour code to suit business interests. The Communist Party is claiming that the new Russia is becomming as authoritarian as the former Soviet Union».
Fortunately, new types of resistance to authoritarianism are developing in society, as a real alternative to both the liberalism of today and great power Statism of yesterday. For example, the labour movement is gaining strength and confidence, with a growing number of workers willing to organise and even strike to protect their rights. At the Yasnogrsk heavy-machinery factory, for example, employees seized control of production in response to owners and managers stealing money through tax evasion and non-payment of wages.
Russia also has a growing youth-led «alter-globalization» movement. According to Buzgalin, this movement is not operating in a vacuum, but is working alongside the labour movement, and is «based on the real interests of ordinary people (in terms of income and status). These various networks are attempting to demonstrate that it is possible to build real alternatives from below».
And if the Bear Wakes-up?
Russia is a rich country, and most economic comentators predict stable economic growth through the increased exploitation of natural resources including gas, minerals, etc. But Buzgalin argues that before all Russians will be positioned to share the country’s wealth, there needs to be «grassroots democracy and regional self-management. Today, democracy in Russia is an illusion. What is really happening is political manipulation. Social movements in other parts of the world need to push their governments to work with the forces in Russia that are trying to bring about democratic change».
Buzgalin’s optimism is also tinged with concern, «We are living in an integrated world and the contradictions that Russia is dealing with will eventually impact the West». With a knowing shrug he adds: «Russia still is a huge country with nuclear weapons and a hungry and angry population. If we don’t have real democracy and if authoritarian tendencies continue to grow, Russia will once again be a threat - and not just for Russians, but for the whole world».