Ending the 'Old Regime' To Start Another
Since the start of July, Russia has undergone a political and social revolution of sorts. The largest political opposition group to the Kremlin, the Communist Party, has split and is only a step away from becoming completely irrelevant. And in a highly unpopular vote, the Kremlin-controlled parliament moved to eliminate most of the social guarantees inherited from the Soviet era. In many ways, the Bolshevik Revolution and some core elements of the socio-political system it created have finally been retired.
On Saturday, embattled Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was re-elected to his post, though it is unclear if he was re-elected leader of the same party. Across town, on a boat traveling the Moscow River, another group of Communist Party delegates held a vote to elect a new leader. Both factions claim to be the legitimate Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Russia's Justice Ministry will have to decide which faction is the "real" Communist Party.
There is little doubt that Zyuganov's faction will be deemed the legitimate party when the Justice Ministry rules later this week. Irrespective of the little chat Zyuganov had with Putin - at the president's "concerned" request - regarding the party's travails.
Since late summer last year, the Kremlin has gone to great lengths to divide, compromise and limit the party's message in the media. The Kremlin even invented a "taxi party" called Rodina (Motherland) to siphon votes away for the Communists. Its tactics paid off handsomely when the Communists lost over half the seats they occupied in the previous house during the recent parliamentary elections.
Following the December parliamentary elections, the number of competitors wishing to replace Zyuganov has grown, with many rank-and-file party members calling for him to step down as leader. Not surprisingly, it is rumored that the past and present members of the Communist Party that hope to retire Zyuganov have Kremlin connections. It is an open secret in Moscow that Saturday's boating enthusiasts are under the Kremlin's sway and very open to doing its bidding.
When the Justice Ministry makes its decision, there will still be a Communist Party -- but in name only. The last significant political echo of the "Great October Revolution" has been broken and rendered all but meaningless in Putin's new political reality.
An even more important element of Putin's vision for Russia is the dismantlement of Soviet-era state guarantees for non-indexed cash payments on a variety of services including transportation and health. Widely unpopular bills were passed by the parliament last Friday in a policy effort to replace free social services available to pensioners, the disabled and other "at risk" groups with monetary compensation.
For the first time during his presidency, Vladimir Putin is using the enormous power he has amassed in the Kremlin, parliament and even public opinion to bulldoze through necessary social reforms. Criticisms of these reforms are rife, with Kremlin-controlled parliamentarians hard-pressed to answer them -- criticisms from core elements of Putin's vast constituency. The primary concerns are that regional governments slated to pay out financial compensation lack the means to do so, as well as that financial compensation will not keep up with inflation.
There is every indication that the Kremlin will continue its course. Exchanging social benefits for cash is an important component of liberalizing the economy, as well as forcing social services to be more financially efficient. At the same time, it should be expected that the raft of bills passed on Friday will be amended in acknowledgement of social protests. This is Putin's political style: he, in tandem with the very powerful security apparatus that surrounds him, determines the big picture agenda while remaining open to minor changes in policy detail, here and there.
Of course the crushing of the Communist Party and the radical overhaul of Russia's present social welfare system are related. With the Communists fighting among themselves, they had little time or interest to spare for the measures the Kremlin was forcing through parliament. This suited the Kremlin just fine. The traditional proponents of ideas and institutions from the Soviet past were forced to focus on self-preservation, not preserving the past.
Western media often comment on Putin's fondness for the Soviet past. The return of a slightly altered Soviet anthem has enraged some. The return of the red star to Russia's armed forces has depressed others. In fact, there is a small cottage industry built around measuring Putin according to the Soviet past. But this focus overlooks Russia's continued moves away from the 'old regime.' While still hotly debated by some Russia observers, even the nature of the security forces could be said to be evolving under the present regime.
On Saturday, Zyuganov is reported to have declared, "capitalism is death." The statement reflects how uncomfortable he and many of his party feel with Russia's present. However, holding such an opinion in Putin's Russia is political death. The Kremlin's push to replace the day care center called the Soviet Union with modern institutions speaks volumes of what Putin thinks about much of the Soviet past. Over the span of a few hours during the weekend, some of the important pillars of the Soviet past become just that -- only a memory.
Putin does not intend to completely gut the Soviet legacy. As mentioned above, he will pick and choose elements that he believes can be incorporated into a new and different algorithm of Russian statecraft. Pragmatically, he has chosen to abandon a top-heavy, very expensive and grossly inefficient social welfare system of the old regime. It should be hoped that other institutions, the military in particular, will eventually be subject to the same kind of re-thinking.