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Aleksandr Buzgalin: Putin promised social democratic reforms but will more likely continue neoliberal policies

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin will be president for six years. Thousands of people came out into the streets today to protest, but perhaps not as big as protest as might have been expected. But what next?

Now joining us to discuss the situation in Russia is Aleksander Buzgalin. He’s professor of political economics at Moscow State University. He’s also editor of the independent magazine Alternatives and a coordinator of the Russian social movement Alternatives. And he joins us from Moscow. Thanks for joining us, Aleksandr.

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN, PROF. POLITICAL ECONOMICS, MOSCOW STATE UNIV.: Thank you for calling. Thank you, Paul—opportunity to talk with you.

JAY: So there was about 100,000 people, apparently, in support of Putin last night when he gave his tearful speech, as it’s being described. Today there was opposition protests, perhaps not as big as expected. What did happen today?

BUZGALIN: So today in the evening we have at Pushkinskaya Square, just near the home from which I am talking with you, approximately 15,000 participants of the meeting, and it’s less than before. As you mentioned, in February and in December, they had up to 100,000 participants of the protest of the meetings for really democratic, really clean, transparent elections. But the situation is very complex and a lot of people are not satisfied with results of the elections. And I think majority understood that elections were not clean and honest. But in any case, Putin had victory, and even according to independent estimations, he could have victory in the first round of elections. And the main question is why.

JAY: Yeah. I think even if you take the numbers that people are suggesting, that he didn’t really make the 50 percent threshold, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that if there’d been a runoff, he would have won. But the whole process is being criticized right from day one, not just the counting of the voting. Is that right?

BUZGALIN: Yes, it’s true. And before elections, during the electoral campaign, it was absolutely unequal opportunities for different candidates. According to independent estimates, Putin had approximately 60, 70 percent of time in main mass media, especially TV, and for Russian province, for elder people, TV is still main source of information. Internet is for intellectual elites, students, but not for majority of ordinary Russians living in small towns, villages, and so on. That’s why it was absolutely unequal.

Second, opposition also made some mistakes, and it was partly objective, partly subjective. In the meetings, where a majority were protesting against dirty model of behavior of our officials, dirty model of parliamentary elections which took place in December, the leaders were inadequate for the feelings of majority. They were representatives not completely, but mainly from so-called liberal—far-right liberal elite, who were associated with the 1990s, with Yeltsin and Gaidar epoch of terrible recession and very big disproportions, very big contradictions. That’s why a lot of people were simply afraid that instead of Putin, we can receive as result of opposition victory even worse person than Putin himself.

JAY: Yeah, I think that’s—that’s a very important point, that the candidates that actually were allowed to run and did run against Putin, they didn’t present much of an alternative. I saw that the Communist Party, one of their platforms, apparently, is to have ethnic stamps in people’s passports. I mean, if that’s true, it’s overtly racist.

BUZGALIN: So about opposition, it’s necessary to tell a few words with details. Second place, as you know, received—Zyuganov, leader of Communist Party of Russian Federation, he received 17 percent. And this is less than on parliamentary elections. Why? Partly because Zyuganov himself is a very old-style leader, like Soviet bureaucrat. Second, he made a lot of speeches in support of Russian nationalism, Russian even Church, and so on and so far.

Then it’s necessary also to understand that people are looking for something new and intelligent, especially young generation, younger generation. And this, this is one of the reasons why Zyuganov received less than before.

From other side, it’s necessary to understand that Communist Party had not bad economic and social program. It’s like left social democracy with more bureaucratic slogans and less a role of civil society. But this is free-of-charge education, free of charge health care, nationalization of natural resources. And this is extremely important for Russia. Progressive income tax. Big minimum—relatively big minimum wage. And so on. So this is not bad program. But the problem is that nobody trusts to Zyuganov, who is opposition now nearly 20 years and did nothing.

From other side, Putin also is not so simple. Just before elections, he published some articles where he took—or maybe better to say steal social slogans of opposition. He started to talk in favor of working class, like in Soviet period. He said that his government, his—all officials will increase wage for teachers at minimum 15 percent, but then added during next six years. So it will be nothing because of inflation, of course. And a lot of such social—or better to say populistic slogans. Also, he said in favor of army, in favor of strong Russia. So he made wonderful image that he will realize everything what Zyuganov, communist leaders, and so on wanted to do. Of course it’s not true. Of course he will continue the policy which led Russia to crisis, very deep economic crisis, with a very small life expectancy, with still low incomes, with parasitic type of economy based on natural—exploitation of natural resources, and so on and so far.

But for majorities there is a big question mark, big problem, because TV, and not only TV, even ienternet, showed opposition led by far-right liberal leaders like Nemtsov and other persons, who were corrupted speculators in Yeltsin period, who were top officials in Yeltsin period. And everybody knows that it was not better than Putin—or in some respects even worse than Putin. And this is one of the reasons why we have now a lot of people who are simply afraid to vote against Putin, especially elder generations. I heard from many people that they are simply afraid that it will be worse.

JAY: Right. You wrote an article a few weeks ago, after some of the big demonstrations. I think the title was “The People Have Spoken”—or I think it was actually “The People Are Not Silent”. But what’s next? So if the electorial opposition was not a very good alternative to Putin, in terms of the mass movement and these big protests, what leadership is emerging there? Is there any alternative?

BUZGALIN: So from other point of view, I’m not—. I’m sorry for my barbaric Russian English. Better to say that we have positive results of all these elections. This is not, of course, victory of Putin, but positive result is appearance of some real elements of protest from ordinary people—intellectuals, students, elder people—and not only in Moscow, but in Russian cities, in periphery, in many regions. And this is rebirth of social movement, rebirth of protest, rebirth of political consciousness. It’s the most important and very positive result of this winter. And I hope that in future we have more and more social slogans, more and more domination of social movements and NGOs, and less and less role of political leaders, especially from old-style Yeltsin leaders, Yeltsin-style leaders.

JAY: Now, a lot of the protest movement and a lot of the struggle that’s been taking place, we’ve been told, has a lot to do with the fight going on within the Russian elite about its attitude towards the West, its attitude towards the WTO, domestic production versus resource sectors, and just infighting amongst the billionaires. Talk a bit about what is the fight or contradictions going on within the Russian elite.

BUZGALIN: So as far as elite is concerned, here we have a strange type of contradictions, because now there is artificial choice. Maybe you understood that another candidate, Prokhorov, a billionaire who had billions and billions of dollars, not of rubles—he has half trillion rubles, a terrible amount of money for Russia. This person proposed far-right economic and social policy. Before, he even proposed 60 hours working week. So it’s really a terrible person, but young, energetic. And he’s trying to show that he’s representative of so-called creative class. Really it’s not creative class. It’s a representation of Russian millionaires and billionaires, so-called nouveau riche, who are parasites on the body of Russian natural resources, financial speculations, and so on. But a lot of so-called elite intelligentsia and a big part of quasi middle class—. You know, in Russia, middle class means those who have living standards like Western middle class. And this is only 15, maximum 20 percent of Russian population. So a big part of this quasi elite decided to support Prokhorov.

And now there is artificial game. Who is better? Putin, who is supporter of one part of oligarchs and business, more statist, more bureaucratic? Or another one, part liberal, part who is more pro-market, let’s say? Both are worse from my point of view.

JAY: It sounds like American politics. Go on.

BUZGALIN: Yes, it’s true. But in America you had some more or less strong (in comparison with Russia) social programs and a little bit progressive income tax, and in Russia it’s absolutely flat curve: certain percent must pay, everybody—a very poor teacher in countryside and oligarch with billions of dollars. So it’s really a very strange situation. But a real opposition represented by—a little bit represented by Communist Party and Just Russia, who received altogether more than 20 percent officially, more than 25 percent in reality, or maybe even more, maybe 30 percent in reality, they are trying to show that we need social alternatives. But they’re not really democratic, they’re not really internationalistic, and they’re very old-style bureaucrats inside. That’s why nobody trusts them seriously.

And if we have, one time, not leader but real network, socially oriented democratic network, we can have real big changes in our economic and social life. But for this, we must work, and work hardly, and in cooperation with our friends, comrades, colleagues in many countries, in the East and the West, because solidarity for Russia is very important. In Russia we have very strange image that everybody in United States and NATO countries are enemies of Russia—artificially created image, partly exploited not only by Putin, but also by so-called left opposition. And this is terrible. And from my point of view it’s very important if you colleagues, friends, comrades in the West, in United States, will talk not about corrupted Russia, not about dangerous Russia, not about nationalistic Russia, but about corrupted Russian officials, dangerous Russian foreign politics led by president and his team, very negative economic and social results of policy of our leaders, but not about Russians. This is not simple mistakes. We are making mistakes when we are speaking about U.S. citizens or NATO countries as a possible enemy of Russia. But please do not repeat our mistakes. This is extremely important for us.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Alexander.

BUZGALIN: Thank you for opportunity to talk to you. It’s very important for us, really. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Aleksandr Buzgalin is a Professor of Political Economy at Moscow State University. He is also editor of the independent democratic left magazine Alternatives, and is a coordinator of the Russian social movement Alternatives, author of more then 20 books and hundreds of articles, translated into English, German and many other languages.