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Aleksandr Buzgalin: RT is portraying Putin as a democrat who stands up to the US

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

Vladimir Putin is now again president of Russia. And a narrative has been developing over the election campaign, and certainly in much of the coverage that you see on RT, the Russia Today channel, but also interviews being held on other places—Al Jazeera and some of the American networks—by people that support Putin. And the narrative is Putin is the way to democracy, that Putin understands that there needs to be a transition to this sort of institutional law and understands that democracy will come and he will play his role in it. Another part of this is the narrative that the protest movement, the critique of Putin, is mostly being driven by the U.S., and as part of a strategy to contain Russia as—very similar strategy United States has towards China and again in Syria. It seemed the narrative goes that people like Putin are the only ones that can stand up to U.S. hegemony, and that’s why the U.S. would like to see Putin weakened.

Now joining us to unpack all of this is Aleksandr Buzgalin. He’s a professor of political economics of Moscow State University. He’s a coordinator of the Russian social movement Alternatives. He’s authored more than 20 books and hundreds of articles. And he joins us now from Moscow. Thanks for joining us again, Aleksandr.

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN, PROF. POLITICAL ECONOMICS, MOSCOW STATE UNIV.: Thank you for invitation and opportunity to talk to you.

JAY: So what do you make of this sort of left position, although you actually find it on parts of the sort of libertarian right, I guess you could say, that Putin is one of the few leaders that has the power and strength to stand up to American hegemonic ambitions? And the critique of the elections, the critique of the fairness of elections, a lot of the protest movement, is one way or another kind of inspired or directly helped by the Americans. And thus there’s a sort of defense of Putin taking place.

BUZGALIN: This is very complex and very important question. First of all, in Russia we have—or better to say was created—image that Putin is the only alternative for U.S. and NATO hegemony—better to say hegemony of U.S. officials and NATO officials and transnational corporations, because I know that in the United States there are a lot of people who are not supporters of bombarding of Yugoslavia, of tech for Libya, and all other forms of hegemony. So. But image is that only Putin can defend Russia from possible attacks from NATO, or something like this. And in Russia, unfortunately, some people really have a fear that if, in the United States, government will decide that we are not democratic enough, you will solve this problem, problem of absence of democracy, or so-called absence of democracy in Russia, by rockets, like it was Yugoslavia, or by airplanes and bombarding. So this is real problem.

From other point of view, I want to stress that democratic left and our movement, Alternatives, and myself, I want to stress, one and second, and sometimes stress that Putin is creating image that he’s defender of everybody against U.S. hegemony. Really, his politics sometimes a little bit is critical as far as some actions of officials of the United States is concerned. Really, he is continuing the same model in the world scale, maybe with some elements, too, of Russian nationalism or Russian great power chauvinism, but a little bit, because Russia is not strong enough for empire ambitions.

The problem is also very important because we need to have support of real democracy in Russia, and Putin is not democratic leader. I want to stress that these elections, of course, brought victory to Putin by any means, but a real estimation of his victory is not 64 but maximum 50 with something percent. And a lot of falsifications took place. And the problem is not plus or minus 10 percent. The problem is that people do not trust [incompr.] officials.

From other side, people are very afraid that if we start to fight against Putin or we’ll not vote for Putin, another alternative will be even worse. I said that such leaders as Nemtsov and other persons from Yeltsin’s team, team of 1990s, where we had very deep crisis, created image that the only alternative to Putin is pro-U.S., pro-NATO, a very far-right liberal team of leaders who will brought even more terrible capitalism than we have now. And this is very bad alternative, unfortunately, for everybody.

And one more detail, very important detail. It was official reception—I don’t know how to say—fancy reception organized by American Embassy, U.S. Embassy, for leaders of opposition. And after that it was like a bad game. After that, everybody could say, look, they’re just spies of the United States, nobody else. That’s not true. A lot of people who came for meetings of the protest are against U.S. domination, and they’re not in—they have no connection with transnational corporations or State Department of the United States.

JAY: But what do you make of the argument that, you know, Russia did oppose the expansion of the U.S. mandate in Libya and they’ve since said they were probably wrong to even support the mandate in Libya? They blocked a mandate in Syria, a UN mandate that many people think might have led to some kind of foreign intervention. At critical moments, Russia does seem to take a stand against U.S., you know, policy that not too many countries have the strength to do, other than—you know, that—and certainly not on the Security Council, other than China, of course, and China often is not as active as Russia is on these kinds of issues.

BUZGALIN: So it’s not bad, of course, that our leaders made some real steps in favor of—against domination, against domination of U.S. officials in all international events and foreign policy. But from my point of view, it’s good, but absolutely not enough. So it was small and very moderate steps. And Russia could and must do much more decisive and much more open steps.

And the most important question: Russian government thinks that the only alternative for U.S. domination is strong Russian army with a lot of nuclear weapons. And this is big question mark for us. Do we need more nuclear weapons in order to prevent U.S. domination? Or it’s better to have more and more cooperation with international peaceful networks, international pacifist movements? Maybe this is more efficient way. And Russia—Russian officials do not move in this direction, unfortunately.

JAY: Yeah, Putin just announced a major expansion of military spending. But let me go back to the point. The critique that you’ll hear now in this—since the election, the last day or two, goes like this, is that one way or the other, Putin won, and even if there was election rigging here and screwing around there, he won, and if there’d been a runoff, he still would have won. But the critique of the election and the sort of discrediting of Putin is seen as weakening his hand at a time when he is seen as someone who can stand up to this role of the United States, which may well be an attack on Iran. And so, you know, if Putin were to take a very strong stand against an attack on Iran, that could be very significant. So why go after him now on these other—on the electorial issues? This is an argument you will hear hear here.

BUZGALIN: Yes, it’s true, and this is argument also in Russia. But this is artificial—how say?—creation of artificial opposition, because real opposition to Putin is not Nemtsov or some other right-wing leaders who were really maybe interconnected or who maybe are really interconnected with U.S. officials. Real alternative to Putin is left opposition. I do not like Zyuganov, I don’t like Mironov, leaders of Communist Party and Just Russia, but they proposed another alternative social policy. And as far as geopolitics is concerned, they are not less, they are more against U.S. domination than Putin. So opposition like—led by leaders of left will be much more against U.S. domination than Putin.

So a real contradiction, a real problem, is choice between Putin, who is [incompr.] opposition two years domination and democratic—sorry, not democratic, but left social opposition, even like Zyuganov, who is more strong critic of U.S. domination than Putin. There is no alternative: either Putin or U.S. domination in Russia. There is another alternative: either Putin with mild critique of U.S. domination and antisocial policy, or left opposition with strong critique of U.S. domination and more or less social humanistic policy in Russia. The only problem: that the opposition is old-style and Stalinist. And this is also big question mark and big obstacle to support this opposition.

JAY: There’s a battle brewing in Russia, if I understand it correctly, over whether to join the WTO. And some of these fights that are taking place, more pro-Western and more independent, a lot of it’s coming down to this fight. Can you talk a bit about that?

BUZGALIN: Really, for Russia, WTO is a real threat, because we have a lot of problems with agricultural sphere, with industry, with many other spheres. And we have very brutal form of westernization, we had and we have very brutal form of westernization in my country. And this led to the opposition to globalization.

The problem is that in Russia, main idea of alternatives to globalization is old-style protectionism, but not another model of cooperation, another model of integration. We are trying to distinguish anti-globalism—so idea to close Russia again like it was before—and alter-globalism, idea to have open cooperation with different networks. Or, for example, even Cuba, there are a lot of contradictions in this country, but they are not closed. They send their teachers, doctors, and so on for Latin America. This is open type of life, but this is another openness. This is not openness for transnational corporations. This is openness, this is open dialog with alternative structures in the world. And there are a lot of them. And Putin is not good person, good leader for such policy. That’s why we need alternative here to have another openness of Russia.

JAY: Well, where is Putin on the issue of WTO?

BUZGALIN: He is very—how say?—moving from one position to another. He was leader of pro-Western policy, and he really supported cause of westernization of Russia in spite of the [incompr.] against real policy were in favor of westernization of Russia. And he supported joining to WTO. Then for one, two years, he said no, it’s not a good idea to join to WTO. Then against, yes. What he will say tomorrow, nobody knows. He is very pragmatic in this case.

JAY: And what are the underlying forces here? The way I understand it, the oil and gas sector are more in favor of joining WTO, and the domestic productive side less so ’cause they might be hurt. If that’s correct, what does the oil and gas sector have to gain from joining WTO? Everybody wants Russian oil and gas.

BUZGALIN: So it’s much more complex system, because everybody is hoping that joining to WTO will give to Russian business elite—or oligarchs, better to say—more opportunities for free trade, more opportunities for free accumulation of profit in their hands. This is main reason. And it’s not problem of sectors. This is a problem of type of business, type of corporations, how they’re involved or not involved in corruption and cooperation with state bureaucrats, how they are oriented or not oriented on the internal market. Key problem is situation with labor force, with the working class, with the ordinary intelligentsia, because joining to WTO indirectly will lead to the growth of marketization and privatization of social sphere, education, health care, and so on. And this is really very big threat, and this is very dangerous for Russia.

JAY: So this will be a real litmus test of just exactly what Putin’s presidency will be about, depending on where he comes down on WTO.

BUZGALIN: It’s so. But WTO is more symbolic question, because Russia is not member of WTO but is very pro-Western in many economic spheres, in mass media, in cultural space. We have the same terrible blockbusters in Russia as in New York or in any other corner of the world. So we are part of globalized world, unfortunately. We have problem, of course, of dollar is more important than internal problems of production, and everybody’s looking how much rubles I can have tomorrow for the ruble, because I have all accumulations of—big part of accumulations in euro or in dollar. So we are included in this world already. And WTO is symbolic question. Real problem is to have another type of economic social policy in Russia, not for isolation but for openness for another subjects, another actors, another social and economic networks in other countries. This is key question.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Alexander.

BUZGALIN: Thank you very much. And I hope to continue this dialog one or another time. And thank you for attention to Russia. Goodbye.

JAY: Thank you. 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.