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Aleksandr Buzgalin: Western media focuses on Putin’s repression of pro-Western opposition but ignores workers and civil society fighting for social, economic and democratic rights

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The saga continues for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He’s an anticorruption blogger best known for branding President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia Party the party of crooks and thieves. He was sentenced to five years of hard labor after being convicted on charges of embezzlement and fraud. He was then freed on bail the very next day. And he’s vowed that he will become the next mayor of Moscow.

Here to give us more on this man is Aleksandr Buzgalin. Aleksandr is a professor of political economics at Moscow State University. He’s an editor of the independent democratic left magazine Alternatives, coordinator of the Russian the social movement Alternatives. He authored more than 20 books and hundreds of articles. And he joins us now from Moscow.

Thank you for being with us.


NOOR: So what can you tell us about Alexei Navalny? He’s planning on challenging the Kremlin’s candidate for mayor. Who is he? Is he a criminal, or a victim of political persecution? The Kremlin, of course, denies targeting opponents of its policies.

BUZGALIN: So really the story is much more complex, that it is shown both in Russian and in Western press, because Navalny, first of all, was one of the leading persons in Yabloko, let’s say, center liberal democratic party with old history. But then he was excluded because of the nationalistic propaganda. After that, he became very well known blogger who was fighting against corruption and [incompr.] scandals then with a real struggle. As far as opposition is concerned, he was one of the leaders in the big marches on Bolotnaya Square during last year. But Sergei Udaltsov, leader from the left, and some other people were much more active. And, by the way, Udaltsov is under the arrest nearly two years. He is arrested for two, three weeks, a few months, and then liberated, then arrested again. And there is no big campaign, because he’s left. Navalny is center and very popular among liberal circles. That’s why he became so popular.

Before, he was businessman. And in Russia, I must say, nearly 90 percent of business is semi-criminal because it’s impossible to make honest business in Russia. In one or another sphere, you will make something illegal or shadow or something like that. That’s why it’s possible, I think, to arrest everybody in my country, and it will be more or less real arrest.

But the question is our officials will arrest and will give a few years, some years, five years of jail to the persons who are fighting against them. And Navalny became one of such leaders, and very famous mainly because of the West, partly because of the protest of the liberal intelligentsia and so-called middle class, more or less rich people in our country.

But the problem is in Russia it’s extremely important to fight not only for civil rights but also for social rights, because we have very big inequality. We have really big poverty. We have very rapid growth of prices for ordinary goods for ordinary people, for housing and so on and so far. And Navalny and his colleagues are not fighting for these social slogans. That’s why he has no big support among ordinary Russians, workers, teachers, professors, and so on. It’s one of the paradoxes, and dangerous paradoxes, because if you compare words of Putin in social sphere and words of Navalny in social sphere, Putin will be more paternalistic and more social than Navalny.

That’s why we are very afraid that if opposition will be only pure democratic, if I can say, democratic in bourgeois sense, without any real social requirements, without requirements in the sphere of science, education, health care, housing, wage, and so on, the choice will be not so good. It will be either abstract civil rights and such persons like Navalny and some others who were in ’90s businessman or semi-criminal businessman, or Putin, who is authoritarian leader, who is not really socially oriented but who has a lot of propagandistic slogans with social goals. That’s why I’m very afraid that next step will be more authoritarian, more paternalistic, instead of more social and more democratic. And this is very big contradiction and very big problem if we are speaking about Navalny.

NOOR: So, then, where is this, where is the opposition that’s fighting for these social causes? Has it been pushed totally out of the country or totally underground? Does it exist today?

BUZGALIN: It’s not so simple. First of all, [incompr.] Parliament we have maybe old-style and Stalinist but oppositional party, Communist Party of Russian Federation. And when our prime minister decided to destroy independent NGO Academy of Sciences with 300 years history, the only party which left the hall–they not only voted against this, but they left the hall–was Communist Party of Russian Federation. And they are something. There is a part of this former communist party who are not Stalinist and who disagree on this question, and who, together with young left people, organized every year. They are organizing every year marches against capitalism [incompr.] 2012, and it will be 2013 and so on. There are a lot of different social organizations.

But typically when we had, for example, mass struggle against liquidation, against deconstruction of Academy of Sciences–and it was elite intelligentsia, really elite intelligentsia from academic institutions, from universities and so on–it was no big noise in the West. It was not so interesting. But when it is right-wing liberal leader like Navalny, former businessman, it’s very good idea, and for the West it’s good idea to show that Putin doesn’t support human rights. So Putin really doesn’t support human rights, but it’s better to use another prerequisites, another problems. And I will be very glad to tell you more about destruction of Academy of Sciences, because for our country it’s much more important question then arrest or not arrest of Navalny, honestly speaking.

NOOR: Please go on. Please go on.

BUZGALIN: So maybe a few words about this event, because our prime minister a few weeks ago said that Academy of Sciences, which united nearly 1 million researchers and which is led by academicians, this is really NGO. It’s a self-managed organization which has money from the state. But even in Stalin period it has no direct order from the state. The leaders were elected and so on. This Academy of Sciences, according to prime minister decree, must be destroyed, and instead of that will be Department of Ministry of Education, very liberal and very stupid, I can say, ministry, and this ministry will decide who will be chief of the institute of physics, of chemistry, of biology, of economics, and what this institute must do, and so on. And the most important: they decided to take all the social property of Academy of Sciences and all the budget under control of bureaucracy. And Russian bureaucracy, which is extremely corrupted, will use this money, like in many other cases, for the enrichment.

And we had a lot of meetings, demonstrations, conferences, protest actions of scientists with world names who said no to prime minister, who said no to Putin, who said no to this economic and social policy. And for me this is rare event. And when Communist Party left the hall, it was also rare event. And they started to fight against the government of Russian Federation. They initiated new requirements to say to our government, go out; you must stop your policy. I don’t know what will be the result. They do not have majority.

By the way, as far as elections is concerned, Navalny, according to opinion polls, can have maximum 15 percent. I think the leader of Communist Party, by the way, in past professor of Moscow State University–I’m sorry, Ivan Melnikov, a very good scientist, very well known person, not Stalinist, by the way, and very intelligent, he is candidate for the mayor of Moscow from Communist Party, and I am sure that he will have more votes than Navalny. Navalny is more scandal person and very well supported from Western mass media, especially U.S. right-wing mass media. That’s why he became their hero. Like the scandal with Pussy Riot, it was a lot of noise about these two girls, but it was nearly nothing about militants of trade unions who were arrested. And they didn’t make show. That’s why it was not interesting for the mass media and for the ordinary public. But they were doing real struggle. And I think we must talk more about such people, such events, than about these scandal things.

In any case, I want to say that it was also important detail–it’s not detail; it’s really rare event, because there are a lot of people who are against this system of oppression of freedom of speech. In Tverskaya Street–this is like Times Square in New York–they had thousands of people who came to say no. It was spontaneous event. I participated in this event. It was not organized by anywhere except internet. And people will say not just to this policy. A few of them were speaking about Navalny, but mainly they were saying no to this atmosphere of, how to say, like in swamp. You know, it’s possible to say [kwakwa] but nothing else. And if you want to change this atmosphere, it will be really dangerous. I am not against Navalny, but I must say that if such leaders as Navalny will not talk about social requirements, they will be outside of big politics and they will never have support of big part of Russian population.

NOOR: So I also wanted to ask you about the latest in U.S.-Russian relations. There’s a deepening controversy between the U.S. and Russia as the White House is refusing to commit to a summit with Vladimir Putin over Russia’s handling of Edward Snowden’s asylum request. What is your take on this back-and-forth between U.S. and Russia? Is this just another piece of diplomatic theater between the two countries? And are they more similar than different on surveillance practices?

BUZGALIN: It’s really again very complex question, because, first of all, there is Russia and Russia and U.S. and U.S. I think in the United States there are a lot of people who support Snowden and who are not thinking that he’s a terrible person who betrayed the interests of the country. I think he really was fallen to the international laws, to the international moral standards. That’s why he is not criminal from the big point of view, if I can say, from strategic, from social, from humanistic point of view. And Russia had chance to show that our country is together with these fighters against such organizations as Central Intelligence Agency and everybody who are real spies, who are not persons betrayed in interest of the country.

But honestly, Putin became in difficult situation. He was not in this situation when he wanted to fight against United States government and to show his absolute independence. And he will be or could be very glad if Snowden will leave Russia and go to Latin America. But he is now in Russia, and Putin is trying to show that he is independent leader of independent country which can say no to the United States.

In some aspects it’s good, because it’s necessary to say no not to the U.S. as peoples of the U.S. but to the Central Intelligence Agency, to the bureaucrats of the United States, to the spies from the United States. It’s good idea to say no to hegemony of the U.S. government and transnational corporations and to say yes to such persons like Snowden.

But for this, Putin must change the policy also inside the country, because it’s double policy. In Russia, no freedom of speech. For Snowden, it’s a positive reaction. In some respects it’s even similar with the behavior of Soviet Union leaders when we invited Lokshin. Maybe you remember. It was a refugee from the United States to Soviet Union, and we were fighting against our dissidents. So either Russia will be real supporter of human rights everywhere and together with the international community will support Snowden and all such people, or it will be only small game between two leaders who is more important, less important in geopolitical competition. And I don’t like these games.

NOOR: Aleksandr Buzgalin, thank you so much for joining us.

BUZGALIN: And thank you for invitation and the opportunity to talk with you about events in Russia. And I’m very glad to have such discussions maybe regularly because our country has surprises not only when there is big noise in the Western mass media. Sometimes we have very important internal events which are not covered by international press, and we are very glad to talk with you. And if we can do this on regular basis, it can be really great. And thank you for this interview.

NOOR: We’ll continue to have this conversation.

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.