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Boris Kagarlitsky: People fed up with lack of economic and democratic rights used in fight within Russian elite

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Boris Kagarlitsky, the Russian sociologist, in writing about the recent protests against the recent Russian elections, said the following. “The function of the Duma elections was to legitimise decisions that had already been taken, and to formalize in legal terms relationships that existed anyway. The December crisis has torn up the scenario that the authorities had prepared.” A little further on, he says: “Today’s ‘opposition’ in Russia consists either of splinter groups of the existing authorities, or of marginal forces of various hues, mostly liberals and nationalists.” Now joining us from Moscow is Boris Kagarlitsky. He—as I said, he’s a sociologist. He was a deputy to the Moscow city soviet between 1990 and ’93. He was an executive member of the Socialist Party of Russia. He’s a cofounder of the Party of Labor, an adviser to the chairperson of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, and he’s currently the director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements. And he joins us from Moscow. Thanks for joining us, Boris.


JAY: So in the quote I read of yours, you talk about this scenario-script being thrown into crisis by these protests, the script of Putin and his elite, I guess you could say. But you also say that the leadership, at least, of the opposition is marginal splinter groups and such. Why would such marginal groups then have the effect of being able to undo this scenario?

KAGARLITSKY: Well, in fact, it’s not about the opposition groups. In a way, they just manage to benefit from the popular anger, which had not so much to do with elections as such, because people are getting increasingly fed up with what’s happening in the country in terms of economic crisis, in terms of social crisis, in terms of the attacks on welfare state and education and health-care system, in terms of incredible corruption, in terms of all political institutions of participation being more or less fake. So it’s a complex anger which involves quite a few different reasons, and probably different groups of society have different reasons to be angry. Sometimes their reasons are exactly opposing each other. But, anyhow, it was just a popular outburst of anger which was used by the opposition. And somebody needed to represent this new movement politically. The movement didn’t have its own leaders or structures or institutions. So in a certain sense the movement was hijacked by some of the existing opposition leaders, whether right-wing liberals or nationalists, or even sometimes leftists, and in that sense, the big crisis the movement is facing already now is that there is no proper representation. And that’s very ironic because, on the one hand, people are protesting because they’re not represented in the political system properly, but at the same time, we see [that] the movement calling for better political representation for the people is not representing the people properly either.

JAY: Well, in what way aren’t they representing the people properly? I get it in your article. You talk about what you characterize as the liberal leadership is really a neoliberal leadership.


JAY: What you mean by that?

KAGARLITSKY: Well, [incompr.] and they are very much in favor of free market, very much in favor of undoing the welfare state, very much in favor of austerity, very much in favor of privatizing and commercializing health care and education. Anyhow, they’re in favor of exactly the same policies of the government which made people so angry. That’s a big contradiction and problem. And that’s why, by the way, I think they’re not going to really fight for free elections, because if we really have free elections with proper representation of popular forces with the parties which will reflect the views which are dominant in the country, then these people have very little chance to get anywhere. But, you see, the big problem is that the people who call themselves leaders of the movement, they were never elected, they never faced any kind of scrutiny, they never faced any kind of transparency [incompr.] They were never tried as leaders

JAY: Right. To what extent is there any truth to Putin’s accusation that there’s some American organizing or money or it’s American inspired? I mean, he’s criticized the Americans for getting involved in Russian politics, which I have to say is a little rich given the way Russia uses Russia Today television in English to get totally involved in American politics. But, anyway, set that aside.

KAGARLITSKY: I don’t think that there is any credit to be given to that speech of Mr. Putin, because, you see, in a way, yes, there was a lot of American involvement before. If we take the political situation of the 1990s when Yeltsin was in power, in many ways Americans were directly involved in keeping him in power. They were directly involved in managing his electoral campaign and so on. And by the way, during that period of time, Putin was exactly on the same side with Americans. So people still have some very bad memories about American involvement in Russian politics, and that’s why I think Putin is trying to use these memories to discredit and attack the opposition. But I think it doesn’t work.

JAY: In one sentence in your article you say that on some of the economic issues in fact Putin might even be a little better than some of what you call neoliberal leadership. What do you mean by that?

KAGARLITSKY: Well, because much of the criticism made of Putin is—I should say, the criticism not only from the right, but criticism which is based on [incompr.] antidemocratic or undemocratic view of politics and society, according to which only the elite must make decisions. So a marginal criticism which is made of Putin is that he’s not listening enough to the elite. And that means that he is so-called populist. So he sometimes listens to the public rather than to the elite. At the same time, the elite doesn’t have enough liberty to express itself. So in that sense it’s a very reactionary critique of the government. It’s—in a certain sense it’s a critique of the government of being too democratic rather than undemocratic. But it’s a very odd mix, because on the one hand, you see these people saying that the government should listen to the public, and at the same time, they say—the very same people say that we need free elections which are not rigged, and it’s their problem how to make these ends meet.

JAY: Talk a little bit how power in Russia works. You have this whole stratum of oligarchs. Some of the richest men, I guess, in the world are now in Russia. And you have competing sections of oligarchs. And if I understand it correctly, there’s a section allied with Putin; there’s a section that’s not. I mean, how much of all this really is about a struggle within the elite? And what is Putin’s role in all this?

KAGARLITSKY: Well, that’s definitely a struggle within the elite. But there are two points which should be made. First, it is very important that Russian economy is not any more about oligarchs. It is about big corporations. And in that sense it’s not very different compared to the U.S. economy or British economy or German economy. There are different corporations. And, of course, different corporations want themselves to be heard and they want to influence the government. And it’s not personal. It’s very—often the competition was in different big bureaucracies, which are very often also mixed with the government bureaucracies, with the government agencies. So they have the same people who are top managers in big corporations. They’re also the same people used to be, at least for some time, top bureaucrats in the state. And there is some kind of revolving door, which is not even so revolving in the Russian case, because till recently these people were allowed legally to keep both jobs at one time. And even now there is no concept of conflict of interest in Russian law. So you can be, for example, a minister and a major shareholder of a major private company. At the same time, the government is also involved in having shares in this very same company. So, I mean, it’s a very intimate relationship between different layers of bureaucracy and bourgeoisie, if you want, and these people, really, they make decisions. And very often you don’t even know who are the decision-makers, because in the Yeltsin time there were individual oligarchs, like, seven oligarchs. There was even this famous joke about the Seven Boyars who ran Russia in the 17th century, and then there were seven oligarchs who ran Russia in the end of the 20th century. But now it’s not like that anymore. These are kind of faceless bureaucrats and managers who we don’t even know by names.

JAY: But somebody’s got—somebody has to own these corporations. There’s got to be major shareholders and owners the same way there is here.

KAGARLITSKY: Sure they do, sure they do, but very often it’s not the shareholders but the managers who make decisions. Well, of course, managers themselves, very often they have shares. Usually they have a lot of shares in these companies. But, I mean, it’s a very technocratic model, and very often the top decisions, the most important decisions, are made by people who even don’t know, even probably never heard the name.

JAY: You know, one of the perceptions in the West is Putin kind of establishing a kind of a dictatorship of sorts, that the elections are a veneer—not to say that you couldn’t say much the same about many of the Western elections, but another issue. But to what extent is Putin concentrating power in his own hands here?

KAGARLITSKY: Well, I think Putin has very little power in his own hands, really. The methodology was very simple. You have some faceless people who make some decisions and do well. They reach a consensus, and then they call in Putin, tell him what the decision is, and he goes to the public and announces the decision. That’s basically how the thing works. And, of course, Putin also has some power individually: when they could not reach an agreement, then again they called in Putin, and Putin was a kind of a very efficient consensus maker or compromise maker, whatever.

JAY: So he’s sort of a chairman of the board.

KAGARLITSKY: Yes, exactly. Russia is exactly like a big corporation. Russia is a country which is exactly ran by people who are [incompr.] corporate business in politics, even, and it is ran like a big corporation. Sometimes we even have jokes about Corporation Russia. But the problem is that these things only work as long as they were able to reach consensus or compromise on every issue. And now the problem is that they can’t. And that’s exactly where the crisis is coming from. They want a new decision-making process.

JAY: And then is one section of the elite then trying to, as you say, make use of popular anger as a weapon in their internal fight?

KAGARLITSKY: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s what happening.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Boris.


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


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