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As Russia heads into a presidential election on Sunday, Vladimir Putin’s popularity soars with every accusation and sanction Western countries hurl against him, says Prof. Alexander Buzgalin

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Russians are headed to the polls for a presidential election on Sunday. According to the polls the incumbent Vladimir Putin is expected to sweep into power guaranteeing him the presidency for a third term. With the escalating row with the UK over the use of nerve gas on a former double agent to the expulsion of diplomats to rumors of a cyber warfare, things are getting heated. Why is all this taking place, and what are its implications for the upcoming presidential elections in Russia? And then you have the domestic situation. What are the economic conditions people are facing just before these Russian polls, and what effect is that having on the elections?

Adding to all of this one of the looming issues is how many Russians will abstain or boycott the vote. One of Putin’s opponents, Alexey Navalny, has been disqualified from running in this election and he is calling for a boycott. State authorities are doing everything to make sure that the turnout does not fall below participation levels in the last presidential election.

Now joining me to discuss Russian presidential elections is Aleksandr Buzgalin. He’s a professor of Political Economy at Moscow State University. He’s also the editor of the independent democratic left magazine Alternatives. He is the coordinator of the Russian social movement Alternatives, and the author of more than 20 books. Thanks for joining me today, Aleksandr.

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: Nice to be with you. It’s important to discuss questions of Russia’s situation now before elections.

Aleksandr, let’s start with the escalating situation with the UK and the West. The Security Council meeting that took place about two days ago. The Russian ambassador to the UN was seriously calling on the West for escalating the situation when there is no evidence of the fact that Russians used any nerve gas against this double agent or former double agent in the UK. Now, I guess the question is, Aleksandr, why is this happening all of this happening now?

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: First of all, I don’t have any secret information. I am not chief of KGB. I’m not agent of MI 6 from Britain so I do not have any specific let’s say comments. But as a professor I can say now it’s very profitable, and paradox is that it is profitable for both sides to escalate ethnic tension between West and Russia, Western elite and Russian elite. Why? The answer is relatively simple.

For Western leaders, NATO countries leaders, it is profitable to create the image of Russia as enemy who can use nerve gas or something else against civilized Western countries and to create the image of the enemy. Because now the situation in the main of say main countries of Europe is not very stable and it’s very useful, such period to create the image of the enemy from outside. Russia can be used. And this is more or less now tradition to use Russia as terrible example of terrible behavior of terrible regions. If it is possible and if it is impossible it doesn’t matter. There is very well known proverb. You must tell lie, lie, and again lie, and maybe something will be finally among people as commonplace. The same now.

Maybe it was used something against the former secret agent and maybe it was nerve gas, and maybe it was Russia. But finally for majority will be very simple association. Russia used nerve gas against Britain. This is a result of propaganda and such propaganda is typical example well known from the beginning of 20th century maybe even earlier. So we have situation when Western take on Russia creates even more support to Putin inside Russia. Because the image is simple, it’s not a good idea to discuss questions of internal contradictions, economic social inequality and so on. We must be, we Russians must be consolidated because there is one common enemy, and this is NATO, and NATO is telling terrible things against us. They take us and it’s really true.

So this creates an image of Putin as the only protector and defender of Russia in the terrible situation and for victory of Putin. Western media made more than any other channel in Russia.

SHARMINI PERIES: Aleksandr, you’ve been a critical opponent of Putin, largely because of the way in which he has managed the economy and social issues within Russia. What are the conditions now leading up to an election, and will that have any implication as people go to the polls?

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: First of all I want to stress that economic situation in Russia during the last year really was not good. It was stagnation. Only in 2017 we had very small growth, 1.5, maximum 2 percent, according to optimistic estimations of the result of that year, and we still have very high level of social differentiation. The same like in the United States, even a little higher. 16 times the difference between the poorest 10 percent and the richest 10 percent of Russian population.

And this is official statistic. Really I’m sure differentiation is higher. They have more than 20 million people who is less than 10000 rubles per month income, and 10000 rubles is less than 200 dollars according to official costs of dollar into ruble in the market. So this situation is not really positive, and there are a lot of negative features in other spheres.

We had a big critique of policy of our leaders in education in science in many respects. The situation in last month is a little bit improved and this is typical behavior of leaders before elections. Some specialists in place in education and healthcare, intelligentsia, receive the additional wage present from President. It was some promises to be a better situation with pensions. Little bit was increased the minimum level of minimum wage and pensions. A few hundred rubles. This is less than five dollars per month, something like that. Well, it’s more money, but it will be a way for propaganda that we have increasing our minimum level of income some and so on and so forth.

But generally speaking, people doesn’t like economic and social policy which is realized in our country but our mass media created image of President Putin, who is a wonderful leader in this sphere of foreign policy and for internal economic policy. We do not have a responsibility of president. It is government who is responsible for the economic policy. In reality of course, government is under the control of president. We have concentration of all main sources of power in the hands of President in Russia, according to our Constitution.

But propaganda creates image, good president, bad prime minister, and many people believe that the problem was not Putin but the problem is a bad government who cannot understand what wants a good president. This is the reality.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, so what options do people have? Now, I’ve said that Alexei Navalny has been barred from running in the election. He’s calling for a boycott. That’s only one opponent and probably not the most serious opponent to President Putin. So domestically, who else is running in the election that could pose a serious opposition, at least steer the country in a different direction by way of an opposition?

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: So first of all, I want to stress that Navalny was not serious opponent of Putin, and in Russia he was not popular. He was mainly created as an enemy of President by Western mass media and the few liberal sources of information in Russia. He doesn’t have big support of population and he has very strange program where you can find mixture of liberal ideas, ideas of Russian nationalism, everything. Populistic leader, more similar with Le Pen than with democratic liberal alternative as he’s presented in the Western media.

Boycott is not idea of Navalny himself. It is more or less commonplace for opposition. But in reality there is no boycott of elections. And the result rejection to participate in elections or rejection from the biggest parties like Communist Party of Russian Federation and others, boycott is useless, and that’s why I am not a big fan of this idea. There are problems that people will not count for the elections because nobody has a real interest to the elections.

It was no real opportunity for opposition to present a program and to show that there is alternative to economic and social policy which was realized during last years in our country. The only real candidate who has really alternative program is Pavel Grudinin. He is businessman, but mainly he’s presented as leader of collective enterprise in the agricultural sphere, is the name of [Lenin of course].

SHARMINI PERIES: And he represents what party, Aleksandr?

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: He is representative of Communist Party of Russian Federation and some other paternalistic forces who wants to have stronger Russian economy, who wants to support domestic business who wants to have Russia as a country with more social justice, a little bit nationalistic but not only. There are different people within himself. I think he’s not even a Russian. So that’s why he’s not nationalist. He is, let’s say more or less normal left social democrat as far as economic program is concerned and social program is concerned.

And he can have really big support. It was a lot of attempts to discredit Grudinin. It was a lot of negative propaganda in main mass media in Russia, TV channels, radio, internet, papers, everywhere. He didn’t have really good opportunities for debates. By the way, Putin never participated in open debates with opponents, and every day he is many times in TV because he is the active president and every opportunity to show how he is helping to people, how he’s good in the race on that aspect. Every time in TV and radio, everywhere Putin, Putin, and again Putin. Not the same opposition For opposition it was chance to have debates, but it was six persons who had two minutes each on TV, and mainly they were debating between themselves so it was just show, useless show, unfortunately.

Electoral campaign, generally speaking, is more game than real serious political competition of different programs.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, are there any candidates that are running in this presidential election that you would support, Aleksandr?

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: So, the problem is not to support the Senate. It is a problem as to support program. If they compare programs, I think program of Grudinin is the best. As I said it is combination of well-known slogans which are important to realization of which is very important for Russia. Strategic planning and strong industrial policy in order to create circumstances for rebuild high tech production, education, science in our country, rebirths of material production, first of all were important to us. Second, socialization of education, healthcare, and culture. They have terrible trends of commercialisation and privatization of social spheres and the socialization of the spheres through bureaucratisation and decommercialization. Free of charge education and healthcare is very important point and that is one of the main points of Grudinin. Redistribution of wealth. Decline of inequality through progressive income tax and so on. Also one important point and I completely agree with this idea.

He has also some points to support more democratic political system. It is one of the paradoxes. Stalinist Communist Party of Russian Federation is standing for more democracy in political sphere for modern Russia. But it’s true. Communist Party of Russian Federation and Grudinin in particular. It has the slogans of big power of parliament, impossibility to use money for political struggle, more freedom of speech, and so on and so forth.

SHARMINI PERIES: And what kind of support will he garner in this election?

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: It’s difficult to say because first of all we have, as I said, the very unequal opportunities for different candidates, and Grudinin has very unfavorable conditions for, he has unfavorable conditions for his electoral campaign. So his real popularity is much bigger than the results which will be.

Second, I don’t know how votes will be calculated. In Russia is very a popular problem from Stalin’s period. It doesn’t matter how people vote. It does matter how votes are calculated. So I hope the results will not be false, there will be no big falsifications, but let’s see.

And finally, many people are not very satisfied with Grudinin himself, his personality. But this is the last point from my point of view, not important point from my point of view. But for many people, personal strong behavior, image, and so on is important. And Grudinin was not very decisive guy during the electoral campaign, so it can be also a negative effect.

I hope he has up to 20 percent of votes and according real popularity of slogans he can have much more. But as I said the circumstances are not favorable for opposition.

SHARMINI PERIES: Aleksandr Buzgalin, I wish you and everyone in Russia all the best in the upcoming election on Sunday. And I hope that democracy prevails.

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: Thank you. And I hope we will be in contact after elections and we’ll discuss the results a little later.

SHARMINI PERIES: Absolutely. You’ll have that opportunity. Thank you so much for joining us today.

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN: Thank you. Goodbye.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here 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.