What's on the agenda for 2008?

18 January 2008
The end of Putin's presidency has coincided with the slowing down of economic growth which could be damaging for the elites that consolidated riches during his reign, but might be an opportunity for the left.
Throughout the New Year holidays the mass media let the Russian public alone. Russia’s home newsmakers, apart from Moscow’s glamorous people, were dead silent. The majority of our news agencies ignored the developments in Kenya (used to be the most stable of all African states), where the electoral fraud triggered the inter-tribal feud and bashings leaving about 250 thousand in exile. Our mass media also ignored the “garbage crisis” in south Italy. The streets were invaded by tones of rotting litter, school lessons were suspended and the irritated citizens could be seen in the streets having a dust-up with the police. A crisis that would overwhelm one of the European countries during weeks was simply unthinkable ten years ago. This is just another alarming sign of demise of the government system and larger of the degradation of the modern civilization. Still Russian media ignored the catastrophe in Naples. The journalists were better off in the situation with the power cuts in Makhachkala. Against the prospect of spending the holidays in frost-bound houses citizens hit the streets to barricade. Welcome to 2008! This year we are to get a new president, further pension and housing and public utilities reforms in Russia; new administration in the USA... Perish the thought, but apart from that we might also get world economic crisis. Really, perish this thought, because forecasting economic recession is not an easy task. Actually, crisis always arises when the economists are about to announce that the alarm was false. The agenda for the Russian government was set beforehand; it is simple as ABC – to ensure continuity of power, to change one president for another and reorganize the administrative system. The strategic goal, though, is to change as little as possible. And this proves to be quite a challenging task, for all the reshuffles and reorganizations might trigger all sorts of side effects destabilizing Russia’s political system. Alas, our politicians set conservative goals, which bring about numbers of side tasks that ultimately grow larger than all their strategic goals. Will our economy and society have to cope with the inflation or get used to living with it? Shall we be getting ready for the world economic crisis or turn a blind eye to global economy and global interdependence? And finally, will the Russian government caramelize its so-called liberal stand or will it do its best to tighten its grip on political situation in the country? These actions in pairs cancel one other. Now will you tell me, how they want to fulfill these tasks simultaneously! Altogether these tasks are a tight knot. Any decision will make the ruling elite chose “for or against”. Differences on such at first sight insignificant issues might uncover profound misunderstanding and disaccord. One of the trump cards of Putin’s presidency was in ability to minimize the decision making process during several years. The idea is simple – the less people have to chose, the less is the number of dissenters, or the less the authorities do, the less number of mistakes they make. This shaky structure was supported by the outstanding economic growth – representatives of conflicting social and political camps had an illusion that in the near future their particular demands would be met. But surge of inflation in 2007 proved such policy fatal. When in 2008 voluntary restrictions are lifted from the Russian corporations, it will bring about another upsurge of inflation. Mind you that the global recession tells on Russia already now despite the skyrocketing oil prices – Western banks become more and more reluctant about giving credits to corporate clients from Russia. The latter have to borrow money in the internal market at much higher interest rates. As a result the money is getting more expensive. Common citizens as well as the majority of our politicians are not at home with finer points of the global financial system, but anyone can see that the prices are steadily increasing. Inflation together with the never-ending housing and public utilities reform is the most painful for the middle class, for those who are more or less satisfied with the results of the Putin’s two terms in office. Otherwise put, the more rigorous the authorities will be in implementing the agenda, the more negative and destabilizing will be the consequences. Should the bureaucrats in the Kremlin change the agenda scarifying a part of objectives to higher consistency of their policy, this will split the elites, putting an end to the harmony of Putin’s rule. With Putin leaving his cabinet in the Kremlin, the whole epoch with its rules and even stakeholders is coming to an end. After Yeltsin, Putin’s administration managed to press down Yeltsin-times oligarchs stripping them of all the preferences they enjoyed. But doing so Putin’s team helped the old elite that by the beginning of the new century was already a spent force, to stay in country’s economic and political sphere for another ten years. Liberal politicians like Boris Nemtsov or Mikhail Kasyanov might have hard feelings towards Putin for being dropped from power; nationalist “communist” leader Gennady Zyuganov might be distressed with a less beneficial configuration of the State Duma. But curiously enough, it was Putin’s striving for stability that perpetuated them near power. Should there be real political life in Russia they would have been long forgotten. New political situation dictates new solutions that can only be generated under new political line. The left could take advantage of the situation, for a social crisis breeds dissent and critical thinking. Crisis helps to awaken class-consciousness. Thus, the authorities with their own hands will make way for the renewed left movement in 2008, at latest in 2009. But it is always the people who make their own history, and the left miss their chance much too often.
Boris Kagarlitsky, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Moscow. His latest book is The Revolt of the Middle Class (2006)