Russia: the return of the army

Submitted by cathy n on 20 March, 2007 - 3:22

By Dale Street

Widespread disillusionment with the results of market reforms and privatisation is now rife throughout the Russian Federation. This has combined with conflicts between different sections of the old Soviet elite to lay the groundwork for a resurgence of Russian nationalism.

Despite Yeltsin’s incessant claims that the Russian economy is on the road to recovery, the country remains in the grip of deep economic crisis. Inflation and unemployment are rising, while the value of the ruble and living standards are falling.

Industries often cannot afford to pay their own workforces. At the close of 1994 Russian miners were owed 900 billion rubles in unpaid wages!

The disastrous consequences of market reforms have generated popular hostility towards the West for two reasons.

Firstly, the “shock therapy” reforms are seen, not incorrectly, as the creation of Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the Group of Seven industrial countries.

Secondly, the economic aid promised by the West to ease the transition to a market economy has never materialised. Western “aid packages” to Russia have been little more than insurance for Western firms exporting to Russia, plus loans to the Russian government adding to the country’s spiralling debt burden.

In the absence of a powerful socialist movement, which could have given the disillusionment with market reforms an anti-capitalist direction, the economic crisis has generated an inward-looking anti-Western Russian nationalism.

The resurgence of Russian nationalism has also been driven on by conflicts between those sections of the old Soviet elite who have benefited from the pro-market economic reforms.

In the former Soviet Union, the economy was in a state of ongoing decline. In spite of this, and in spite of the lack of any real planning, the economy was held together by the centre.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of the central bureaucracy in the different ex-Soviet republics, left the door wide open for get-rich-quick entrepreneurs (many of whom had been members of the old Soviet elite) to plunder potentially profitable parts of the disintegrating economy.

Raising the banner of Russian nationalism and masquerading as defenders of the Russian fatherland provided a cover under which sections of the former elite of Russia could pursue their own economic goals.

Thus, for example, last year’s invasion of Chechenia was portrayed as an attempt to defend the integrity of the Russian state. At root, however, it was triggered by a conflict between the Chechen elite and the oil elite in Russia for control of Chechenia’s petro-chemical industry.

Similar issues are at stake in last month’s upsurge of fighting in Tajikstan, where Russian forces clashed with rebel Tajik forces opposed to the country’s government.

On the surface the conflict seems to be an attempt by the Russian government to prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Whilst this is a factor in the conflict, on a more basic level control over oil resources is again a driving force behind the fighting.

Collapse of the government in Tajikstan could be the start of a domino effect, leading to the collapse of governments in the neighbouring republics. But the Russian oil elite wants to prop up the government in Kazakhstan at all costs, so that oil from the country’s Tenghiz oilfield is pumped through pipelines into Russia for export, rather than into Turkey.

Yeltsin has encouraged the upsurge of Russian nationalism in an attempt to win back the popular support which he has lost as a result of the economic reforms over which he has presided.
He has even revived 23 February (the anniversary of the founding of the Red Army) as a national holiday in Russia. But the ideological content of the holiday is nationalist rather than socialist. 23 February has been declared “Day of the Defenders of the Motherland”.

But the biggest gainers from the upsurge of Russian nationalism have been the Russian military elite. For years they have presided over an army in decline. Until recently, successive cutbacks on military spending have been imposed by a cash-strapped Russian government. Russian forces have been withdrawn from Eastern European states, and also from the ex-Soviet republics.

42% of military families are dependent on a single wage. 42% of army officers see no future for themselves in the military. Major social divisions have opened up in the army between officer-entrepreneurs (who sell off army equipment on the black market) and poorly trained conscripts.

As the military forces declined in terms of both quantity and quality, so the position of the army elite declined correspondingly. They ceased to be the commanders of the forces of a world superpower and became the custodians of an army in retreat.

But the collapse of illusions in the West and the consequent resurgence of Russian nationalism have restored the fortunes of the military elite. The military interventions in Chechnia and Tajikstan are the clearest, but not the only, examples of this.
Following on from last year’s agreement between the Tajik and Russian governments which led to 16,000 Russian troops being stationed on Tajikstan’s border with Afghanistan, a second agreement in January of this year between the Kazakh and Russian governments created an effective merger of the armies of the two countries and allowed Russian troops to be stationed on the Kazakh-Chinese border.

Then, in February of this year, a further agreement between the governments of Belarus and Russia permitted Russian troops to patrol Belarus’s borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
But these agreements have not been enough for the Russian military elite and the Russian politicians who have jumped onto the Russian-nationalist bandwagon.

Russian Defence Minister Grachev is now calling for Russia to pull out of the “Conventional Forces in Europe” agreement of 1990, on the grounds that it commits the country to an unrealistically low limit on the size of its armed forces.
Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev has threatened ex-Soviet republics, especially the Asian and Baltic states, with military intervention in order to protect the rights of Russian speakers in those countries.

Other Russian politicians, including former Finance Minister Fyodorov and leader of the re-founded Communist Party Zuganov, have demanded a crackdown on separatist tendencies within the Russian Federation itself (home to 150 different peoples) and the re-establishment of a strong centralised state.

The growing significance of the military in Russian politics is unlikely to lead to the recreation of a USSR on the basis of a capitalist economy. A more likely scenario is for many of the ex-Soviet republics to end up as satellite states of Russia (just as the Stalinist Eastern European states were satellite states of the USSR).

Even so, the resurgence of Russian nationalism and the growing influence of the Russian military are further evidence of the failure of the pro-market reforms and the impossibility of the creation of a form of bourgeois-democratic capitalism in Russia.

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