Left Politics in Russia Today
By Jennifer Giglio
"Left politics, as defined by Paul Christensen, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Syracuse University, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 28 February 2000, are those which place a high value on democracy, economic egalitarianism, and an expansive role for the state and interest groups in the operation of society.
Christensen discussed three burgeoning leftist movements in Russia. The first, the contemporary labor movement, initially developed during Gorbachev's perestroika. Once Gorbachev's reforms became paralyzed, Christensen argued, workers turned their support to Yeltsin who openly advocated a capitalist strategy. Recently, many established labor unions have been demanding the direct involvement of labor in economic decision-making. There is also growing pressure to re-nationalize property in order to keep enterprises in operation. Another current trend involves a shift among workers and local labor organizations away from nationally-based initiatives to more regionally-focused strategies.
Women's rights organizations in Russia also have found politics at the national level unavailing. In addition to facing the same structural biases as other socially progressive groups, women's groups must overcome a system in which gender has not been accepted as a legitimate means of organizing political demands. Institutionally, the formal rights of women to equal participation in the system are guaranteed. These rights do not always translate into reality, however. Christensen described how some organizations fill the resulting gaps by providing feminist education to young girls, establishing crisis centers for victims of abuse, and joining forces with other organizations on the left. Women's organizations are an important progressive force in an increasingly sexist post-communist Russia, especially as they view further democratization and social empowerment as crucial to their agendas.
Christensen also discussed the role of national and regional movements in contemporary Russia. The goal of these movements is to devolve political authority from the central state apparatus to the localities in order to gain regional control of economic resources. Greater decision-making power in the regions could serve to strengthen local forces by bringing them closer to the institutional structures to which they might advance their agendas. However, these movements are generally not viewed as progressive. National identity in Russia must be constructed beyond the anti-communist sentiment of the recent post-Soviet period.
Russian society as a whole retains a "socialist value culture" derived from its Communist past and reinforced by its post-communist present. The provision of social guarantees was one of the bedrock principles of the Soviet state and many Russian citizens continue to support this practice due to the current poor living conditions. A new economic phenomenon, de-privatization--embracing both the renationalization of the economy and the more radical notion of collective social ownership--is becoming increasingly popular. Many Russians seem unconvinced by the political arguments, which have been made since 1992, in favor of capitalism as the condition of democracy.
Christensen offered several scenarios for Russia's future. First, the model which serves as the basis of U.S. policy and is the goal of the current Russian leadership, holds that Russia would continue along its current path of neo-liberal reform. In addition, the economy would stabilize and gradually grow, the existing "socialist value culture" would erode, democratic political institutions would become embedded, creating the foundation for a capitalist and democratic Russia. Christensen argued that this scenario would involve continued suffering by the Russian people and a commitment to democracy that might strain some people's credulity.
In the second model, Russia would adopt a form of societal corporatism. In the economic realm, this would combine deprivatization with a system based on consultation between the state, managers, and labor. Political relationships would be revamped, and resources would be redirected toward social welfare and societal organizations to encourage development of a civil society. Christensen argued that this scenario would provide Russia with the opportunity to become a stable, prosperous, and democratic state because it would allow the government to garner social support in what undoubtedly would be a difficult period. Unfortunately, Christensen contends, this scenario is unlikely given the power of those who have done well under the most recent transition and what they would stand to lose.
The third model is for Russia to adopt an increasingly authoritarian form of state corporatism. This would involve more state control over the economy, enough social welfare and cooptation of societal groups to contain discontent, and an aggressive official nationalist posture such that Russians would rally to support the state but Russia's relations with the West would not be breached. This scenario is the most likely, claimed Christensen, based on the status of today's Russian elites and current dismal economic conditions. The admiration of most ordinary Russians for a strong hand is based largely on Russia's desperation for normalcy rather than conviction. If the current U.S. administration's reaction to the situation in Chechnya is any indication, Russia's leader need not worry that authoritarianism at home will materially affect their relations with the West.