File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/marxism-international.9710, message 567

Date: Tue, 28 Oct 1997 03:28:57 -0500
Subject: M-I: All-Russian Ruin


>                            All-Russian Ruin
> An eyewitness report by Alan Woods
> I stepped outside the door of the metro station and saw him. A corpse,
> half-covered with a white plastic sheet, stretched out on the muddy
> pavement. It was clearly a man, probably in his mid-forties, although,
> as his face was covered, it was impossible to say. Who was he? An
> alcoholic whose liver had just given up? One of the many homeless,
> dead from malnutrition and exposure? Did anyone know? Did anyone care?
> A couple of bored-looking cops stood around the body. Three paces
> away, the myriad of little stalls that have sprung up alongside all
> such stations carried on with its usual bustling activities. At every
> step one comes face to face with mind-numbing poverty. Beggars line
> the streets and metro stations, many old people, particularly women,
> whose pensions and life-savings have been rendered worthless in the
> process of "market reform".
> Particularly tragic are the crippled people who must get along as best
> they can. A common sight is that of a man with no legs propelling
> himself on his knuckles on a couple of planks with skates underneath.
> In the entry of one of the metro stations near Red Square a
> middle-aged man is comforting his wife. She is wrapped in a sleeping
> bag, a huddled faceless heap. The sheer mass of human misery is
> overpowering. One vision sticks in my mind. It is ten past midnight
> and raining hard. In the street, a woman in her late thirties, a
> plastic bag tied on her head and a basket under her arm, tries
> desperately to sell bread to passers-by:
> "Do you need any bread?" "No, thank you."
> She persists: "I have cakes and chocolate too." "I don't need any."
> "But I have children to feed and there's no father.....For the love of
> god!"
> The general collapse is shown by falling health standards and a rising
> death rate. Diseases like tuberculosis (associated with poverty) are
> rapidly increasing. As the following report from the Moscow Times
> (17/10/97) makes clear:
> "About 2.2 million people are ill with tuberculosis in Russia and the
> disease is steadily spreading, a health official said Thursday. Last
> year, 24,700 people died of tuberculosis and 98,000 people were
> recorded as having contracted the disease, Interfax reported, citing
> the first deputy health minister, Gennady Inishchenko.
> Overall, the number of tuberculosis cases has risen nearly 4 percent
> during the past year, while the number of children suffering from the
> disease has gone up about 11 percent.
> This is the real face of market reform in Russia.
> Moscow's artificial "boom"
> A Western tourist coming to Moscow for a few days might get the
> impression of a booming economy. But this is completely untypical of
> Russia, since over 80% of foreign investment comes here, giving a
> superficial sense of prosperity. All the big banks and finance houses
> are based in Moscow. There is a large service sector, as well as all
> the government offices as well as the stock exchange, tourism, hotels
> etc. On the basis of this, there has been a construction boom. On
> every street corner there seems to be a building site. A host of small
> businesses have mushroomed: shops, restaurants, bars, and the like. A
> large section of the population depends to one degree or another on
> servicing the needs of the nascent bourgeoisie. There is a large
> number of waiters, domestic servants, shopkeepers, prostitutes,
> bodyguards, taxi drivers and so on. Many of these are on low wages,
> but somehow identify themselves with capitalism and "the market". At
> least they feel that they are relatively better off than the people in
> the provinces, and are under the influence of the avalanche of
> capitalist consumer propaganda on the television. For the vast
> majority, of course, this is an empty illusion.
> A handful of super-rich parasites enjoy the kind of life-style
> reserved for the billionaire class in the West. In the old days the
> television screens carried mind-numbing coverage of Party Congresses
> with four hour speeches by the General Secretary. Now they full of
> American movies, game shows and advertisements for everything from
> Wriggley's chewing gum to electrical massage machines complete with
> scantily-clothed young ladies with no apparent reason for investing in
> the latest remedy for cellulitis. As I write these lines, the
> financial programme has just finished. After the stock-exchange
> report, they are showing scenes from the latest exhibition of
> top-of-the-range Western goods to hit town. An elegantly-attired
> Italian gentleman is extolling the virtues of his new collection
> which, he assures his audience, "represents the latest avant-garde
> models." One can only guess at the price of this fancy footwear. In
> the same way, a TV interviewer asks Moscow motorists stuck in a
> traffic jam if they could guess the price of a metro ticket. Very few
> got it right.
> October in Moscow was grey and rainy, though not particularly cold.
> The meteorologists (those who have not been laid off, that is) are
> predicting a bitterly cold winter. And many people are already
> trembling. The economic collapse has begun to undermine the very
> fabric of social life. In the Maritime Region of Russia's Far East
> there are reports of regular and prolonged power-cuts. In freezing
> conditions, the people of Vladivostok have endured 24-hour cuts with
> no light, no heating, no cooking facilities, and sometimes no water.
> Last Spring this sparked off riots in which people clashed with the
> police on the streets. Now the authorities in Moscow are anxiously
> looking out for signs of more serious social unrest. Terrified that an
> open clash with any significant group of workers might lead to an
> explosion, the government has been forced to retreat on a number of
> occasions. The miners at a major open-cast mine in the Maritime Region
> went on strike for two weeks to protest against unpaid wages. The
> strike was immediately supported by other miners who refused to load
> coal. The strike ended in victory, as the government caved in and sent
> the wages. Something similar occurred with the air controllers, a
> group with a lot of industrial muscle.
> Unfortunately, not all Russian workers wield similar industrial clout.
> Faced with the problem of bankrupt companies and huge amounts of
> unpaid wages, they see little point in taking industrial action,
> although they find other ways of expressing their protests. There has
> been a large number of demonstrations, pickets, hunger strikes etc.
> Under conditions of such absolute collapse, people many families find
> it difficult even to get the basic necessities of life. Millions of
> workers have not been paid for three, six or even twelve months. But
> now the accumulated anger, bitterness and discontent is erupting to
> the surface. Although not publicised in the press, there has been a
> sharp upturn in the strike movement in recent months. The number of
> strikes in Russia during the first half of 1997 increased five times
> as against the same period last year, while the number of workers
> participating increased three times. There was a total of 15,000
> strikes in this period.
> Rural disaffection
> The general mood of disaffection spreads far beyond the industrial
> working class. On the 15th of October, Pravda carried an article which
> reveals the explosive situation in Russian countryside. "When a
> government oppresses its own people, everyone has a duty to fight for
> his life." With these words, Alexander Seymyonovich Davydov, head of
> the Russian trade union of agricultural workers expressed the
> indignation of the rural workers against proposals to privatise the
> land, a proposal which is now being openly discussed. Using the
> pretext of a good harvest, Chernomyrdin argues that this success is
> due to "reform" and that the next logical step is privatisation. But
> this is strongly disputed by Davydov, who points a bleak picture of
> conditions in the Russian villages:
> "How can you talk about 'achievements,' when the villages are
> practically left without chemical fertilisers, more than 50% of the
> machinery is clapped-out, and there is a chronic shortage of oil and
> fuel? Doesn't the prime minister know about this?
> "ÉLast year about 80% of agricultural enterprises ended up with
> losses. And that's not surprising, because the productivity of labour
> in the years of reform fell by 40%. The collapse of production is
> causing a rapid increase in unemployment -- one and a half times
> higher than the Russian average. About 26% of the unemployed have
> higher and medium education, more than a third are young people.
> Structural unemployment shows that our villages have neither a present
> nor a future
> "Those who attend village technical colleges get a miserable grant.
> With such money today you can't even buy a crust of bread. Are their
> parents supposed to be sitting on sacks of gold? Wages in the
> countryside are 2.6 times lower than the average for the rest of the
> economy, and they do not get much support. To date the total overdue
> debts amount to 7 trillion roubles. A more sombre picture than that
> presented by our countryside now, in my view, cannot be seen
> anywhere."
> The figure for the fall of agricultural productivity is particularly
> important, since in Soviet times, the rate of agricultural
> productivity was already very low. A further collapse of 40% spells an
> absolute calamity for the production of food in Russia, which is
> rapidly being undermined by a flood of imports. A country which could
> potentially feed the whole of Europe and more has become a net
> importer of food.
> Meanwhile, the crisis in the countryside has provoked a mood of
> disaffection which led to the calling of a national day of protest on
> the 15th of October. The seriousness of the position is shown by the
> declining rate of birth in the countryside -- down 25% in relation to
> 1991, while the death rate has risen by almost the same amount. The
> figure for state aid to agriculture has fallen from 19% of the budget
> in 1991 to a miserable 2.4% this year. And next year they plan to cut
> it further to only 1%.
> Davydov comments: "The government is cutting the village to the bone
> and depriving it of life itself." In the last six years, agricultural
> production has actually dropped by about one half. Scandalously, about
> 70% of agricultural produce is purchased abroad. A shocking picture of
> waste and decline.
> The pro-capitalist elements argue that Russian goods are too expensive
> to compete with imports. The farmers must reduce their prices! But
> everyone knows that both the US and the EU heavily subsidise their
> farmers. The USA subsidise meat prices by 64%, grain by 38%. In
> Germany the equivalent prices are 60 and 52%. In the case of Finland
> and Japan, subsidies can amount to up to 70%. Yet, according to the
> wisdom of the so-called "free market," Russian agriculture is
> deliberately allowed to collapse and the market opened up to an
> avalanche of subsidised western products. No wonder the words
> "liberalism" and "market reform" stink in the nostrils of the Russian
> agricultural population. They spell only ruin and poverty. Thus,
> paradoxically, the rural areas of Russia are among the most hostile to
> market reform, something which could not have been anticipated fifty
> years ago.
> Already about half of the beef cattle, 60% of pigs and about the same
> of chickens has been lost. All animal raising, except chickens is
> running at a loss. Before the so-called "reform," only 2% of
> agriculture was loss-making. Now it is anything up to 80%, according
> to Davydov. This destruction of agriculture means that, if the West
> were to interrupt its supply of meat, Russia would only be capable of
> supplying 50% of demand. This fact alone shows the criminal
> irresponsibility of the nascent Russian bourgeoisie. Incidentally,
> this so-called "free marketeering" does not apply in other cases.
> American rice is considerably cheaper than Japanese rice, but Tokyo
> makes sure that its farmers are protected and cheaper foreign rice is
> kept out. But Washington feels free to put pressure in Moscow to let
> its products flow freely in the name of "liberalisation." And the
> Yeltsin clique, which are really degenerate agents of world
> imperialism, and particularly US imperialism, grovel abjectly like
> servants expecting a tip which never comes.
> Most of the minerals which provide chemical fertiliser are shipped to
> more profitable markets abroad, leaving Russian agriculture with a
> miserable 20% of the total. This short-sighted policy will eventually
> inevitably mean an exhaustion of the soil, with even more calamitous
> consequences. Symptoms of this already exist in the form of lower
> yields of grain per hectare. At the same time, cuts in social spending
> means the closure of village clinics, clubs, libraries, schools and
> hospitals which made life a bit more bearable for the rural
> population.
> Conflict in the Duma
> The general mood of discontent finds a distorted expression in the
> struggle at the parliamentary level. The presentation of the draft
> budget for 1998 immediately gave rise to a new conflict in the State
> Duma where the CPRF and its allies (the Agrarians and the People's
> Power groups) has a majority. Reporting on the balance sheet of the
> current budget, Chernomyrdin painted the course of the last nine
> months in glowing colours. He claimed that for the first time since
> the "reform" began, the GDP has not fallen, and that industrial
> production has actually risen -- by 1.5%! (Pravda 9th October 1997)
> Chubais, the main spokesman for the "reformers" also pointed to
> success, but was forced to admit that the general appraisal was
> "unsatisfactory." A more sombre picture was presented by the chairman
> of the state budget committee, Mikhail Zadornov. He underlined that
> about half the taxes went uncollected and that many branches were
> completely running at a deficit. The figure for tax collection is not
> really surprising since the Mafia is not renowned for its fiscal
> probity.
> However, the official estimates for next year's growth are disputed.
> According to figures cited by the Chairman of economic policy, Yuri
> Maslyukov, this year there was a reduction in the growth of investment
> in production by 9.3% and that the investment programme had collapsed.
> In general the economic situation was aggravating social tensions. The
> point was made to me very forcibly in a conversation I had with Boris
> Slavin, Pravda's leading political columnist. Slavin asks the question
> "Do we need a government that is ruining the country?" He paints a
> black picture of economic and social collapse in complete contrast to
> the official propaganda: unemployment has already reached the 10
> million mark: "People await the winter with trepidation": as in the
> days of the Civil War, millions of homeless children and beggars
> wander the streets of Russian provincial cities. Hundreds of factories
> staid idle and indebtedness increases.
> On this basis, Slavin points out what is self-evident -- that there is
> ample basis for a vote of no-confidence in the Duma. "Shock therapy"
> has led to a catastrophic situation. Yet the Yeltsin government
> persists in dishing out more of the same medicine. Yet all the main
> parties in the Duma -- including the CPRF -- are trying to avoid a
> vote of no-confidence (also Yabloko and Ryzhkov's "People's Power").
> Instead of returning the budget to the government (i.e., rejecting
> it), they referred it to a three-party commission (with
> representatives of the government, the Duma and the Federal Soviet).
> This was proposed by Zyuganov himself, who said that if the commission
> did not come up with a solution the people's discontent would "spill
> over onto the streets and it will all end up in a big fight," which
> most people did not want.
> Thus, the CPRF leaders are acting like the old Russian liberals trying
> to frighten the autocracy with giving concessions by the threat of
> revolution. It appears that Zyuganov originally agreed with other
> opposition leaders (Ryzhkov) to go ahead with a no-confidence vote,
> but changed his mind. The last thing these people want is a election,
> let alone a revolution! They are desperately clinging to their
> parliamentary seats. They are fatally stricken with the disease of
> parliamentary cretinism. The reference to a commission was a sell-out
> because, as Chubais remarked in private, the Duma can only change the
> small print of the budget, not the "macroeconomic aspects." In other
> words, a farce.
> Within days, the No Confidence motion was withdrawn in exchange for a
> few minor concessions. The hopes placed by millions of CP voters in
> their elected representatives were dashed. The bourgeois-controlled
> mass media lost no time in praising the CPRF Duma faction for their
> "realism." Slavin comments: "So that's how the leaders betray the
> interest of the working people, of all the poor and those people
> humiliated by the powers-that-be, who naively believed that the slogan
> launched by the 4th Congress of the CPRF 'No Confidence in the
> Government!' would be carried into practice."
> Cracks in the CP
> The CPRF leaders are terrified of new elections in which they might
> lose their seats, with all the perks and privileges associated with
> them. Yeltsin, a skilful gambler, played his ace card when he
> threatened to dissolve parliament and call elections. Zyuganov moved
> swiftly to prevent this and accept a so-called "compromise" which was
> really a sell-out. The very next day the press openly speculated that
> a rotten deal had been struck between the Yeltsin government and the
> "Opposition" in parliament: "Analysts also suggest that a secret
> arrangement may be in the works between the opposition and its closest
> government supporter, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin," writes The
> Moscow Times (17/10/97.)
> However, Zyuganov's shameful capitulation in the Duma will not solve
> anything. The terrible social contradictions will grow. Ultimately
> they will find an expression even in the CPRF, where a growing section
> is bitterly critical of the leadership. On CP Duma deputy openly
> voiced his anger against Zyuganov in a private conversation with me
> just after the climb-down: "He (Zyuganov) is not a Communist. He's not
> even a Social Democrat. He's a social-chauvinist." The same man
> confessed to me that "The CP does not advocate Communist ideas any
> more. Where does the Party advocate nationalisation and the state
> monopoly of foreign trade? Nowhere! There are more Communists outside
> the Communist Party than inside! Just look at how radical the workers
> are!"
> Some of the (well-informed) people I spoke to thought the CPRF would
> eventually split. Certainly the bourgeois elements seem to be aware of
> this possibility and openly back the "moderate" wing around Zyuganov.
> The same article goes on: "The government is trying to bolster the
> position of the Communists moderate leader, Gennady Zyuganov. It was
> Zyuganov who withdrew the no-confidence motion this week after he
> received a conciliatory personal phone call from Yeltsin, but he is
> coming under intense pressure from more radical elements in the
> opposition." And the article concluded:
> "The government should make an effort to support these particular
> Communists, because the ones on the outside looking in are much more
> angry and dangerous."
> But weakness invites aggression. The "statesmanlike" conduct of
> Zyuganov and co. earned them no thanks from the government, but only
> new and well-deserved kicks. Showing his complete lack of concern for
> Zyuganov and co., Yeltsin announced that there would be no
> presidential elections in 2,000 and that the next president would be a
> "young democrat" -- a phrase which has aroused a good deal of
> speculation. Who can it be? Not Chubais, who is generally hated and
> will almost certainly be got rid of. Maybe Nemtsev, who is now
> Yeltsin's favourite protégéÉ
> But all these plans and intrigues will come to nothing once the
> working class begin to move. And that cannot be far off.
> Paradoxically, if the economy does pick up just a little (and that is
> possible), that will be the signal for a big movement on the
> industrial front. Even this year, as we have seen, there was a big
> increase in the number of strikes (teachers and miners in the main).
> At the present time there is a movement of the engineering workers
> which has not been reported. If the heavy battalions of industry get
> on the move, the entire position can be rapidly transformed. Even a
> small upturn would encourage such a development. Once it starts, it
> can assume tremendous dimensions. Then Yeltsin and his "young
> democrat" would quickly be swept aside.
> Until that time, the present situation of parliamentary deadlock,
> manoeuvres and re-shuffles will continue to grind on tediously,
> altering nothing except the careers of various individuals. There is
> still plenty of combustible material -- the threat to cheap housing
> and social services -- all could spark off an explosion. At a certain
> point quantity will turn into quality. When they least expect it, this
> sleeping volcano will erupt.
> London, September 27, 1997
>                                [counter]
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