ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29

A Communist Party without Communism

By Alexander Etkind

PRINCETON - Russian President Vladimir Putin's anointment of Alexander Medvedev to succeed him in what is supposed to be a democratic presidential election next March shows that Russia's leaders have not changed a whit. It looks increasingly likely that, as under Leonid Brezhnev, we will see the same names in the news for decades to come.

According to Gleb Pavlovsky, the Putin regime's leading ideologist, the current Russian system is perfect in all respects but one: it doesn't know its enemies. Indeed, it seems as if everyone in the Kremlin is reading Carl Schmitt, the Nazi legal theorist who taught that naming your enemy is the central mission of politics.

In the spirit of Schmitt, Putin's men designated a liberal party, the Union of Right Forces, as their enemy. Its public meetings were broken up by armed police; its leaders arrested and beaten; Putin called its supporters "coyotes."

President Putin, left, with First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential nominee Medvedev who on Tuesday called for Putin to become prime minister after the March election. AP

What is surprising is that this aggressive behavior occurred in response to no visible danger. Oil prices are soaring, as are Putin's approval ratings. His appointees control everything that matters, from Gazprom to the Central Electoral Committee. Since the pacification of Chechnya with violence and subsidies, the incarceration or emigration of a few financially viable opponents, and the massive "social investments" of recent years, which, under Medvedev's personal supervision, have bribed the population, no credible force can seriously challenge Putin's men. Yet their regime is in crisis, and they know it.

Russia's economy is more dependent on gas and oil than ever before. Military reform has been reversed. Despite increasing incomes, Russians are less educated and less healthy than they were when Putin came to power; they still die at a shockingly young age. Russian involvement in world affairs is tainted by poison and corruption.

State monopolies undo what private businesses created. With more money, ill-educated bureaucrats hire more ill-educated bureaucrats; as a result, the regime fails to rule the country. The country is unruly, and its rulers know it. So they panic.

Putin's aim was to subject all power to the control of Russia's security forces. His generation of KGB officers watched the collapse of the Communist Party and all the governmental bodies that it "directed and controlled," including the KGB. Under Putin, the security service has had its revenge. Its people have become powerful, arrogant, and enormously rich. They have also become disobedient.

In 2004, General Viktor Cherkesov, then Putin's representative in northwest Russia, published an essay that glorified the KGB as the only unspoiled authority in a corrupted country. This essay, more than anything else, defined Putin's second term. In October 2006, Cherkesov (now chief of one of the most obscure and powerful services, the Federal Anti-Drug Administration) published another essay in which he lamented his colleagues' degradation: warriors had turned into traders, he complained.

Earlier, generals from a competing service, the FSB, had arrested Cherkesov's deputy for "illegal bugging." In a public gesture of despair, Cherkesov admitted the failure of Putin's project to reanimate Russian governance by subordinating it to the security services.

Cherkesov's deputy remains in prison. Most believe that Putin is unable to intervene in his defense. In the absence of Communist Party control, these security officers betrayed their corporate ethic and engaged in horse-trading, applying force when a trade did not go well. That this happens to ordinary Russians is clear; what Cherkesov revealed was that Putin's circle also confronts this situation.

What is to be done when ex-KGB warriors turn their swords and bugs against one another? Cherkesov's case exemplifies Putin's nightmare. But if your instincts betray you, you go back to even deeper ones. Now that Putin's people have left their predecessors' neo-liberal ideas behind and feel disenchanted with the ex-KGB clique, the task is to recreate an omnipresent political party that controls the security services, the administration, business, and much else. This party will be centralized under personal leadership and will reduce the state to a legal fiction.

Preaching nationalism, its managers will believe in their universal competence, as opposed to KGB-style professionalism and corporatism. Boris Yeltsin forbade party cells in state-controlled institutions by decree. Putin's lawyers will reverse that decision; the party will have cells or committees in every factory, corporation, military unit, university department, etc. Integrated by the leader's charisma and party discipline, party members will direct and unify the desolated country.

This is Putin's plan. Like former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, the only other KGB man to rule Russia, Putin will become the party's general secretary. As in the Soviet era, state and governmental officials will be reduced to party ciphers — the role that President Medvedev will play under General Secretary Putin. And, of course, being General Secretary carries no constitutional term limit.

In the end, Putin has what history left him: not ideas, just a faction yearning to consolidate its grip on power. Lenin and Trotsky needed a party to make their ideology a reality; Putin and Medvedev are devising an ideology to solidify their party. It is a bizarre ideology. Accusing warriors of being traders and traders of being thieves, it shuns its Marxist origins. It will subordinate all who really do work — traders, warriors, journalists, and others — to party ideologues whose sole job is to search for enemies.

(Alexander Etkind, a Saint Petersburg native, is Reader of Russian literature at Cambridge; he is currently Fellow at Princeton University. ) Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007. Exclusive to The Sunday Times

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