On Reality Asserts Itself, Prof. Aleksandr Buzgalin says after the chaotic ‘90s, the Russian oligarchs needed a stronger central state to defend their class interests, but Putin’s individual power should not be exaggerated – with host Paul Jay.
This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced July 20, 2018.
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay, this is The Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion with Professor Alexander Buzgalin. Thanks for joining us again, in New York, by the way.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes, in New York, thank you.
PAUL JAY: Professor Buzgalin teaches political economy and is Director of the Center for Modern Marxist Studies at Moscow State University. Through your life, we’re telling the modern history of the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the, I guess, a new Russia of sorts. So, in 1999, Putin becomes president and begins really, a new era. Putin comes from the KGB, was he in on the- what role did he play during the arrest of Gorbachev, the rise of Yeltsin. Where is he in all this?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: First of all, I am not biographer of Putin, so I will not give you something interesting. I don’t have any interesting information. He was working as a specialist, like say, I don’t know how to use- what word we use in English. In Russian we have investigator, not spy. First, then when Yeltsin came to power, he was working in the administration of St. Petersburg with one of the close friends of Yeltsin, Sobchak, not Lady Sobchak, she is daughter of Sobchak, father.
And then he went back to KGB, if I am not mistaken. I never follow to the biography of Putin. And then, step by step, the president- the leader, director of KGB, now it’s a federal system of security, something like that. So, when he was nominated by Yeltsin to be new president, it was interesting situation. Just a few minutes before New Year, in his speech for people, Yeltsin said that, “I will not be more president, and I want Putin to be next president of Russia.” So, it was very big sensation just before-
PAUL JAY: Why did he do it?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: First of all, I will finish, sorry- it was big surprise for people when they were, with champagne, waiting, when will be twelve, and from 31 of December we will move to the first of January, we received new president. Of course, it was elections, but more or less artificial elections. Why? First of all, because I think main force of Russian life, big capital, decided to change the model of political organization. In Yeltsin’s period, we had power of biggest bankers, together with the owners of the biggest gas, oil, metal corporations. And they controlled political power, but it was permanent fight between these leaders of corporations.
PAUL JAY: Much like the oligarchs.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, oligarchs. It’s like in feudal epoch, when barons are fighting between each other. And finally, when it’s necessary to stabilize a system of accumulation of capital, then they understand it’s better to have one king, and not to have this permanent war between themselves, yeah? They more or less divided Russia between themselves and-
PAUL JAY: During the ’90s, they have this asset-grab.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, they had ten years, nearly ten years of permanent re-division of the markets, of the infrastructure, of the power, with criminal conflicts, with bloody victims, and with terrible disorder. But when primitive accumulation of capital is finishing, it’s necessary to have stabilization of rules of the game and it’s necessary to have political order. And Putin became symbol of this new era, not creator, but symbol, I don’t know, top representative, but not master of the game. It’s a big mistake, everybody thinks that the real power in Russia belongs to Putin. No. Real power still belongs to the big capital, together with top bureaucrats who became more powerful than before. But this is one new nomenklatura, one new start. And this start is really master of Russian economy and Russian social and political life. And Putin is symbol.
PAUL JAY: Symbol, or more the conductor of an orchestra of power?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: I think not conductor, even.
PAUL JAY: Not even conductor?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Not even conductor. He personally can change something a little bit in the distribution of power, of distribution of, I don’t know, statuses, help or not to help, to redistribute a little bit wealth, but not too much.
PAUL JAY: But there’s a general impression, I’ve heard it from people in Russia, too, that nothing big goes on without the president’s office having a hand.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: First of all, not Putin, but administration of president. This is big difference. Administration of president is not simply group of bureaucrats, this is people who has very strong connections with business, with executive power in regions, and so on. So, really, there is more or less informal, without exact borders, strata, again, social strata with class interest to keep this semi-bureaucratic, semi- capitalist system with a lot of elements of feudalism, to keep this system.
PAUL JAY: So, Putin is formally elected in August of ’99 but it’s more or less already been handed over to him. Now, where are you, how does life change? Is there now more structure? There’s laws, there’s a system.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Really, we didn’t have so big changes. And for majority of Russians, nearly nothing changed. More stabilization, little less criminal activity. The only real change, which we had from 2000 until 2007, even from 1998 until 2007, it was growth of economy. And the main impulse for this growth was not Putin’s presidency, but Yevgeny Primakov became prime minister after crisis in 1998. And Primakov was supporter of, let’s say, Chinese model. He started state regulations, he started support of internal industry, regulation of financial system, and so on. And he gave first impulse for the growth of economy after seven years of crisis.
And it was also not bad to keep this- to create this new economic policy in the period when growth of prices on oil started. And from twenty-five dollars until- I’m sorry, in 1995 the price of oil was twenty-five, approximately, dollars per gallon. In 2001, ’03, ’04, it was up to one hundred fifty. So, it was enormous growth, six times. And because of that, we received a lot of incomes. And part of these incomes were used for increasing of living standards of Russians. Mainly, it was used in order to transfer millionaires to billionaires, and it was successful result because we had second or third place in the world, as far as number of billionaires is concerned. We are still among champions, or we are very good in this competition. And for Russians, it was growth of incomes, not very rapid with growth of social differentiation, but still it was positive trend based on this conjunction.
PAUL JAY: What is the response of the oligarchs to this strengthening of a state, a central state? Some seemed to benefit, a few even went to jail.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It’s like in a feudal country, where from feudal barons, you’re coming to one king. Some barons will have even more power and more influence and more property, but some will be killed or in prison. It was in France, it was everywhere. The same in Russia in twenty-first century. We have many remnants of late feudalism in our country, unfortunately. So, and now, state expresses interests of the class, but if one baron will decide to take too much for himself or to destroy this power or to change a little bit of this power, he will be in the prison.
The story of Khodorkovsky is relatively simple. He decided not to follow to the common rules, he proposed socialization of economy, he said that too big social differentiation and absence of industrial policy is not good for the economy in general and for accumulation of capital. And if you want, we Russia, want to have growth, if we want to have new quality of development, it’s necessary to change economic model. But it was not profitable for continuation of the policy which was before, and which is now. And he went to prison because he didn’t pay taxes. But in Russia in ’90s, nobody paid taxes, so everybody could be in prison.
PAUL JAY: So, if the state wants somebody in prison, there’s always a ready reason to do it.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It was enormous. It was necessary to show that if you don’t follow our common rules, you will be in prison.
PAUL JAY: So, he actually wanted somewhat more social democratic version of capitalism?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: A little bit, yes. He was not the Hero of Socialist Labor of course, but yeah, it was a relatively more progressive model. And he decided to participate in very active form in politics.
PAUL JAY: Now, you’re trying to keep the left alive during all of this. You’re still teaching at the university. What’s happening to the left during the rise of these, the creation of a stronger central state, and Putin, and so on.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Again, situation is complex and contradictory. We have, in Parliament, Communist Party of Russian Federation, which is going down. They had thirty, even more, percent of the seats, now they have fifteen.
PAUL JAY: And how left is that party? Because it has leftist things, but it also has a pretty vile nationalist streak.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. So, Communist Party of Russian Federation is a strange organization. They have economic and social program very similar with Die Linke in Germany, for example. Not bad left social democratic program. But internal organization is very bureaucratic and conservative. Ideology in general is also mixture of some communist slogans with slogans of orthodox church and conservative slogans. Plus, nostalgia of Soviet Union as a symbol of the prosperity and Stalin as symbol of good life in the Soviet period. So, in this case, this is not very progressive at all.
But inside communist party, there are a lot of interesting, good people who simply don’t have a place to act, because this is the only official left organization, with all negative features. We have small communist organizations, left organizations, some of them are not bad, so-called United Communist Party. It’s unification of people who were expelled from Communist Party of Russian Federation because they were real communists, I can say. And we work together with this political group, very close cooperation. But as I said, the alternative, mainly is movement of people who want to develop left, Marxist theory, who want to teach- who wants to make real propaganda of left ideas. And we have some positive results.
We have weekly radio program, open-air, forty minutes in one of the federal radios, Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of the most popular radio in Russia. We have access to central T.V. at least one, two times per months because we are top intellectuals. It’s not self-advertising, it’s true. We have opportunities to participate in talk shows, we have on first channel, very popular talk shows. We had two hundredth anniversary of Marx, we had six talk shows where we participated for this anniversary on different channels. We have two journals, popular journals, many different websites, not Alternatives. Alternatives, I have too. But it’s good work, I think.
PAUL JAY: The West loved Yeltsin, and they grew to hate Putin. Why?
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: This is big story. To be brief, in Russia, we had, during last ten years, permanent stagnation, before even crisis, of economy. No improvements. At the same time, we had the growth of, concentration of, national capital. And this huge capital decided to play a role in the world market. And if capital wants to take a piece of world market, it’s necessary to have strong state behind. So, first attempt to come to the world market led to the bad result. Russian capital decided to buy part of the Western corporations then the Western corporations said, “No, no, no, never.” The Russians said, “We will pay good price.” “No, no, never, it’s our business. Go out.”
After that, we received impulse of growth from military- industrial complex. And if we have military-industrial complex, it’s necessary to use this complex for something. Plus, it was a real attack on national pride of Russians during all these periods, of Yeltsin period and after that. We were country which lost everything; respect, national sovereignty. We were under the control of United States, we had Westernization of cultural life and it was very unpleasant. Terrible for us. And when Putin made first really decisive step and said Crimea will be part of Russia, he received huge popularity. Crimea is special question we discussed in your program, not one time, this question. But he received, yes, from people.
PAUL JAY: But the Americans, and many of the Europeans, already hated Putin before Crimea.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Not too much. Really, the crisis, the programs started after 2008, ’10. Before, Putin was good friends, it was partnership with NATO, it was no problem in early period, or nearly no problem.
PAUL JAY: Hillary was going to reboot the relationship because it was problematic. Putin was- the vilification was already in the works.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, but Putin was, step by step, trying to create a stronger Russian state.
PAUL JAY: Well that’s what I’m getting at, is part of creating the stronger Russian state, is that these resources are going to be Russian oligarchs, not American oligarchs.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, it’s true.
PAUL JAY: And finance too, like Western finance couldn’t get their hooks in a way they- and the whole point of breaking up the Soviet Union, from a Western point of view, was that Western capital should have a free-for-all.
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, but you know, here’s a reason- it’s an absolutely reasonable reason for this. But there is another reason. Power in Russia, partly, is dependent from the people. Every state, even if it is a marionette of the capital, is dependent from the public opinion, from the public feelings. They must have balance. And for Russians, necessity to have self-respect became extremely important after twenty years of permanent crisis.
PAUL JAY: And for Putin-
ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It was necessary to give response to this necessity.
PAUL JAY: Okay, well we’re going to pick this up in the next segment because this opens up the whole question of Putin and brings us kind of more up to date. Because we only have so much time today, and clearly, we could do another thirty-five episodes. So, please join us for the next segment of Reality Asserts Itself with Alexander Buzgalin on The Real News Network.