Social democracy in Russia: new attempt

Last weekend, several left-wing political organisations in Russia held a congress under an ambitious name, the Congress of Russian Patriots, where they announced the creation of an opposition to the current authorities. Observers smiled: the idea is good but the timing is wrong. President Vladimir Putin won a convincing victory at the March 14 elections, winning more than 70% of the vote. The runner-up, Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov, received less than 15% and other rivals, less than 5%. The obvious conclusion is that being in opposition in modern Russia is unpopular and does not bring any great political dividends.

However, the challenge has been made and an opposition left-wing organisation with a claim to social democracy has been created. Its slogans include patriotism, a social state and a society with equal opportunities. The ideology is flawless, as nearly everyone in Russia shares these values. But the result is far from guaranteed, and not only because of Putin's super-popularity or the fact that the key political posts are held by right-wing centrists from the pro-presidential Untied Russia party or people holding similar views. The trouble lies in social democracy as such.

Social democracy has never been lucky in Russia. Few people in the West know that the Soviet Communist Party, which was founded by Lenin in 1903, staged the 1917 revolution, ruled Russia for 70 years and intimidated neighbouring countries with "the communist threat," was initially called the social-democratic workers' party. Authoritarianism bordering on totalitarianism, state domination of the economy and private life, and infringement on civil rights and freedoms combined to form the image of the party. There were very few social-democratic elements in its work, though they were declared loudly. There was the old name, which was soon discarded, and that is all.

In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to create a social democratic party. He failed, though he was the Soviet Union's first and last president, head of the ruling Communist Party and a highly influential politician. The idea of social democracy had no appeal in the Soviet Union. Many politicians tried to repeat Gorbachev's attempt, but nobody remembers their names now.

The young politician Sergei Glazyev offered a social-democratic programme at this year's presidential elections. He spoke about raising wages and pensions, increasing the tax burden on raw materials corporations, and re-distributing wealth between the rich and the poor. It was an enticing programme but his result was very modest: about 3 million votes or 4.1% of the total.

The traditional left-wing electorate has more sympathy for the Communists, as proved by the nearly 10 million votes cast for Nikolai Kharitonov. This is strange, because the Communists have not done much to raise living standards or protect workers' rights in their ten years in opposition. The transition to a market economy has cost Russia a catastrophic decline in living standards, mass layoffs, and the impoverishment of one-third of the population. Yet the Communist Party did not stage a single major strike. Instead, it criticised the president and reformers and its leaders debated with imaginary opponents on television and called for changing the regime. It was enough to keep the voters' sympathy. "Nothing but words" is the secret slogan with which the Communists have been living well for a decade.

But the new period means that politicians have to face new requirements. It is no longer enough to say fine words; one must act. The Congress of Patriotic Forces claims the role of the social-democratic successor to the Russian Communists. The Congress leader, ex-Communist Gennady Semigin, denounced Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov as a "schemer" who must be thrown onto the rubbish heap of history. Maybe this will happen. But will this solve the problems of Russian social democracy? That is a different matter. Will social democracy, which has never been lucky in Russia, succeed this time?

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