Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 12

By A.I. Kolganov

Whether Russia can afford a new national anthem may seem an odd question. Even the world’s poorest countries have an anthem, flag and coat of arms. The outlay required is minimal. But the question in Russia has a slightly different meaning: Is the issue of Russia’s flag, coat of arms and anthem really a priority? Shouldn’t our statesmen be tackling other problems–economic and social ones–first?

In this sense it is not an idle question at all. One can, of course, understand the president, the government and the members of parliament: Russia should indeed be equipped with the trappings of statehood, endorsed in accordance with the current constitution–that is, with a special federal law.

But why is so much energy and passion being expended on a question of symbols when we are surrounded by so many far more tangible, far more immediate problems? Nevertheless, the question of the symbols of the state is exercising politicians and the media far more than–for example–the fuel crisis in Primorsky Krai, which is literally exposing thousands of people to the danger of freezing to death. For many Russian citizens, finding a solution to these problems is a matter of physical survival, beside which the issue of the colors on the state flag pales into insignificance.

Looking at the question this way appears to reveal the answer to it. The president, the government, the lawmakers, the authorities and the opposition have all immersed themselves with great enthusiasm in this debate about the symbols of the state for the very reason that it allows them to postpone, at least for a while, the need to adopt a clear stance on the most serious social, economic and political problems facing Russia. There are reasons for this evasive behavior.

Despite constantly portraying himself as a decisive, strong-willed and effective politician, President Vladimir Putin has failed to solve many problems of his own authority. His measures to curb the influence of regional leaders are as yet more a demonstration of intent than of definitive action. His reconstruction of the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, has not yet resulted any noticeable shift in the division of power (and it is not clear whether the expected shift–which is not of a purely cosmetic nature–will actually take place). The Chechen problem is dragging on, and with each passing month–as nationalist sentiment among the public abates–it brings fewer and fewer political dividends and more and more trouble. As regards socioeconomic reform, Putin has failed to make a clear and unambiguous choice. Clearly a pragmatist, he is bound on the one hand by his own political rhetoric, which contains unequivocal hints at his desire to make Russia a great power again. On the other, he is restricted by the need to consider the interests of those sections of Russia’s elite which put him in power in order to hold onto the positions they secured under President Yeltsin. And, last, his own pragmatism brings him into conflict with his own political contacts–politicians and specialists who advocate a radical liberal ideology.

This is why President Putin has thus far failed to offer society his own vision of how to continue and develop the reforms. The proposals drawn up by his advisers (or developed under Yeltsin) for the economy, housing and utilities, labor relations and education are based on the liberal ideology of yesterday (if not last century) and do not enjoy broad support–indeed, they are opposed by significant sections of Russian society.

It is not just that these proposals pay scant respect to the interests of those Russians who do not belong to any elite group, thus creating additional potential for social and political tension. There are grave doubts that the proposals are pragmatic enough to provide a genuine solution to the problems facing the country, even if we pay the high social price associated with them. This is why Putin himself is in no hurry to openly approve them. A process is underway to finalize and agree these reform proposals, but it is impossible to predict when and how this process will end.

The government is facing similar problems. Confronted with the need to find effective solutions to specific problems, it is also in no hurry to launch an offensive under the liberal banner, even though it consists predominantly of supporters of a liberal reform strategy. Effectively, on a macroeconomic level this government is continuing the policies laid down by the far from liberal government of Yevgeny Primakov. In the same way, as regards reforming specific sectors of the economy, the government is wavering between official support for liberal projects (in energy or the railways, for example) and a careful search for ways to round off the reforms with more pragmatic solutions.

The government’s position is further complicated by the fact that the economy really does need radical solutions. The current economic revival is somewhat fragile, because it is based on temporary factors the effect of which cannot last forever. No one can guarantee that world oil prices will remain at their current level. Import substitution, necessitated by the fourfold devaluation of the ruble in 1998, has already reached the limits of its potential, and economic growth in sectors working for the consumer market is only being maintained by a small increase in real terms in people’s incomes. However, this growth also entails an increase in demand for higher quality imported goods, and, apart from this, undermines another highly important source of economic revival–the sharp fall in labor costs as a result of the almost twofold fall in wages in real terms in 1998.

Meanwhile, rapid rates of growth in investment in a number of sectors (mainly fuel and raw materials) do not mean that there is an investment boom in the economy as a whole, because in other sectors investment is very sluggish, tending to fall or even dry up altogether. And these are the conditions under which the country is approaching the very real “2003 problem.” This problem is linked to the serious aging of capital assets in such sectors as agriculture, energy, iron and steel, pipeline transportation, and the housing and utilities infrastructure.

Of course, it would be foolish to present this problem in such a way as to suggest that a wave of technological disasters will strike Russia precisely in 2003, paralyzing the whole economy. It will be impossible, however, to avoid a growing number of problems related to the aging and obsolescence of production facilities, and at current levels of investment the resources are not there to replace them. As yet, the government has been unable to offer even a purely hypothetical solution to this problem–because the possible solutions lie beyond the bounds of standard liberal formulas.

However, problems and hesitation are a feature not only of the authorities, but of the opposition as well. The opposition–particularly the largest opposition party, the KPRF–suffered perceptible losses in the parliamentary and presidential elections. Attempts by KPRF leaders to play up to the new president with nationalist rhetoric did not bring them any political dividends. Within the KPRF there is growing criticism of Gennady Zyuganov, who has been forced to declare intransigent opposition to the authorities in order to avoid putting his position in the party at risk.

But the KPRF does not have a realistic program of political action to be able to act effectively as an intransigent opposition. The KPRF’s new economic program, drawn up with the help of Yuri Glazyev, is a fairly professional job. But no one in the KPRF can give a comprehensible explanation of how the party is going to implement this program. The KPRF has huge problems developing alternatives to the concrete proposals of the government and the president. While they do manage this in some cases (for example on educational reform), for the most part, the KPRF and its parliamentary faction are let down by an obvious lack of fresh intellectual talent.

All of the above is sufficient evidence to conclude that the authorities and the opposition both have good reason to try to distract public opinion from discussion of the most important issues, in order to avoid demonstrating once again their inability to find adequate solutions to them. So this debate about the symbols of the state could not have come at a more opportune time.

All participants in this political spectacle radiate genuine passion. Some–their voices breaking with emotion and tears in their eyes–protest that the national anthem cannot possibly be a tune which sanctifies the crimes of the Stalinist totalitarian regime. This argument is entirely reasonable. But others argue, with equal emotion, that this self-same Aleksandrov melody is a symbol of the time when the country knew no bloody interethnic strife, was not floundering in the depths of a crisis, when the mortality rate was declining, there was no unemployment and the city streets were not full of homeless beggars asking for handouts and so on and so forth. And there is a lot of truth in these words too.

Similar oral barrages, clearly demonstrating the uncompromising, principled and irreconcilable nature of the warring sides, accompany the problems of the coat of arms and flag. And here it looks as though the pragmatic president sensed a compromise. Let the KPRF enjoy the tune of the old Soviet national anthem, and in exchange they can accept the three-colored flag and the double-headed eagle which are already used in practice; there’s no point spending money redesigning symbols. In addition, to reach a compromise it was promised that the government would not insist on including provisions for the free purchase and sale of land in the Land Code. But it wasn’t to be.

To start with, the Duma voted by a majority–that is, the votes of the pro-presidential and pro-governmental factions–to reject the idea of adopting laws on the coat of arms, flag and anthem in a single package, and proposed to hold debates on these issues. How could they pass up such a good excuse for practicing their rhetoric instead of solving complex political and socioeconomic problems?

The political spectacle is still going on. Sumptuous decorations catch the eye, designed to hide from the public the fact that the state system does not work. However, this spectacle itself is gradually beginning to expose the truth. What sort of a state is it where it takes so long to find agreement even on such secondary–albeit important–matters such as the anthem, flag and coat of arms? This behavior, from politicians who are supposed to be responsible for the fate of the country, only serves to strengthen the position of those who have long been preaching that Russia’s salvation lies down the road of authoritarianism. These politicians have lost all sense of their responsibility to the electorate who entrusted them with the running of the country, and if their political games continue, they will only serve to improve the chances of those who advocate “strong-arm” politics. The people are silent, as they tend to be in Russia. But the deep-rooted habit the authorities have of pushing the limits of the people’s patience with their politics may let them down.

Andrei Kolganov is a doctor of economics and a senior research fellow at Moscow State University.