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Yeltsin in Dubious Battle | The Nation

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Yeltsin in Dubious Battle

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For once Boris Yeltsin was true to his word. He had said in public that August would be the month of "artillery preparations" and September the time of the clash. On September 21, at 8 P.M. Moscow time, he duly staged his pronunciamento. Addressing the Russians on TV, he announced the dissolution of the present Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies and announced elections for an entirely new parliament for December 11 and 12 (with presidential elections in a splendidly uncertain future). All this, whatever Secretary of State Warren Christopher may think, is perfectly unconstitutional, but will it be effective? The other side did not fold. The Supreme Soviet at once dismissed Yeltsin and proclaimed his deputy, Aleksandr Rutskoi, Acting President. A few hours later, the Constitutional Court backed this version, suggesting that Yeltsin's conduct deserved impeachment, while Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of Parliament, summoned the Congress to Moscow. With the army declaring its "neutrality," to borrow the first words of the Defense Ministry spokesman, can Yeltsin impose his authority or will he, once again, cross the Rubicon merely to start bargaining on the other side?

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

As we go to press, the trial of strength is on and the question cannot be answered. Yet the conflict did not come out of the blue. Tho years after the August putsch, with galloping inflation, slumping production, rising crime and a serious threat of national collapse, Russia is obviously on the brink. But on the brink of what? In retracing the background we shall go beyond the one-sided Yeltsinian versions peddled by the Western press and try to show what the stakes are and who are the real protagonists in this dubious battle.

The fight between President and Parliament is not new. The last important round was staged in April, when Yeltsin managed to win a referendum, but only on points, rather than by a knockout, and it proved a defeat in disguise. The President did not get the share of the vote he needed to dissolve Parliament, and there were too many abstentions among registered voters for him to claim a moral mandate to do so. Naturally, most of the media, manipulated by Yeltsin's henchman. Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Poltoranin, have been claiming that he does have such a mandate. And the President quickly called a special conference designed to reshape the Constitution. But the conference, while it might have produced a compromise, could hardly impose its views upon a Parliament that, whatever one may think of it, had been duly elected.

Yeltsin's next gimmick for constitutional change was a plan merely to set up a Federal Council composed of representatives of the autonomous republics and oblasts (regions) of the Russian Federation. If constituted, this body would then sponsor a new charter. But as long as the Supreme Soviet refused to endorse the project, the Yeltsinites could introduce a new Constitution only by unconstitutional means. For Yeltsin the apparatchik this would not have mattered. He would have easily found a "Marxist" hack to explain that constitutions, like laws, merely reflect the balance of forces within a country. The snag is that he and his supporters present themselves as born-again constitutionalists and defenders of the rule of law.

There is also a more cynical explanation for Yeltsin's delayed reaction: To carry out a coup he needed the backing of the army and the police, which he doesn't seem to have. Whatever the reason may have been, the lawbreakers were not restrained by fear of foreign opprobrium. The Western media pretend that Yeltsin has a mandate to do whatever he wants to do-even change the rules of the game if they are inconvenient. And Western officialdom now says the same.

The indulgence of the Western press is not limited to constitutional matters. When it comes to corruption and its toleration, Russia's rulers are also allowed to get away with preposterous behavior. Last April, during the referendum campaign, Rutskoi leveled accusations of corruption against two of Yeltsin's closest supporters, the aforementioned Poltoranin and First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko. Yeltsin's response was not to suspend his underlings but to remove Rutskoi from his position as head of the commission investigating corruption, Since then, several important figures, including Minister of Security Viktor Barannikov, have been ousted from their jobs, apparently because their activity threatened the interests of Yeltsin's camarilla. (In retrospect the move may have been connected with the projected putsch.)

Indeed, by the end of August the ruling circle was mounting a counteroffensive. A presidential commission on corruption accused Rutskoi of having a "connection" with a multimillion-dollar bank account in Switzerland. The case was not submitted to Russia's Prosecutor General, Valentin Stepankov, because he had also been accused of crooked activities. (Both men were allegedly incriminated by Dmitri Yakubovsky, a playboy, secret agent and shady operator now living in Toronto, whose mysterious exploits, links and insinuations were splashed on the front pages of Russian papers all summer.) The case against Rutskoi was transferred to the Moscow prosecutor; after all, it is easier to win if you control the referee. Only then did Yeltsin act, with a pretense of balance, suspending both Shumeiko and Rutskoi.

Imagine the outcry and indignation in the Western press if such antics had been engaged in by the old regime. The relative discretion of Western media confirms the sneaking suspicion that the moralists of The New York Times and the preachers from The New Republic were in the past less inspired by their passion for the Rights of Man in Russia than by their devotion to the rights of capital. And since Yeltsin is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the best defender of capitalist interests in the former Soviet Union, why quibble over legal niceties? (This reasoning guided the reaction of the Clinton Administration to this latest crisis.)

It's impossible to know at this point who is or is not guilty. On the other hand, one can say with certainty that graft and corruption are prevalent at the highest levels of government. This is because the scope for them is so great: The old laws and disciplines have fallen and the new ones have not yet taken hold. Venality has also spread because the prizes are so dazzling. An official's signature authorizing the export of oil or of precious metals to the West is worth millions of dollars; the beneficiaries of these export scams have socked away billions in foreign bank accounts. That money may stay abroad until the economic horizon clears, or it may return in search of bargains in the clearance sale that is the swindle of the century: the privatization of state property. No wonder there is a cutthroat power struggle in Moscow; the winners get to determine the rules for apportioning this bonanza. As Rutskoi put it during a recent press conference: "Those who are in charge of property distribution have power."

The political battle in Russia is so bitter because the stakes are so high [see Singer, "Capitalism From Above," October 5 , 1992]. The privileged are fighting among themselves for both power and property-first for property acquired through political power, and then for permanent political supremacy because of their ownership of property. The alignments within the establishment become more obvious as time goes by. On one side you have those who build their power on the ruins of the old system and get rich by buying up the spoils with the help of foreign capital or of domestic swindlers and speculators. These are the advocates of shock therapy, or rapid privatization, and the preachers of the gospel according to the International Monetary Fund.

Their rivals, the industrial managers who were put in their jobs by the Communist Party (and who in Russian politics today did not carry a C.P. card yesterday?), can hardly be described as the genuine defenders of state property. Caretakers would be more accurate. They do not want this property to become dilapidated, or be taken over by local crooks and their foreign backers, because they themselves hope to become, in the not too distant future, the owners of that property.

Yeltsin's closest associates are linked with the first group, but his government is a coalition that includes the second. Its latest head, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, is a manager who spent most of his career in the fuel industry. However, his deputy in charge of finance, the youthful Boris Fyodorov, is a monetarist who sounds like a spokesman for the international financial establishment. Yeltsin, a pragmatic climber rather than an ideologue, may well have hoped at one stage to reach a compromise. The decision, confirmed on September 16, to replace the practical Oleg Lobov as First Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the economy with the shock therapist in chief, former Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, was a sign that he has now opted for a fight. But he did it after much procrastination, showing his awareness that beyond a certain point popular patience can break. Hesitations, incidentally, affect the other side too, particularly the main force of the opposition, the centrist Civic Union, a coalition organized originally around Arkady Volsky's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. The majority is on the side of fellow-member Rutskoi, but a minority fears that the struggle against Yeltsin will involve a dangerous alliance with former Communist nomenklatura who now espouse a populist and jingoistic line.

All these waverings are a reminder that this is not a clear-cut battle between the downtrodden and the oppressors, between the seekers of a genuine socialism and defenders of a capitalist solution. It is an internal conflict between two factions over which road to capitalism shall be taken; the choice will affect the future positions of their backers. It is also a family quarrel between former allies: Rutskoi shared the presidential ticket with Yeltsin, and Khasbulatov was Yeltsln's chief supporter in the Supreme Soviet. Their struggle is now so bitter because it reflects the interests of classes in formation, and so urgent because of the state of the nation.

At the end of last year, after twelve months of shock therapy treatment by Gaidar and his team, many observers thought the Russian patient could not get any worse. That prognosis was false. With inflation still running at the rate of about 30 percent a month, production in the first six months of this year, according to official figures, was 15 percent lower than in the corresponding period of 1992. A few are getting richer, and showing it ostentatiously, while many are getting poorer. More than a third of the population is living below the subsistence level. The educational system is disintegrating; the collapse of the health system has resulted in the spread of epidemics, notably diphtheria. Various mafias are openly imposing Chicago-style protection rackets. The very unity of the country is threatened. Yeltsin did not hesitate to break up the Soviet Union to defeat Mikhail Gorbachev. Now he may do the same to Russia, trying to woo the outlying regions in his struggle with Parliament. The cohesion of the country is no longer preserved from above by ideology and force, as in the past. But unity is not assured, as in the West, by the efficient functioning of a capitalist economy. Indeed, the introduction of a free market tends to encourage the richer regions, whether oblasts or autonomous republics, to go their own ways.

When a country is in total disarray and no popular force seems capable of breaking the social stalemate, it is the opportune moment for a savior on a white horse or, in modern parlance, a general with his tanks. Officers in the former Red Army have grievances galore. They are no longer the proud and pampered servants of a superpower. Their prestige has slumped at home as well as abroad. So has their budget, forcing many units to engage in private enterprises to stay afloat. But if the Russian Army is no longer a match for the American forces, it could still be an effective instrument of a military coup.

And yet, according to all accounts-and, if they are true, this is the key to the present situation-the military does not harbor a Bonaparte with a Napoleonic vocation. Nor is it ready to launch another putsch. Indeed, it is seen as an obstacle by those who dream of solutions imposed by the force of arms. Should Boris Yeltsin prove unable to perform the part even of Bonaparte's nephew, Napoléon le Petit, and disband this Parliament, it will not be because he thinks his supporters would be shocked by such conduct. Quite the contrary. Those in Russia who claim the title of democrats, and are so described by Western scribblers and officials, speak quite fondly of using the iron fist to establish capitalism in Russia. The market must come first, they argue, and democracy will follow. For the soldiers, however, it is a different matter. If some regiments, on Yeltsin's orders, were to invade the Supreme Soviet, other regiments might come to its rescue, leading to a bloody civil war, which the army, however discontented, apparently wants to avoid.

This, then, is the landscape at the dawn of a battle, often announced and, so far, always postponed. As if conscious of the limited means at his disposal, Yeltsin, while occasionally making threatening noises, ultimately always opted for salami tactics rather than outright confrontation. But can such a conflict still be avoided? If the problem were merely one of determining the respective powers of president and parliament, a solution would be the one offered on September 22 by Valery Zorkin, head of the Constitutional Court: to hold parliamentary elections and a presidential vote at the same time. The new president would then come to terms with the new assembly on a new constitution. But this is not what Yeltsin offered.

In fairness, it must be added that more is at stake than the Constitution. What we are witnessing in Russia, and throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, is an exceptionally rapid transformation of property relations and a simultaneous crystallization of class interests. This cannot take place without an upheaval. The best that can be hoped for, at this stage, is that this verbal farce will not be allowed to grow into a real tragedy, a bloody civil war, and, at the same time, that Yeltsin will be prevented from establishing a dictatorship, which would arrest the process of clarification. What is needed is time for the people--awakened from their post-Stalinist slumber, dazzled by the capitalist dream and now sobered by the discovery of capitalist reality--to ponder their experience and become conscious of the kind of society they want to build. Very few years may be needed for the workers, technicians and the uncorrupted part of the intelligentsia to enter the stage as the defenders of their own interests, thus transforming altogether a battle that, so far, has been a test of strength between two gangs of would-be profiteers.

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