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Yeltsin, the Lame-Duck Czar | The Nation

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Yeltsin, the Lame-Duck Czar

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Six months after the storming of Russia's Parliament, Boris Yeltsin and his backers, domestic and foreign, must have second thoughts about the wisdom of the coup that climaxed in a massacre. On the face of it, the coup's objectives have been achieved: Yeltsin has his exorbitant prerogatives under a Constitution hastily cut to measure, and parallel organs of presidential power are now filled with obedient servants. In terms of real power, however, he has, increasingly, more the trappings than the substance.

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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.

The leaders of last autumn's parliamentary resistance, re- leased from jail at the end of February, were not humiliated and freed by the President's gracious pardon. They were unrepentant beneficiaries of a parliamentary amnesty. The new Duma is no more subservient than the old Parliament, though it can no longer be dismissed as ill-elected. Yeltsin, in response to the clearly expressed mood of the people, has had to eat his own words, and those of his assistants, about the virtues of shock therapy. His sudden disappearances, whether due to poor health or drinking, are no longer the main reason the conviction is spreading in Moscow that he will not complete his first term, officially scheduled to end in mid-1996.

One must weigh such a prognosis against Yeltsin's resilience, his capacity to bounce back like the famous Russian doll and his readiness to do anything for the sake of political survival. After all, the former apparatchik from Sverdlovsk gained popularity during the first phase of perestroika as the champion of equality and the archenemy of privilege. Then, pushed by the priviligentsia, he claimed that for successful people the sky was the limit. Yesterday, he and his supporters argued that everything must be subordinated to the quick conversion to capitalism. Today, he maintains that "the task is to find a sensible correlation between the speed of reform and the realistic social price to be paid for it." Indeed, Yeltsin's pragmatic rule is have two different irons in the fire and pretend the one you pull out is no different from the other. The snag is that after August 1991, the triumphant defender of the White House could get away with anything, whereas in 1994 the man who stormed that building, and then lost an election, is not in the same position. It is symptomatic that, in a recent popularity poll published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, he was overtaken by his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Friends and foes alike are beginning to treat Yeltsin as yesterday's politician.

To suggest Yeltsin's imminent departure is to raise the dark shadow of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and that misnomer, his Liberal-Democratic Party. The danger is real. His xenophobic and racist movement drew the highest proportion of the vote--23 percent-in last December's election. But those who praise Yeltsin's new Constitution and curse Zhirinovsky should be confronted with their inconsistency. That Constitution, endorsed narrowly last December, possibly with the help of some suspect "miracles" at the polls, had no chance whatsoever without the backing of Zhirinovsky's supporters; their leader was, naturally, in favor of greater powers for the President, since he sees himself as the likely successor to that office. More generally, the advocates of shock therapy now shouting "Danger, fascism! " are like arsonists calling the fire brigade. They have manured the soil in which such a movement could grow. All of Europe is now witnessing the rise of right-wing extremists to varying degrees, reflecting the relative sickness of their particular societies. If the shadow of Zhirinovsky is darker, say, than that of Jean-Marie Le Pen, it is because Russia is in a much more explosive state than France.

In Russia, luxury used to be concealed behind curtains; now it is flaunted. The gap between rich and poor is widening fast; according to official figures the income of the top 10 percent last year was eleven times higher than that of the lowest 10 percent. Some are buried in a pauper's grave; others in elaborate coffins imported from the United States. Foreign-language ads for consumer goods enrage those who've lost their savings. All this is a perfect stage for a man like Zhirinovsky who knows how to address his public concretely. He talks about the price of vodka and cigarettes and uses words that ring a bell (nationalism is "an individual flat"; internationalism, "a shared apartment,', examples all too familiar to Russians). Himself never a Communist, though suspected of a connection with the K.G.B., he can tell his angry audiences about past grandeur and point to the people responsible for their degradation: the alien, the dark southerner, the Jew, the cosmopolitan, the American invader. Demagogues like Zhirinovsky, possibly wearing a uniform, will remain dangerous as long as Russia does not make an economic recovery and the other parties do not provide more rational explanations and a better prospect for change.

Nevertheless, if Zhirinovsky does not appear to be an immediate threat, it is not because of his ravings about secret weapons for Serbia or his other antics on foreign trips, It is because opinion polls and other indicators, for what they are worth, suggest that the Russian people have not yet reached the state of exasperation necessary for a majority of them to turn to such a savior. If a presidential election were to be held tomorrow, the real rival for Yeltsin would be his running mate of 1991 and now his deadly enemy, Aleksandr Rutskoi, the Afghan war hero and former vice president, ousted in Yeltsin's coup.

On that bloody Sunday afternoon, October 3, Rutskoi, presumably intoxicated by apparent success, called on his supporters to go on the offensive, thus giving Yeltsin the pretext for his military intervention. Rutskoi's rash action shows that a heroic war record does not guarantee cool calculation in a political crisis. He made a mistake and he paid for it with nearly five months in jail. But he was the victim in the final conflict, not the executioner, and so he is perceived. Incidentally, Yeltsin, while disliking the way in which the amnesty was carried out, must be delighted that the Duma, by the same token, gave up its inquiry into the assault on the White House, a probe that was bound to discredit him still further. But the upshot was that his enemies could move directly from Lefortovo prison into the political arena.

While Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former president of the Supreme Soviet, opted for a pause, Rutskoi plunged back into politics. In March he was one of the signatories of Accord for Russia, a manifesto clearly designed to counter Yeltsin's recent Memorandum for Peace, around which the President hoped to rally a potential electoral majority. Among the people who signed the manifesto with Rutskoi were Gennadi Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party; Mikhail Lapshin, head of the Agrarian Party; and Valery Zorkin, ex-chairman of the Constitutional Court. But there was no one from Zhirinovsky's party. Presumably his followers were excluded by the fact that the manifesto, or "civil pact," was open only to representatives of patriotic groups that "refuse violence, racism and nationalism" (though some of the people who signed give rise to doubts about how strictly those criteria were adhered to).

The nature of the alliance backing Rutskoi shows that in his presidential campaign he is trying to regain the center of Russian politics, which he once occupied with his fellow members of the Civic Union, Nikolai Travkin and Arkady Volsky, now rather attracted by the line of the new government. And indeed, to oppose this new offensive, Yeltsin is relying on Viktor Chernomyrdin. But can the prime minister who was nominally in charge for the past fifteen months be considered a new card in the political game?

For several years now the struggle in Russia has not been over whether the country should go capitalist. It has been waged to determine the pace of the conversion, the means to be used and, therefore, who would gain power, privilege and property in the process. Roughly speaking, it was a fight between two sectors of the establishment: the financiers, the monetarists, who wanted to-speed up the transformation through shock therapy in order to take over the economy with foreign assistance; and the industrial managers eager to cling to what they had and, hence, opposed to an upheaval.

Yeltsin, while clearly siding with the so-called shock therapists, had to maneuver in this confrontation. In December 1992, he yielded to parliamentary pressure and fired Yegor Gaidar, the chief therapist, from the prime ministership. To replace him, Yeltsin picked a compromise candidate, Chernomyrdin, whom he could trust, but who by training and career, notably in the gas industry, belonged to the managerial wing.

Chernomyrdin, however, was given only the title. He had to live with Gaidar's ghost and the continued presence in the Finance Ministry of the foreign lobby's darling, Boris Fyodorov. Chernomyrdin's affection for the two may be gathered from the following passages in a recent speech: "Russia is not a racing car, which you can get into, go for a spin and get out of again; and after this the whole country trembles as if in a fever." That was aimed at Gaidar, and for Fyodorov: "It is not the economy that exists for the Ministry of Finance but the Ministry of Finance that exists for the economy" Fyodorov was also kicked out of the government following last December's election. Now, the only member of the Gaidar gang remaining in office in a key economic position is Anatoly Chubais, significantly in charge of privatization. Chernomyrdin, who now has as his first deputy Oleg Soskovets, another managerial tycoon, should be able to show what he can do when no longer on a leash. But, watched carefully by the International Monetary Fund, he is starting under bad circumstances: A crime wave is sweeping the county; the privatization program threatens to destroy his coalition; and the economic legacy is even worse than the figures suggest.

The criminalization of the economy has reached crisis proportions. It was predictable that, with the old rules crumbling and the new ones yet to be established, there would be greater scope, for corruption, especially when so much money is at stake, when an export license can turn its lucky recipient into a dollar millionaire. The huge differential between a public salary and potential private gain may explain the lapses of the high-level official or the local police officer. But racketeering now permeates the entire society. The new capitalists pay protection money rather than taxes. So many bankers have been murdered that banking is now a high-risk profession. Privatization auctions are often carried out' at prices dictated by the mob. The various mafias also have a hand in another crime that is drowning the economy-the massive export of capital. And the tide is rising. Large-scale embezzlements and robberies climbed last year by about a third, murders by over a quarter, to more than 29,000. "Capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt." Those who remember their Marx in Russia have an illustration before their very eyes.

Privatization presents a different problem. The distribution of vouchers to the people was partly designed to give those who were being robbed the illusion they were getting something in exchange. Auction sales with the use of vouchers should end by July 1. The government claims that, by now, about 70 percent of trade, catering and other services is in private hands and that about one-third of the medium and large industrial enterprises have been privatized. The other unavowed objective was to take control of the property away from the managers, but here the scheme was less successful, since in many cases the directors "bought" the factories, quite often with,the help of the staff. Chubais and his associates would like to strengthen the hand of outside shareholders using the new legislation at their disposal (bankruptcy laws, elimination of limits on the sale of shares, etc.), and this may lead to a confrontation. So will the attempt by the other side to maintain a substantial state sector and to build conglomerates capable of standing up to foreign competition. Thus far, however, the transformation of ownership in industry has been largely a paper exercise; the trouble will start with attempts to give real significance to this legal procedure.

Within a couple of years the champions of shock therapy managed to reduce the gross national product by more than a quarter and industrial output by a third. Their claimed feat of slightly reducing the rate of inflation at the end of last year proved to be fraudulent; it is now admitted it was achieved by not paying debts out of the budget. Since the unpaid workers, notably the miners, went on strike, which increased economic chaos and political strains, such "progress" could not be kept up. More generally, the Russian economy 'has been badly shaken so far, but not at all restructured. The unpleasant tasks of reshaping production, closing down factories and redeploying labor have been left to the new government. Will it be allowed to plan this transformation, building up some sectors while dismantling others? Will it be given enough control over foreign trade and the movement of capital to smooth this transition--and sufficient funds to make it socially bearable? Judging by the blessing it got from the I.M.F., in exchange for a promise to keep inflation below 10 percent a month and the deficit below 10 percent of the gross domestic product, one is entitled to question whether it has much room to maneuver. But if the second Chernomyrdin version is not very different from its predecessor, the future of Russia could be highly explosive.

Assessing Russia's prospects is difficult because of the transient nature of its political structure. The shifting parties and politicians do not adequately reflect the interests of the classes and strata in the process of formation. Not that these groups make no political demands. The striking miners, for instance, were at once asking for the resignation of the government and for new presidential elections. Yet workers in general do not give the impression of being able to think in terms of their fundamental interests and the political representation of those interests. They have no global strategy or sense of the alliances required to carry it out. They need time to develop such a consciousness.

You may accuse me of 'showing in this conflict a bias for the managerial wing.' This does not mean that I have suddenly become fond of people who once bullied workers in the name of the party and tomorrow will exploit them in the name of the capitalist system. If I show a lesser distaste for the nomenklatura directors than for the financial swindlers, it is in the very frail hope that by slowing, down the privatization process the former will diminish the suffering of the Russian people and, therefore, the risk of an explosion, and give the country a respite--time for the workers to grasp their interests, forge an alliance with the technicians and the uncorrupted parts of the intelligentsia and thus prevent the struggle for power in Russia from being a battle between two privileged sectors of the establishment. Given the confusion in workers' minds--one of the worst legacies of Stalinism--a great deal of time may be needed,' even if, during his brief reign, Boris Yeltsin has given the Russian people a very instructive "short course" in the vicissitudes of really existing, as opposed to imaginary, capitalism.

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