President Clinton is meeting March 20 in Helsinki with his Russian counterpart, who is attempting a political comeback by blaming everyone but himself for Russia’s admitted woes, demanding new Cabinet suggestions from his Prime Minister and openly defying public opinion by putting his chief of staff, the hated privatizer and shock therapist Anatoly Chubais, in charge of the country’s economy with the title of First Deputy Prime Minister. Last July Clinton hailed Yeltsin’s election victory as a “triumph of democracy.” He would not dare to echo that boast today, if only because it’s well known that the election was a fraud perpetrated on the Russian public: The Russians would not have voted for Yeltsin had they known he was such an invalid. Only extraordinarily tight government control over television enabled the stage managers to conceal his heart attack. But there is a deeper reason not to insist. The eight months of Russian “regency,” during which the Czar’s exorbitant powers were carried out by proxy, revealed the working of the system, the mechanism through which money first buys power and then fully exercises it.
It being taken for granted that the second reign of Czar Boris will be brief, who will take over, and how? The favorite in the succession stakes, the awesome Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, is eager to start the race at once, while his rivals ponder how to change the rules to prevent his victory. Yet, quite apart from Yeltsin’s precarious health, can the system survive for long? When output slumps for six years in succession in a fall bigger than the Great Depression, when barter replaces monetary exchange and people have to wait three or more months to get their wages, the question is not whether this social caldron will blow up but why it hasn’t exploded yet. Or, to put it in more positive terms: When will the pent-up discontent be transformed into a political movement from below, thus altering altogether the power struggle limited so far to a confrontation at the top among the privileged?
The struggle is so bitter because seizure of power means conquest of property, which, in turn, spells political clout. The installation of Chubais, darling of the international financial establishment, as chief privatizer at the end of 1991 and then economic overlord in 1994 meant favors for the new rich and filthy profits for the chosen few, notably off precious state property, almost given away. The man who presided over this swindle is now presented in the West as a virtuous reformer.
The direct political involvement of the main beneficiaries started at the beginning of last year, appropriately in Davos, Switzerland, mecca of the moneybags. At the time, Yeltsin’s re-election was in trouble. Boris Berezovsky (who, starting with a car dealership, has built an empire that includes banking, oil and television interests) and six of his fellow profiteers (who control four of Russia’s main banks), having grasped that a Yeltsin defeat would threaten their ill-gotten gains, decided to intervene, with Chubais as their man. Removed in mid-January, Chubais was back in six weeks as Yeltsin’s campaign manager. His rich pals brought in their control of the media and, ignoring spending limits, millions of dollars–two of the honorable Chubais’s close assistants were caught smuggling more than half a million in bank notes out of the Kremlin. The combined resources of state and private business produced a campaign whose bias beat all records for a supposedly “democratic” non-totalitarian country. That proved enough to romanticize Yeltsin and demonize the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov; it also generated a smokescreen when the overstrained Yeltsin finally collapsed. In short, those interests did enough to insure the July 3 triumph.
Who pays the piper calls the tune. The financial backers staked an effective claim to gratitude. Chubais became the head of the presidential administration. In the Constitution, bullied through in 1993 after the shelling of Parliament, the Russian president got all the prerogatives of his Western counterparts without the checks and balances. With all other Rasputins removed and Yeltsin only very occasionally able to fulfill his duties, Chubais’s position became crucial, his link to the throne strengthened through an alliance with Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko. Hence the description of him as “regent” of the Russian transition. But this was not all. One of his cronies, the banker Vladimir Potanin, was holding the seat of First Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the economy and, the awkward Lebed ushered out, Berezovsb was appointed deputy head of the security council, the other seat of presidential power.