On April 25, Russians vote in a referendum that asks them to say whether or not they like Boris Yeltsin, approve his economic policy and wish to have early presidential or parliamentary elections. Whatever the results, this poll will not resolve the battle between President and Parliament. The following observations on the ten days that depressed rather than shook the world are intended to throw light on the nature of that struggle.

You don’t cross the Rubicon, argued Andre Malraux, in order to sit down on the other side and fish in its waters. Yet this is exactly what Boris Yeltsin did. On March 20, he announced that until the upcoming plebiscite all parliamentary acts defying the President’s will would be null and void. Then, criticized by his Vice President, Aleksandr Rutskoi, by the secretary of his Security Council, Yuri Skokov, and by the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, he was forced to seek a compromise. One can explain this action w!th another maxim: You don’t stage an 18th Brumaire, a parliamentary putsch without the backing of the army. Yeltsin, when attacking Parliament, asked his Defense Minister, Gen. Pavel Grachev, to guarantee the neutrality of the armed forces, and even he could do so only with difficulty. This is why, on March 29, after a dramatic session of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the plebiscite was turned Into the referendum of April 25.

But why does the President get into fights for which he is clearly unprepared? Most people say that his entourage (described by the deputy Aman Tuleyev as the “collective Rasputin”) is behind it. Egged on by them to do battle, the pragmatic Yeltsin found himself in an awkward position from which he then had to extricate himself to survive.

Yet he is extremely faithful to his camarilla. At the end of last year, Yeltsin’s right-hand man, Gennady Burbulis, had to give up all his official positions, but he still has an office close to the President. Removed from the Press and Information Ministry, Mikhail Poltoranin was at once given even greater power over the media as head of a newly created Federal Information Center [see Andrew Yurkovsky, “Can Yeltsin Tame the Press?” March 22]. Indeed, Yeltsin has the infuriating habit of giving and taking back, of making a compromise and then reinterpreting it in his own fashion. Last December the deal clearly implied a change of government and of economic policy. The new Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, discovered that he had inherited the old team and must hew to the old line. A new clash between President and Parliament was thus inevitable.

Newspeak 1993

Whatever its original meaning in ancient Rome, since its use by Napoleon III, the plebiscite has had a bad democratic reputation. It is an instrument used by would-be dictators to address the people above the heads of their elected representatives with a question designed to get a positive answer. Yeltsin’s insistence that he must determine the wording of the questions was a measure of how far his popularity must have slumped in the twenty months since the August putsch, as a result of the disastrous state of the economy. If President Clinton and company were so keen on a democratic solution, they could have picked the one suggested quite early by Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of the Supreme Soviet, and a few others, namely early elections for both Parliament and President, a proposal that Yeltsin accepted only when faced with defeat and impeachment.

Western journalists, for their part, need not have repeated approvingly the accusations made by Poltoranin’s Russian stooges that the Chairman of the Constitutional Court condemned Yeltsin’s decree without knowing its contents. At least they should have explained the circumstances. When he announced to the nation that he would assume extraordinary powers, Yeltsin stated, “Today I signed a decree on a special regime” and explained that parliamentary opposition to his will would be null and void. Then, realizing that his anticonstitutional coup had failed, he withheld the decree for four days and published it without the incriminating passage. Who was that supposed to fool? Such a trick was not worthy of a clever politician, let alone the lofty upholder of democratic purity.

Most Western politicians and journalists tended to dismiss the Congress of People’s Deputies as an unworthy rival of the President on the ground that it was elected in 1990, before the Soviet Union and the Communist Party were disbanded. These outside observers forgot that the same circumstances obtained when the President was elected the following year. And this wicked Congress selected a Supreme Soviet that named Yeltsin its President and also passed the law that enabled him to be elected President of the Russian Republic through universal suffrage. Is the Congress virtuous when it backs Boris and vicious when it dares to question him?

The Western observers’ bias is fully revealed In their selective choice of sinners, otherwise known as ”former Communists.” Their leading voice, Khasbulatov, is a Chechen. In 1944, when he was 2, his people were deported by Stalin from the northern Caucasus to Central Asia. He nonetheless managed to rise in the academic world, becoming a professor of international economics in Moscow. Like others of his rank, he held a Communist Party card, but he did not belong to the party apparatus. Yet Khasbulatov arouses suspicion because he is a “former Communist.” Yeltsin, Burbulis and the host of apparatchiks surrounding them do not because they are on our side and are obviously democrats. As Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.”

What’s Good for the I.M.F….

It could be argued that even if the West can’t back Yeltsin as the champion of democracy, we can support him as the champion of capitalism, since the second justification for Western support is that he is “the upholder of the market.” But even this rationale is not convincing because he is not the only free marketeer.

To be sure, the Stalinist, or rather Brezhnevite, die-hards and their jingoistic partners, not so strange an alliance, have been gaining ground as poverty spreads across the country. (They are not the most pleasant lot. Their supporters who chanted “Down with Zionist scum” outside Congress had neither ideology nor Ben-Gurion in mind.) But unless the current economic policy is allowed to drive the population to total despair and unpredictable action, there is no question of going back to the former regime. What is more, the tug of war in the past year or so has not been between the partisans and enemies of the market. It pitted the Yeltsin boys, the I.M.F.-sponsored practitioners of shock therapy, against the advocates of a slower road to capitalism regrouped around the Civic Union of Aleksandr Rutskoi, Nikolai Travkin and Arkady Volsky [see Katrina vanden Heuvel, “Russia’s Veep,” April 12].

As the economy sinks deeper into crisis, the latter are arguing, with increasing effect, that a country with Russia’s social structure and level of education is not, or not yet, a Third World nation; therefore, the treatments grafted onto its economy by international organizations not only have catastrophic effects, they are bound to meet with greater resistance. In an economy as dominated by monopolistic producers as Russia’s, the sudden freeing of prices precipitated galloping inflation. Now, the deflationary policies designed to stop it may bring the economy to a halt and the country to the point of explosion. Yeltsin may do to Russia what he did to the Soviet Union–tear it apart. Without party or ideological links, but also without a really common market, It is increasingly each region, each autonomous republic, for itself. There is also the danger of full-blown civil war crowning this process of disintegration.

With such gloomy prospects, it is astonishing that the Western establishment should put all its capitalist eggs m the same basket. The crude Marxist interpretation would be that this is the very nature of capital: Moving into newly conquered territory, it launches a bout of “creative destruction” so as to insure outlets for its own exports of both consumer and capital goods. But with Russia it is not so simple, since it is vital to keep the new nation within the capitalist orbit.

The single-mindedness of the Western governments may also have more prosaic reasons: ignorance in high places, or the links between professors from Harvard or the London School of Economics and their Russian accomplices. The Yeltsin boys speak American with a technocratic accent as practiced in the institutions of international finance. (Boris Fyodorov, who took over from Yegor Gaidar as financial overlord in the Russian government, is simultaneously a director at the World Bank!)

It’s the Economy, Stupid

The present political crisis cannot be understood without keeping in mind the idea that the steady collapse of the Russian economy has been accelerated by Yeltsin’s reformers. Prices, according to their calculations, were supposed to increase approximately threefold over the past year; actually they rose more than twentyfold. People’s savings were wiped out. Wages could not keep pace. Industrial output fell by a fifth and living standards by a third. At least one-third of the Russian population is now living below the subsistence level.

The Russian economy has been submitted to shock rather than therapy. The factories have not been restructured and they have not been forced to lay off workers-yet. If the financial squeeze advocated by Fyodorov is implemented, over the opposition of Viktor Gerashchenko, head of the Central Bank, the factories and offices will have to cut their labor forces and Russia will discover, on top of everything else, the scourge of mass unemployment.

Not everyone is experiencing hard times. During this strange transition, when one form of management is dismantled without another being put in its place, as one legal system is torn apart without a proper substitute, there is plenty of scope for those who could be called swindlers or entrepreneurs, depending on your point of view. People are moving in to fill the vacuums at all levels, from lowly kiosk operators to mighty mafia dons. They bribe officials, export raw materials and deposit millions abroad.

Birth of a Bourgeoisie

All the countries of Eastern Europe are witnessing the formation of new classes, the crystallization of their interests and the search for their political expression. This does not mean that Russia did not have its privileged before Gorbachev. They were quite numerous even under Stalin, but they could not consolidate their common interests because of the permanent purge. They gamed security under Brezhnev, yet still could not express their political conceptions. This they were permitted to do under perestroika, and then they discovered that they needed property to consolidate their power.

The alignments in this economic conflict are similar to those in the political arena. On one side you have the industrial managers, who wish to own the enterprises they commanded as party members but who, keen on preserving the heritage, are ready to accept a transitional period of state capitalism; they are linked with Arkady Volsky and the Civic Union. On the other side are the Yeltsin boys, who mostly observed the economy from the aeries of academic or editorial offices, and who now can take over property only with the help of speculators or foreign investors. The frontier is not rigid and the two sides, despite the present bitterness, could unite if they were frightened by a genuine movement from below, a pressure that for the moment is missing.

If the Parliament is not representative of Russian society, it is not because it was elected in 1990. The innumerable factions, splits, shifts and alliances reflect the difficulty of linking interests and representation in a fast-changing society, one unused to genuine parliamentary life. One thing is clear: So far, Russia’s transformation has been carried out from above, with the people brought in as electoral fodder rather than actors in their own drama.

Beyond the Bolshevik Bogy

All sorts of pronouncements were made during the March clash between Yeltsin and Parliament. Yeltsin’s press secretary, for instance, defended the constitutionality of the President’s decree on the ground that It had been endorsed by “the unanimous support of world public opinion, by governments and political leaders of modern, rule-of-law states.” But the main argument the Yeltsinites used to discredit Parliament and win over Western backing was simpler: The Bolsheviks are at the gates, they cried, reviving their old slogan “All power to the soviets!” But this analogy to 1917 is pure fiction. The soviets, or councils, of workers, peasants and soldiers, it will be recalled, were new instruments of the revolutionary seizure of power. Once the Bolsheviks took over, the slogan lost all meaning. It was revived under Gorbachev with a completely different significance: The expansion of the powers of elected parliamentary assemblies was intended to reduce the might of the ruling Communist Party. Today if the slogan were used, it would be an element in the struggle between the partisans of parliamentary and presidential rule.

Indeed, what is striking is the absence of the “lower” classes, particularly the workers, from the political battle so far. Some workers, notably the miners, occasionally flex their muscle and tend to score immediate victories in terms of wages. How long will it take them in the present confusion to discover their broader interests, to seek allies among the inteIligentsia and thus offer a progressive alternative both to those who are nostalgic for the ancien régime and the more or less enthusiastic admirers of capitalism? Will peace continue long enough to allow such a political ripening?

Taken in isolation, the events of the past few weeks had their comic side: Boris Yeltsin first assuming the mantle of Napoleon and then parading as paragon of constitutional purity. But these events cannot be taken in isolation. From Azerbaijan, from Georgia, from Tajikistan come echoes of gunfire, bloody reminders of lurking jingoistic dangers. Yeltsin’s antics would be funny if they were not acrobatics on the edge of the abyss.