Capitalism is re-entering Russia dripping with blood. Whether Boris Yeltsin’s successful putsch will extend his reign remains to be seen. But the Russian President already has blood on his hands. He also has the blessing of the entire Western establishment, headed by Bill Clinton himself. Although this coup was perhaps the first in history to have a fully televised climax, at least for foreign consumption, a distorting veil is now being drawn over the events leading up to it this past fortnight. A legend, in fact, is being created: the myth of a splendidly democratic Yeltsin, seeking the verdict of the people and reluctantly driven to a confrontation. It is this grafted limb that must be immediately severed.
Pace Clinton, it was not Parliament that turned down the offer of “free and fair elections.” It was his hero, Yeltsin. Barely one week into the latest crisis a compromise solution was in sight: Let the people decide in a simultaneous election for Parliament and President. Proposed by the Constitutional Court, endorsed in St. Petersburg by representatives of the regional assemblies, ratified by Parliament, this solution to the electoral impasse was even approved by some of Yeltsin’s supporters. Yet it was vetoed by their boss. Why? Because this master manipulator knew it is easier to win elections if you run the show without institutional checks such as Parliament and that, once you have elected a rubber-stamp assembly, you can obtain dictatorial powers by constitutional means.
One of Yeltsin’s first actions after disbanding Parliament was to deprive the other side of its largest-circulation newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. On October 4, while the White House was still smoldering, he banned most opposition papers, including Pravda. He reimposed censorship, sacked opponents and replaced them with faithful servants. He also outlawed a number of parties, including the biggest of them all, the Russian Communist Party, showing that he has nothing to learn in the art of winning elections.
Yeltsin’s determination to stifle any hostile voice in the press is all the more significant because of the way his henchmen manipulated television. As an admiring viewer put it: “The coverage of events by the two channels has been carefully balanced to give the viewers the impression that nothing was hidden from them, whereas all the news unfavorable to Yeltsin and his ukaz was being presented in a negative way.” This was not the judgment of a hostile witness. Those are the words of Andranik Migranyan, a member of Yeltsin’s presidential council, who knows what he is talking about. The obsession of the besieged deputies with their media isolation may explain why they fell into the trap on Sunday when Aleksandr Rutskoi, dizzy with temporary success, exhorted supporters to capture the Ostankino television center. The defenders were ready, and the resulting battle enabled Yeltsin to mobilize troops to defend law and order.
Did Western leaders choose sides because of the past? Membership in the Communist Party is not a crime in Russia, and if it were, Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former professor, and Rutskoi, a professional soldier, were less “guilty” than one of the top apparatchiks, the mighty party boss from Sverdlovsk. Last week we analyzed the distorted way the Western media divided Russians into “hard-liners” and “democrats.” Let me add one more example of this: Throughout the televised drama, a commentator referred to the elected deputies in the White House as “renegades.” Was he speaking as an expert on Russian politics or as Yeltsin’s stooge? But this is not the time for irony. The reason all Western governments backed Yeltsin to the hilt was their assumption that he is the best man to keep Russia safe for capitalism and the most likely to carry out the orders of the international financial establishment.
This assumption may prove wrong. The story does not end with the storming of Parliament. The army, contrary to some expectations, finally sided with Yeltsin-but at what price? Tomorrow, or the day after, the generals will remind the man in the Kremlin who made him czar, and historical precedents suggest that once the military tastes power, its appetite grows. There is also the question of Russia’s unity strained by the opposition of the regions to Yeltsin’s handling of the situation.
Although the crisis climaxed in October, it was neither a revolution nor a counterrevolution. The people who actively participated in the struggle-more numerous on the parliamentary side-numbered only in the thousands. The great majority of Russians stood on the sidelines, a nation of onlookers. Yeltsin’s authoritarian rule may further stultify the people’s desire to act in their own drama. There are already ominous signs that the regime is using this opportunity to attack and silence independent left-wingers and trade unionists. It is urgent to mobilize world opinion against the repression.
But today it is important to set the record straight to prevent the culprits from washing the blood off their hands. Let there be no misunderstanding. Pointing out the culpability of Yeltsin’s side in this Russian tragedy does not convert us into admirers of Khasbulatov and Rutskoi. Behind them stood a motley coalition, a not so strange alliance of Stalinist die-hards and reactionary monarchists that included people one would not touch with a barge pole. But this is not the reason our rulers backed the other side. Their choice had less to do with democracy than with the reign of profit and the rule of capital.
Some might say it’s rather late in the day to be discovering the hypocrisy of our establishment and the subservience of its scribblers. Yet Eastern Europe was the one area where the illusion still worked. The West paraded there as the ally of the downtrodden, the protector of Polish workers or of the Russian victims of the gulag. It is this myth that has been blown to bits by the tanks shelling Moscow’s White House.
Deeply disappointed with “really existing socialism,” the people of Eastern Europe looked wistfully to the West only to discover that the capitalism they were being given was not the one shown on American television. Whatever their and our pundits may now teach, the bulk of the people obviously do not like the shock therapy they are being offered. The Poles have just overwhelmingly rejected it in an election. In Russia times are already much harder than in Poland, yet the treatment has only begun and the worst–mass unemployment–is yet to come.
If you are determined to impose capitalism by any means, to pour the medicine down people’s throats against their will, you can’t achieve your objective with genuine consent. So you opt for some kind of iron fist, for a czar, even if you choose to call him–as did Izvestia‘s Washington correspondent, unaware of the contradiction–a “democratic dictator.” Such is this week’s grim message from Moscow, written in green and red–green for the dollar, and red for the blood spilled, not despite but because of Boris Yeltsin.