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.
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.