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Yeltsin and Russia: Two Views

Radio Liberty and the Voice of America recently acquainted Russian listeners with Peter Reddaway’s article, “Russia on the Brink?” [NYR, January 28]. The eschatological title and its general tone are not appropriate to the real situation in the country. The author knows Russia very well, but he has experienced the same psychological change that occurs when people who live permanently in Moscow find themselves abroad for a length of time. Isolated from daily life, when information is drawn from the surrounding atmosphere, and forced to rely on newspapers, radio, and television, they very quickly—sometimes in a matter of days—begin to perceive everything hyperbolically, more acutely and even more tragically than they would if they were living at home. I know this from my own experience. In view of recent events, no one could say that everything is all right in Russia. But still, the future is not as black as it seems to Reddaway. And the reason for today’s difficulties does not lie in the errors on Yeltsin’s part that Reddaway describes or, at least, they alone did not create the problems.

Listing a series of Yeltsin’s critical errors over the last year, Reddaway names the first as the shock therapy approach to economic reform, which sharply lowered the standard of living for the majority of the population. He considers the second error to be Yeltsin’s lack of his own party, on which he could rely. Then come the Russian President’s naive (in the author’s estimation) hope for aid from the West, the fact that he did not go far enough in seeking compromise with the Civic Union (Volsky’s party), and Yeltsin’s statement, made long ago, that he did not plan to run for a second term.

And indeed these actions do appear at first glance to be mistakes that led to a sharp fall in the President’s popularity ratings and to his being forced to sacrifice Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and embark on a series of populist measures, some of which were initiated by the Congress. These include cancellation of debts for many state enterprises, colossal subsidies in some branches of industry, a significant rise in pensions, and higher salaries in the state sector. These steps destroyed the first signs of monetary stabilization that began to appear under Gaidar and brought the country close to hyperinflation.

But did Yeltsin have a real alternative? I don’t think so. The shock could have been eased by timely passage of laws on property, on private ownership of land, and on privatization. But the Fifth Congress of People’s Deputies in October 1991, to which Yeltsin presented his economic program, did not pass such laws; nor were they passed at the Sixth or Seventh Congresses. If we accept the logic of waiting for Parliament, Yeltsin could not have embarked on his reforms to this day. In these conditions, he took a decision that was extremely bold, knowing that it could lead to his losing not only popularity but power. And the fact that the response of the country to the freeing of prices, which almost immediately “devoured” people’s savings, was not a social explosion—general strikes, uprisings, and violence (as our home-grown Pythian oracles and a great many Western Sovietologists had predicted)—is the best proof that this was the only possible decision, and the only correct one. An approach to reform that would have turned this essentially revolutionary process into a dragged-out procedure could not have been more successful or easier on the public.

Yeltsin and Gaidar managed to move the country from a dead start. However difficult and troubled the process, privatization is under way, as is the dismantling of monopolies. Changes in social and economic relations have begun to take place, and I doubt that political cataclysms could stop them. Moreover, most of the people struggling for power in the upper echelons of society have a stake in one way or another in the new economic structures. And in their political struggle, which is now the top story in the mass media, they are pursuing personal and group interests rather than social aims.

Another mistake of Yeltsin’s, according to Reddaway, is that he failed to organize his own political party, a failure which seems obvious to people in the West. But for a country which had lived for seventy-five years under the all-powerful hand of a single party that was always “right,” the case for such a party is not so clear. People strongly fear that any party closely allied with the executive power and the head of state could become (even after the repeal of Article 6 in the Constitution!1 ) the one and only party, the infallible party. And if such a party carried out unpopular measures it would further alienate people from the head of state. It was not for Yeltsin to create and head his own party but for the democratic alliance that brought him to the presidency to do so. However, lacking their own charismatic leader, the democrats turned out to be incapable of expanding and strengthening their influence in society. Democratic consolidation lasted only long enough for the elections, after which, and especially with the start of reforms, the general direction of the democrats’ activity has shifted to struggle within Parliament.

As for aid from the West, I just do not believe that Yeltsin is so naive as to expect much more than a significant stretch-out in the repayment schedule of the debts that were accumulated, for the most part, before he became president. And the West must do that! Yeltsin did seriously count, and apparently still does, on Russia’s becoming attractive for Western investors. And of course, sooner or later, it will be, even though it is difficult to predict when that will happen. Reddaway thinks that Yeltsin should move closer to the Civic Union and the Union of Industrialists, and to Volsky personally. But in fact all the government concessions under Gaidar were the result of attempts at rapprochement with these groups, yet I doubt that they eased the course of economic reform. On the contrary. Yeltsin’s policy of rapprochement with the Civic Union and the Union of Industrialists continues. And it should be noted that Volsky’s personal role is rather exaggerated, especially since there are significant differences within the Civic Union; most of the directors of enterprises who are part of the Civic Union now realize the inevitability and necessity of reform.

Based on his analysis, Reddaway thinks that the Parliament reflects the mood of the country. And here I cannot agree at all. The Parliament is simply not representative of the country. Moreover, there is a complete break between it and society. Society has no mechanism to influence Parliament’s decisions—even the law on recalling deputies is ineffective—and the Parliament (like the executive) has no structures for carrying out the laws it passes. Parliament and society are on different wavelengths. Russian society generally is concerned with the problem of survival, and this is a sign of its having matured; but Parliament’s pre-occupation with the problem of its own (and only its own!) survival is a sign of its profound crisis. And Parliament’s endless machinations concerning the Constitution, including changes in it that suit the political maneuvering of the Parliament’s leaders, are visible evidence of that.

The furious and frantic demonstrations against Yeltsin (well organized in the Communist manner) are small in number compared to the mass democratic manifestations that took place between 1989 and 1991, and they do not reflect the real attitude of the majority of the population to the various parties and their internecine struggles. People are not interested in the current arguments about the referendum and whether or not it should take place and what questions it should pose—for example, about the basic principles of the future constitution, and whether there should be a Constituent Assembly or new parliamentary and presidential elections, or any other of the questions that are being discussed.

Voters would certainly reply positively to the question: do you want new parliamentary elections?—but the question will not be formulated that way because the question for the referendum, like the referendum itself, is to be set by the Parliament. This deprives the people of the possibility of expressing their will in a constitutional way and leaves only force, which no one—at least not the people and not the President—wants. Perhaps it was this absence of choice that led Yeltsin, after he appealed to the people during the Seventh Congress in December, to choose the path of negotiations and conciliation on the very next day. The current crisis is called a constitutional crisis, but this is quite incorrect since the Constitution has no mechanism for resolving a struggle between the legislative and executive powers. Such a struggle thus appears to be yet another path to nowhere.

Yeltsin’s statement, almost forgotten by Russians, that he does not intend to run for a second term, is seen as another error by Reddaway. However, at a time when passions run high over a nonexistent constitution and arguments continue over whether Russia should be a parliamentary or a presidential republic—and parliamentary deputies, in complicity with the speaker of the Parliament, are privatizing the state apartments that were assigned to them for the duration of their terms—the question of how many times a head of state can be reelected takes on a special significance. To set a limit of one term in office demonstrates not weakness but rather a desire to avoid a repetition of the sad experience of our country, when all but a few of our top leaders remained in their posts until their burial in the Kremlin wall. And perhaps the new Constitution (if we ever have one) should not only shorten the term for members of Parliament but limit the president to a single term, as is the case in South Korea, for instance.

Almost simultaneously with the publication of Reddaway’s article, a poll was taken of public opinion leaders in Moscow, the results of which were published in Nezavisimaya gazeta on February 24, 1993, as “Yeltsin’s Main Successes and Failures.” Using the Russian school grading system of one to five, Yeltsin came out with a solid three: 23 percent good or excellent grades, 28 percent unsatisfactory, and 45 percent satisfactory. Yeltsin’s activity as president was deemed unsatisfactory primarily by leaders of the Communist-oriented parties, such as the Communists of Russia and the Agrarian Union, and parliamentary deputies: 38 percent of the people’s deputies polled and almost as many of the Communist-oriented leaders feel that Yeltsin has had no success. But 40 percent of entrepreneurs and almost the same number of journalists feel that Yeltsin’s greatest mistake was dropping Gaidar and his great achievement the preservation of most of Gaidar’s team of reformers. This same group, including both entrepreneurs and journalists, considers the signing of START-2 a success, while the leaders of the other group, including people’s deputies and the leaders of parties still inclined to communism, consider it a mistake. On the whole the results of the poll give a picture of stability in Russian society despite the constant flow of agitated information presented by the mass media. And the generally satisfactory grade given the head of state at such a difficult period in our history confirms such a view.

  1. 1

    Article 6 of the 1977 USSR Constitution, which asserted the Communist Party’s leading role in society, was repealed in 1990 [translator’s note].

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