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Struggle for the Kremlin’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Struggle for the Kremlin from the August 8, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

It is amusing to find Jack F. Matlock, Jr., in his article “The Struggle for the Kremlin” [NYR, August 8], rebuking Grigory Yavlinsky for “refusing to support Yeltsin explicitly (during the presidential elections]… and repeatedly demanding Chernomyrdin’s job.” This, says Matlock, finally “convinced the Yeltsin team not only that they owe him nothing, but that—as many always suspected—he would never be a team player.”

The story of Yavlinsky “demanding” (“repeatedly,” no less) Chernomyrdin’s job is a canard. It was concocted by Russian TV (RTR), citing “unnamed sources” on May 6, after a meeting between Yeltsin and Yavlinsky. Yavlinsky denied it, Yeltsin did not confirm it, and no proof of it has ever been produced.

Matlock sets great store by “teamsmanship.” This is perhaps understandable in a man who has been a consummate “team player” in every administration he has served during his diplomatic career. (On two occasions in the 1970s, Matlock and another high State Department official upbraided me—I was then working for the Department—for openly championing the cause of the Soviet dissidents: this was when then Secretary of State Kissinger believed—as I was explicitly told at that time—that “coddling” dissidents could only have an adverse effect on his attempts to win the confidence of Leonid Brezhnev and thus lay a sound foundation for his policy of “detente.” Under Carter, of course, dissidents were “coddled”—by all “team players.”) In his current role as a detached observer, however, a more agnostic attitude towards “teamsmanship” would be preferable.

As for “conditions”: In a letter printed on May 7, 1996, in Izvestia—two days after his tête-à-tête with Yeltsin—he listed them as an economic policy designed “to stimulate production and relieve the tax burden,” a social policy to guarantee that real income increases and wages are paid on time, and military reform. Another condition was an end to the war in Chechnya, and to political manipulation of the media. Yavlinsky is the only major public figure in Russia, other than Sergei Kovalev, who has not compromised on the issue of Yeltsin’s genocide in Chechnya.1

After Yeltsin’s sudden trip to Chechnya in June, says Matlock, “the reduced level of violence attracted little attention.” Though he admits that after the election “the fighting in Chechnya intensified,” he fails to mention that it was the Russian troops that resumed the hostilities, nor does it occur to him to wonder whether Yeltsin’s trip was not simply another piece of theatrics designed to mollify his critics.

Matlock glosses over the hefty sums of money paid to many journalists to root for the president, the appointments of Yevgeni Kiselyov and Igor Malashenko, heads of the private and government television networks respectively, as chiefs of the Yeltsin election campaign, and other shenanigans, fully spelled out by David Remnick, himself a frequent contributor to The New York Review.2 “One should not of course condone direct use of government funds for a political campaign,” says Matlock gravely. Well, yes—especially if the “direct use” costs the state budget, as Russian economists have estimated, “eleven billion dollars”—something Matlock doesn’t mention.3

Nor does he mention the squalid bribes and promises offered to many constituents; the effort to present the election, by means of an unremitting television blitz, as a simple choice between “the radiant future of capitalism” (it used to be “the radiant future of communism” in days gone by) and the return of Stalin-like purges, terror, and the like. Whether the blitz actually convinced many Russians that Zyuganov’s victory would mean a return to Stalinism is an open question. But most observers agree that the interminable images of concentration camps, famished peasants and empty stores had an impact on many voters.

Finally, Matlock ignores the evidence that Yeltsin was fully prepared to cancel the elections and set himself up in power, should the results go against him. He “never wavered (in public, at least) from his assurances that the presidential election would take place as scheduled,” says Matlock. This is simply untrue. On June 9, for instance, Yeltsin told a meeting in Novosibirsk: “If we do not vote as we should, we will lose and thus everyone will lose. You can imagine what will happen if they [the Communists] come to power. It must not be allowed.”4

How close Yeltsin came to staging a coup and how he was finally dissuaded from it when he realized that the army would not back him is all carefully set down in Remnick’s piece. At a meeting held on May 9 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Yevgeni Kiselev revealed that on March 18-19 Yeltsin prepared several decrees, among them dissolving the Duma and announcing a state of emergency, and that he was finally dissuaded from signing them when he realized that his “party of peace” advisors (the “liberals”) were against it and that the troops could not be relied upon to support a bald coup d’état. A similar version of these events was provided by Sergei Karaganov at a June 5, 1996, meeting at the Carnegie Endowment, Washington, D.C. Yeltsin, then, backed off, under duress.5 All these facts seemed to have escaped Matlock’s scrutiny.

What a Communist victory might have meant for Russia, other than removing from power a man who is prepared to ride roughshod over the still fragile shoots of democracy in the country, is a separate question.6 However, it would be salutary if our political analysts resisted the bogus myth, assiduously spread by the State Department and its various team players, of Yeltsin as the savior of Russia.

Abraham Brumberg

Chevy Chase, Maryland

Jack F Matlock replies:

Abraham Brumberg’s reaction to my analysis of the Russian election is perplexing since his objections are to statements and positions which I did not express in the article. To be specific:

1.I did not “rebuke” Yavlinsky for not endorsing Yeltsin. In discussing the hope that many Russian reformers held that he would be brought into the government after the election, I commented that this was unlikely because his actions had convinced the Yeltsin team that “they owe him nothing” and that “he would never be a team player.” Does Brumberg think that the conclusion drawn by the Yeltsin team was other than what I described? As for Yavlinsky’s demand that he be named prime minister, I was informed that this was his position by several senior members of his party when I was in Moscow in May, and it was understandable that it would be, since he would not have been able to conduct his reform program as a subordinate to a prime minister who did not support it.

My own opinion of Yavlinsky, his program, and his tactics was not relevant to the point that I made in the article. In fact, I understand Yavlinsky’s reasons for the stance he took and feel that it was wise of him not to seek a position in a Chernomyrdin government.

2.I did not ignore the pressure on the press, or the use of government funds in the campaign, or the lavish campaign promises. In fact, I cited Yeltsin’s offers of “pay increases” and “state grants” and wrote that his “campaign and his campaign promises will prove costly to the Russian budget and could well kick off a new round of ruinous inflation.” So far as the press is concerned, I am convinced that most editors and journalists in the non-Communist and non-chauvinist press supported Yeltsin because they feared a Communist victory, not because they were pressured or bribed by the government. At least that is what more than a dozen senior editors and prominent journalists told me privately in May.

3.There is no way to know whether Yeltsin would have refused to relinquish office if he had lost the election. Contrary to what Brumberg suggests, Iwrote about the “possible strategies” that were being talked about “for delaying the election,” including postponing it “by presidential decree on grounds that a national emergency existed.” What we do know is that Yeltsin allowed the election to go forward and, before the second round of voting, removed from office those aides who have been accused of plotting to avoid the election. And it is true that he never wavered in public that the election would take place as scheduled. When, in the statement Brumberg quotes, Yeltsin spoke of not allowing the Communists to take over, the clear message was that people should vote against them.

4.I stand by my assessment that the war in Chechnya “receded into the background before votes were cast and seems to have had little, if any, effect on the vote.” That tragic conflict deserves much more attention than was appropriate in an article on a different topic. But it is not true, as Brumberg claims, that I “failed to mention that it was Russian troops that resumed the hostilities.” I wrote that “after the election…the fighting intensified, with the bombardment on July 10 of two villages by Russian forces”—the most recent information available as The New York Review went to press.

I fail to grasp how Brumberg’s personal innuendo is relevant to the article. For the record I would make two points: (1) As a public official I always did my best to implement the policies of the presidents, who had the constitutional responsibility of determining our foreign policy; (2) I never accused anyone of “coddling” dissidents, though at times during my career I was accused of it. I was a strong supporter within every administration of making protection of human rights a major objective, and was a personal friend to many dissidents. Mr. Brumberg’s pioneering work on the plight of dissidents was of great assistance to us in devising strategies to assist them. For this I have been, and continue to be, very much in his debt.

  1. 1

    See Kovalev’s article, “Death in Chechnya,” The New York Review, June 8, 1995, p. 12.

  2. 2

    See his “The War for the Kremlin,” The New Yorker, July 22, 1996, pp. 40-57.

  3. 3

    Remnick, “The War for the Kremlin,” p. 49.

  4. 4

    Reuters, June 9, 1996.

  5. 5

    I have read both reports, which are available for everybody. See also Peter Reddaway, “Russia Heads for Trouble,” The New York Times, July 2, 1996, p. A15.

  6. 6

    For the view that a defeat for Yeltsin would not spell a defeat for democracy, see Jonathan Steele, “Russia’s Red Conservatives,” The Guardian Weekly (London), April 20, 1996, pp. 24-30. See also Reddaway, “Russia Heads for Trouble.”

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