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Rumblings in Russia.

`The time of Yeltsin and his cronies is coming to an end'

The war in the Balkans has succeeded in one respect: It has revealed the scale of anti-American feeling in Russian society, especially among younger people. The reason does not lie in solidarity with "brother Slavs" and still less in the Orthodox faith--most young people in Russia do not even know how to cross themselves properly. The war in Yugoslavia simply gave them the chance to express what they had already been thinking for a long time.

For young people, the free market reforms dictated by Washington have meant a shortage of good jobs, expensive but nevertheless third-rate education, and the lack of career prospects. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has been making one-sided concessions to Washington in exchange for promises that we would be accepted into the "civilized world" (as though we had previously been savages and barbarians). But instead we received only poverty, humiliation, and economic collapse.

After NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia began, Russians splattered the American consulate in Moscow with rotten eggs and paint bombs. A turning point had been reached. People had grown tired of feeling helpless, of being humiliated, of being ashamed of themselves. They wanted to act.

The failure of the Americans in the Balkans became the subject of jokes, and Russian computer hackers began assaults on official sites in the United States to the accompaniment of sympathetic reports in the press. One tabloid devoted a front page to portraits of Clinton and Milosevic, with the caption A PRISON CELL IS HUNGRY FOR THEM. Another published a puzzle in which readers were required to determine, on the basis of egg stains, which of the windows of the U.S. Embassy were in the cross-hairs of a gun-sight. A correspondent in the Balkans for the liberal Novaya Gazeta admitted that he dreamed of the Russian Black Sea Fleet sailing to the Adriatic, even though he acknowledged that this would mean war.

Yevgeny Primakov, Russia's prime minister for eight months until Boris Yeltsin dismissed him on May 12, caught the change of mood expertly. He won massive support for his decision to turn his aircraft around over the Atlantic and return to Moscow rather than meet with the Clinton Administration as it began its war against Yugoslavia.

He also departed from the absolute devotion to the free market, which has so marked the Yeltsin period. His power rested on the managers of military-industrial enterprises that had remained within the state sector, and which therefore had not collapsed like privatized industry. In conducting negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on writing off part of Russia's debt, the Primakov government created an important precedent for debtor countries.

Yeltsin appointed Primakov under duress as a crisis gripped the country last August when the economy crashed. The political problem was not simply that no free market politician had sufficient support to take over the running of the government. The main thing was that no one wanted to take on the job. Ministerial candidates were regarded as political suicide cases.

The Primakov government managed to limit the acuteness of the crisis. The threatened catastrophe did not occur; hunger was avoided; the ruble was stabilized; and the economy even began to record a little growth. Wages began to be paid more promptly. Though the government was systematically slandered in the press, its popularity increased steadily.

Precisely because of this, the determination in the Kremlin to be rid of the premier began to grow. Primakov's popularity was posing a threat to the Kremlin, which was losing control of the levers of political power. And he was gaining momentum to take more decisive steps. Talk began to be heard of nationalizing part of the oil industry, and a number of large enterprises themselves asked to be reabsorbed into the state sector. At the same time, Primakov took measures to halt the plunder of the country's resources by the oligarchs who controlled most of the private sector.

Every success recorded by the Primakov government meant increased fears for the oligarchs. In the Kremlin, leading officials of the presidential apparatus understood perfectly that the existing situation could not continue. The situation of dual power had to be brought to an end. The government of the left-center had done what it was charged with doing; now the time had come for it to depart.

It was at precisely this moment that Victor Chernomyrdin reappeared on the political scene as President Yeltsin's special representative on Yugoslavia. Why such a representative should be needed is not altogether clear. The entire foreign ministry is now occupied almost exclusively with the Balkan crisis. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, like Primakov, is an experienced diplomat with an intimate knowledge of the situation. By contrast, Chernomyrdin has never had anything to do with the Balkans, and has no diplomatic experience. Even when prime minister, he showed little interest in foreign policy, which was handled by the president's team. Meanwhile, Chernomyrdin has a solid reputation in Russia as someone who invariably brings ruin to any enterprise in which he becomes involved--though not, it is true, without benefits for himself.

Russia is a strange country where impending coups d'etat are discussed in public, and their dates are all but officially set. In the spring of 1993 Yeltsin promised to carry out a coup the following autumn, and he kept his word, dismissing and then shelling parliament (which Washington approved of). This time, Yeltsin kept silent. But in early May the Moscow press was full of forecasts of a coming coup, and in the pages of the newspapers influential politicians were discussing when it would take place. The rightwing politician Alexander Shokhin even named a date: The government would be dismissed on May 13.

Formally speaking, the reason for the crisis was the debate in the Duma on whether to impeach President Yeltsin. In reality, everyone understood perfectly that under the present constitution, removing the president from office was, for practical purposes, impossible. But by raising the question of impeachment, the Communist majority in the Duma gave Yeltsin a pretext to launch a political counterattack.

Primakov called on the deputies to reject a vote on impeachment or to transfer it to another date, as had already been done once. But by this time the deputies--and, in particular, the Communist Party--found that retreat was impossible: If they tried it, they would simply seem laughable. Moreover, a section of the leadership of the Communist Party was clearly ready to abandon the Primakov cabinet. The premier's quickly growing popularity was irritating not only to the Kremlin, but also to many leaders of the opposition.

On May 12, almost precisely in line with the plans published in the newspapers, Yeltsin dismissed the Primakov government. Within a week, the Duma confirmed a new prime minister--Sergei Stepashin, formerly the interior minister and head of the country's police. Yeltsin and the oligarchs had prevailed again.

The eight months of Primakov's rule have now come to an end. During this period Russia for the first time had a government that could seriously be described as social democratic. It was social democratic not in the manner of England's Tony Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schroder, but in the traditional sense. In technical respects, this government was competent and effective, but politically it did not go far enough. Following the August crisis, when the oligarchs were demoralized and on the verge of bankruptcy, their power could have been undermined, and the oil companies and banks nationalized. Primakov could have used his time in office to broaden his government's political base and to mobilize its supporters. Nothing of the kind was done.

On the contrary, the government began to retreat as soon as it felt itself under threat. Had Primakov's cabinet survived, it might have forced through the Duma a number of draft laws designed to gratify the IME For the sake of keeping a left-centrist government in power, the parliamentary majority was prepared to sacrifice even the interests of the people who had elected it. Primakov, in turn, would have had to take responsibility for unpopular measures implemented under IMF pressure. The Western bankers were demanding tax increases, which already had almost crushed the Russian economy. And the IMF insisted on cuts in education, medicine, culture, and even assistance to people made invalids by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The Kremlin's wish to be rid of the "left" government, however, began even to outweigh its desire to please the IMF.

Now that Primakov has been sacked and will not get to perform the dirty work of impoverishing his own population for the benefit of the IMF, the population will be left with the myth of an upstanding left-wing government that tried to defend the interests of the people, and which was thrown out of office as a result. Like all myths, this one does not correspond completely to reality. It was created, however, by Yeltsin himself.

If Primakov remains among the heroes, the Communist Party, which could not and did not wish to defend the "government of the left," will be still more discredited. Even before Primakov was sacked, his prestige was significantly greater than that of the deputies and party leaders. Now the gap will become still greater, and the Communist deputies will sooner or later have to answer unpleasant questions from their electors. The impeachment effort failed. Primakov was abandoned. Conceivably, this could mark the beginning of a new epoch for the Russian left.

Yeltsin, meanwhile, has not won a great deal. As usual, he has defeated his rivals, but what is to happen next? The new government will either have to continue with Primakov's policies or turn the wheel to the right. In the latter case, we can expect the social crisis to become dramatically worse, along perhaps with a repetition of the August financial crash. This is hardly likely to strengthen the positions of the IMF substantially.

Yeltsin needs guarantees that the West will help solve his problems. After all, things do not always happen as simply and smoothly as you hope. Mass disturbances and even uprisings may occur; the deputies might refuse to disperse. Force might have to be used. So it is essential for Yeltsin to keep the approval of the West--and receive as much material aid as possible.

To ingratiate himself, Yeltsin has been more than willing to try to help extricate Clinton and NATO from the mess they got themselves into.

The American administration must somehow extract itself from the Yugoslav crisis without losing face. The Kremlin can put pressure on Belgrade, trying to make the Yugoslav leadership more compliant, at least to the point where Clinton has something to present to public opinion in his own country.

The agreement on Yugoslavia adopted by the foreign ministers of the leading NATO countries and Russia in early May did not immediately solve anything either, but gave the West a chance to retrieve its position. The Kremlin now had the opportunity to exert pressure on Belgrade without provoking too much displeasure within Russia itself, since the agreement provided a certain role both for the United Nations and for Russia. The document also spoke of preserving the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia. The momentum, however, was stalled by the NATO pilots who, with three well-aimed salvos, hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

A wave of anti-American protests rolled across China, and anti-U.S, moods again became inflamed. In Russia, it was once again clear to everyone that, as we say, "the devil is not as fearsome as he is painted." The United States, with all its might, has been unable in the space of two months to deal with tiny Serbia. At the same time, the United States--to quote one of the pro-Western Duma deputies--has shown "total irresponsibility and incompetence."

So why, then, should we in vast Russia be so scared of the Americans? Until recently, we in Russia considered muddle-headedness and incompetence to be our unique national traits. Now we see that the world leader is no better. Consequently, we find cause to regard ourselves with more self-respect.

If the Kremlin analysts are wondering how to help the United States escape from its Yugoslav crisis with the fewest possible losses, Russian public opinion wants to see the U.S. punished for treating international law and Russians--and everyone else--with contempt.

The time of Yeltsin and his cronies is coming to an end. Here we are not talking merely about his presidency, which is supposed to last until the year 2000. His term in office can be prolonged. Nor does the problem lie in his declining health, though sooner or later nature will exact its due. The trouble is in the complete bankruptcy of the neoliberal economic model, in Russia and throughout the world. It was the forced recognition by the Kremlin of this fact that brought Primakov to power last September. Now an illusory normalization has appeared, but a return to the old policies will very quickly lead to a repetition of the same crises.

The outcome, however, may be different because the mood of the country has changed. People are no longer willing simply to be victims. The deputies, learning from the experience of 1993, have not put up any particular resistance. The government has submitted to the president's decision. But millions of people in Russia are little concerned with the constitutional powers of the president. They simply hate Yeltsin and his American protectors. As a result, events could take an unexpected turn.

Many revolutions have begun with attempts by the old authorities to replace a moderate reformist government. The upshot has then been that society has relatively quickly acquired new leaders--far more radical ones.

Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist in Moscow, is the author of "Restoration in Russia: Why Capitalism Failed" (Verso, 1995). This article was translated by Renfrey Clarke.
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Title Annotation:Russian government
Author:KAGARLITSKY, BORIS
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Words:2311
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