The ISCIP Analyst
Behind the Breaking News
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What Future for Democracy
Politically speaking, last year started for Russia not on January 1, 1994, but rather on December 12, 1993, the day the first non-communist constitution was ratified by referendum and the first post-Soviet multiparty parliament was elected. The new State Duma not only restored its former tsarist name, but it reinstated the House of Romanov's imperial coat of arms as a symbol of Russian statehood and revived the inter-factional battles of the beginning of the century. It is not surprising that many (from the recent communist and current speaker, Ivan Rybkin, to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) are inclined to look upon this legislative body not as a completely new parliament, but as the fifth State Duma of Russia, which aspires in part to restore the thousand-year history of the country that was interrupted by the Bolsheviks. The 1994 political year likewise did not end on New Year's Eve, but rather on the day of the Russian Army's attack on Chechnya, i.e., on December 12, 1994.
Both events--the elections and the beginning of a war by the Federation against one of its own subjects--have turned out to be unhealthy for Russian society. Not one of the parties that took part in the elections received a decisive majority and, as a result, neither the communists nor the democrats can assert their will legislatively. The unexpected success of a third power--the nationalists under the leadership of Vladimir Zhirinovsky--has shocked many in Russia who had been reared for decades on the slogans of internationalism. It has also forced pro-Western democrats to feel for the first time the bitter disillusionment of their people, who, to that point, had withstood the hardships resulting from reform with unusual patience and wisdom and, it had seemed, quickly internalized the idea of democracy.
Later explanations (partial falsification of the election results, the absence of 47 percent of those having the right to vote, the protest vote after the strong-arm tactics of the dissolution of parliament in October 1993) cannot change the ominous fact: Fifty years after the crushing defeat of fascism, in one of the European capitals, a large and influential faction which in platform and ideology approaches Nazism has legally formed in parliament.
Many aspects of everyday life have escaped the reformers' field of attention in the last few years; and it is not only the sharp drop in the standard of living and the unheard-of inflation that affect the mood of the people. Factors of morale affect the electorate as much as economic elements in Russia. Although many have benefitted from the reforms (according to various sources, from 30 to 50 percent of the population), the share of those who have not benefitted is also substantial.
In addition, the frustrated expectations of the supporters of perestroika are accompanied by a sense of national humiliation felt by a people divided by new state borders which believes that the rights of its ethnic kin beyond the new borders have been diminished.
Having correctly judged the nostalgia of many disillusioned people who feel the loss of a stable existence and a clear system of values, Zhirinovsky promised them something more substantive than cheap vodka, namely to give them back a sense of national pride.
Little Power for Lawmakers
Some initiatives of the reform factions (Russia's Choice, Yabloko, Party of Russian Unity and Accord, the December 12 faction, and others) do influence the adoption of decisions by the State Duma, which has turned out to be a fairly well-structured legislative body, although strongly dependent on the lobbying interests of various economic groups.
However, the constitution that was adopted in a referendum by a minimal majority of the population has left little power to lawmakers. An enormous amount of power is concentrated in the hands of the president. This imbalance of power represents a major transformation of the first draft worked out by the Constitutional Assembly,(1) a transformation which occurred mysteriously after the assembly had finished its work and the parliament had been violently dispersed.
Thus, for example, impeachment of the president is virtually impossible, since it requires a resolution of the Supreme Court and separate two-thirds majorities from both houses.
Nevertheless, the new constitution has strengthened property rights and has allowed the process of privatization to move forward more securely. The stage of voucher privatization in Russia concluded in July 1994. As a result, workers in medium-and large-scale industrial enterprises (a category of workers that did not yet exist in 1992) toward the end of last year comprised more than 80 percent of all workers in similar enterprises.(2) According to the data of vice premier Anatoli Chubais, who is responsible for the economy, approximately 40 percent of workers in Russia are engaged outside the government sector. As is well known, 2-3 percent of the class of "new Russians" are very wealthy people, and under corresponding tax and legislative conditions, many of them are prepared to begin investment in the economy of their fatherland.
In the summer months of 1994, the government of Viktor Chernomyrdin was able to hold inflation to the level of 4-5 percent per month.
A Shift to the Right
The worsening of the economic situation in October 1994 and the rise in prices have been accompanied by a sharp drop in the leadership's popularity--specifically, in the unprecedented fall in President Yel'tsin's approval rating (down to 16 percent). After his improper conduct at the ceremony marking the final troop withdrawal from Germany and his non-appearance at a scheduled meeting with the prime minister of Ireland, the question of Yel'tsin's competence stood squarely before public opinion. His health also became a subject of concern. In December 1994 the newspaper Izvestiya published documents proving the undue influence of the chief of the president's guard, Aleksandr Korzhakov, both on the president himself and on the government: Specifically, the main bodyguard publicly lobbied for a strong quota system to govern the sale of oil outside the country, a position which corresponds to the interests both of Russian nationalists and of the former party nomenklatura. At the same time, the president tried to protect Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev and other generals from allegations of corruption openly declared in the press.
Yel'tsin's move to the right was also related to external political factors. Speaking at the Budapest summit in November 1994 about the possibility that NATO might extend one day to the to the western borders of Russia, President Yel'tsin angrily declared, "It is too early to bury democracy in Russia!"3 At the same time, he decided openly to "clean things up" in his own country, not worrying about Western opinions. As has been noted by some Russian analysts,4 there is a certain connection between the events in Brussels and in Grozny.
The Chechnya invasion represents the pursuit (deliberate or not) of three goals: to distract the attention of disillusioned Russians with a "small victorious war," especially since steps toward long-term economic reform have not been formulated; to satisfy the appetites of the military, which has long dreamed of demonstrating its significant role in the preservation of Russian integrity and of receiving at least some consolation for the defeat in Afghanistan; and to influence the decision regarding the route of the future international pipe line from the Caspian Sea. The northern Caucasus variant would allow Russian oil exporters to insist on an increased share of profits, but along this route lies recalcitrant Chechnya, which announced its sovereignty three years ago. Two alternative routes for the pipeline--through Iran or through Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia--and then further through Turkey are also unpalatable for international corporations.
It seems, however, that this last pragmatic motive was not the main catalyst in the ill-advised decision to suppress Chechnya by force (the negotiation process was rejected by Moscow, but not by Grozny). The yielding to the forces of militarism and nationalism, which do not take into account common sense, must have satisfied the offended vanity of many--including the president himself.
More than two-thirds of the Russian population have strongly condemned the military venture. Even those who believe Chechnya's submission is necessary to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia have condemned the harsh methods of the operation and its lack of professionalism. The upper military leadership of the country has also split--the former "Afghan" comrades of the Minister of Defense Grachev, Generals Boris Gromov and Aleksandr Lebed', have openly condemned their minister. According to opinion polls, the latter is the most popular figure in the Russian military.
The political makeup of Yel'tsin's support changed dramatically in December. Only the Zhirinovsky parliamentary faction and the ultra-nationalists such as Aleksandr Barkashov and Aleksandr Nevzorov approve of the war in Chechnya. In Moscow, for the first time since reform began, protest demonstrations by democrats (under the tricolor flag) and communists (under red banners) take place simultaneously. Those who have supported Yel'tsin (including Yegor Gaidar's party, Russia's Choice, and Democratic Russia) have announced their switch to the opposition, and the leader of the Yabloko parliamentary faction, Grigori Yavlinsky, has even demanded the president's immediate resignation and new elections.
As indicated earlier, however, the new constitution provides for such a complicated procedure of impeachment that it is almost impossible to accomplish in practice. In general, many parts of the constitution clearly need improvement (e. g., the re-establishment of the post of vice president and the transfer of a larger amount of controlling power to the legislative branch of government), but the procedure for adding amendments is extremely complicated.
The confused democrats do not yet want to admit even to themselves that, to improve the new constitution, it may be necessary to violate it. In such a case, the beginning of the smooth development of democratic institutions in Russia and of a legitimate framework will need again to be postponed. This would mean that the population would experience an additional loss of faith in democratic procedures.
At the same time, everybody has felt the weakness of today's government. Civil rights workers, native and foreign press, parliaments of the countries of the CIS (Ukraine, Georgia, and others), and leaders of national republics within the Russian Federation have all come out against the Russian policy in the Caucasus.
Often these oppositional pronouncements, especially from the Russian democratic press, attack the current leadership as a whole. Yel'tsin's personal responsibility for the bloodshed in Chechnya, as well as for the death of young draftees and peaceful civilians, is emphasized. People point to the fact that, at one time, Yel'tsin had voiced belief in the principles of representative democracy, but later his faith in his personal mission as a savior and leader of Russia apparently allowed him to accept any means of achieving his goals.
Thus, not having connected himself with any democratic party or political trend, wanting to remain "president of all Russians," he has ended up today in political isolation, and he can lean only on those surrounding him who are personally committed to him: i.e., the top level of the bureaucracy and power structures. From the point of view of these bureaucrats, Chechnya has simply turned out to be the most suitable object for demonstrating the leadership potential of the president--but the oligarchy made a mistake in its calculations. The army will long remember the shameful failure of the Chechen "blitzkrieg."
Losing power and ties to society, a leader feverishly looks for a way to assert himself--and returns to the traditional party methods of governing by command, lies, and instilling fear. The latest appointments in the cabinet also bear witness to the readiness for the partial restoration of (neo-)Bolshevism. The vice premier, Nikolai Yegorov, is responsible for ethnic policy, and he also is trying to command the military. The new representative of the State Property Committee, Vladimir Polevanov, is beginning the nationalization of ventures that have already been privatized. He relates negatively to the presence of foreign stockholders and advisers particularly in his own department, but also in defense, the energy industry, and the production of aluminum. Such new members of the presidential entourage are much different from his previous team.
The historic time of Yel'tsin the reformer has passed, and his new regime can turn out to be dangerous not just for Russia. This danger now forces various politicians to consult among themselves on the future of power in Russia, and it induces the leaders of Democratic Russia and Russia's Choice, Grigori Yavlinsky, the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, Marshal Shaposhnikov, and Gavriil Popov to search for new tactics.
The meetings behind closed doors of the speakers of both houses of parliament with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin are worth noting: According to the constitution, he is the second person in the government called to fulfill the duties of the president when the president is not able
However, the generals are breathing down everyone's neck. The current tragedy of the Russian reformers lies in the fact that, in contributing to the displacement of the former power, they were forced to turn it over to a third party, again under the conditions of a risky compromise, as was the case with Yel'tsin. The issue is not only that they cannot reach an agreement among themselves on whom to place their wager: Yegor Gaidar, Grigori Yavlinsky, Sergei Kovalev (the civil rights worker of Andrei Sakharov's circle, whose moral authority grew considerably during the weeks of his voluntary presence under the bombers devastating Grozny), or one of the women politicians. It is difficult to guess today whom all of Russia might elect tomorrow.
The issue is also that those who today have real raw power in their hands will not ask the democrats about their choice. The question is: Will the West coldly observe the agony of the "lost chance" and follow the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs? Will this non-intervention continue, even if those who have power begin to introduce prefabricated criminal proceedings against the Westernizers and throw them in prison or decide to skip the appearance of justice and hire contract assassins to remove permanently the "threat" posed by Westernizers?
Copyright ISCIP 1995