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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

John Harrison

1992 started with a new country and new hopes. As the pre-revolutionary Russian tricolour was hoisted above the Kremlin, it seemed that anything was possible. But the tidal wave which swept away the old system brought with it a lot of dead wood, and downright nasty deep-sea creatures which, once on the surface, clamoured for their share of the spoils. A right wing revenge was only to be expected after Yeltsin’s astounding victory, but the strength and virility of the forces which aligned against Yeltsin in 1992 put even as tough a survivor as him on the defensive, forcing him to change tack and betray his alleged principles and colleagues.

Yeltsin could no longer play the anticommunist champion of the powerless. In chaos, everyone was powerless. According to VTsIOM statistics, Yeltsin’s support was halved during the first three months of 1992. And yet somehow the man held on to power and the country continued to move further away from communism, albeit in a fragmented way.

What happened? Under his ‘Great Leap Outwards’ campaign, Yelstin at first bulldozed ahead with shock therapy reforms. Yegor Gaidar (who died in 2010) was appointed first deputy prime minister on 2 March as Yeltsin was still officially prime minister. Prices of consumer goods were freed resulting in runaway inflation, and denationalisation of the country’s assets continued. The crime rate doubled, corruption spread after privatisation, and tax evasion became rampant. The rouble depreciated on a daily basis; we bought German cooking-oil, French chocolates and British alcohol, watched Mexican soap-operas and American evangelists on TV. Russia’s pride, the army, began its decline from 2.72 million men in 1992 to one million in 1999. The country suffered from losing its superpower status, and President Bush Snr was painfully slow in embracing the new Russia. The G7 was not interested in renegotiating Russia’s Soviet debts.

Nevertheless, Russians remained in favour of reforms but realised just a little too late that mature capitalism is only possible with an independent judiciary and regulatory system, both of which did not exist in 1992, and do not today. Foreigners flew in by the plane load to start businesses in the wild east. For many of them, if Russia’s streets were not paved with gold, at least they glittered. Money was made, but the real winners were Russians who knew how to play the system from the inside. Oligarchs-to-be Khodorovsky, Smolensky, Berezovsky and others had already made their first fortunes. The old industrial elite tried to regain control of their empires and in desperation increasingly turned to nationalist and extremist groupings. According to a survey carried out in Moscow in 1993, only 26% of industrial enterprises were run by someone with a “professional” background. More than 68% were run by a former manager of a state enterprise.

To set the scene, a two thirds majority in the Congress of People’s deputies was all it took to amend the constitution, which was changed several hundred times from 1990 to 1993. The constitution of the United States has been amended twenty seven times since 1791. The Supreme Soviet could strike down a presidential veto by a simple majority, and two thirds of the members of the congress could impeach the President. The legislative and executive branches of government drew further apart with even the vice-president siding against the President. The prospect of dvoevlasteie, a duplication of power, raised its ugly head in Russia once again.

As Gaidar planned a second wave of price liberalisation, this time aimed at the oil and energy sector, criticism on the President grew acidic and intense. Although Gaidar was promoted to the position of acting prime minister on June 15. by that time Yeltsin had begun to distance himself from radical reform. Without the President behind him, Gaidar and champions of liberal political principles were severely weakened. Gavril Popov, mayor of Moscow resigned in 1992 after accusations of financial fraud. The few leading liberal survivors such as Sakharov’s widow Yelena Bonner and Galina Starovoita became voices crying in the wilderness.

The President seemed to prefer a regal role of supreme arbitrator between warring factions, allowing him to treat the democrats’ problems and parliament as a whole with benign neglect. His periodic disappearances for a couple of weeks at a time did not help his image. In retrospect, Yelstin’s tactics, if one assumes that he had any, did work. He succeeded in uniting the country--against him. The threat of civil war was diffused, until 1993 at least. He attacked his enemies only after they had had time to expose themselves. Ensconced in the Kremlin, the emperor had found some new clothes. This was the same person who had declared after the 1991 coup that: “Russia is a country in a transitional period which wants to proceed along a civilised path traversed by France, England the United States, Japan, Germany and others. It is striving to proceed precisely along that path through the de-communisation and de-ideologisation of all aspects of the life of society…”

Of the groups which appeared on the political front in 1992, the middle ground, which most closely resembled Gorbachev’s democrats, were the “Atlanticists”, made up of people like foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev who wanted Russia to adopt a Western course of development. Countering this position was a larger group of disillusioned democrats, the “democratic statists” who accepted that the general drift of Russia towards the West was natural, but pushed for a radically more assertive and right wing foreign policy, even as Estonia started pressing for a law on citizenship which would have isolated the Russians living there. Russians were being shunned from their adopted lands in Kazakhstan and eastern Ukraine. In Tajikistan, the outbreak of armed inter-clan struggle forced most Russian families to flee back to Russia in fear of their lives.

Then there were the “statists” who regarded all reforms as being negative. More extreme were the “Eurasians” who favoured an authoritarian form of rule that would consult but not necessarily heed the vox populi. For them, the West represented the devil incarnate and clearly out to enslave Russia with its consumerist society. Eurasia was to include Russians, Turkic-Iranian peoples, Balts, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Byelorussians, and would encompass Christianity and Islam. Articles appeared throughout 1992 in the Russian press on the Eurasian theme, many written by Muslim authors who came forward to champion the newly resurrected “empire saving” ideology.

Nursultan Nazarbaev, the President of Kazakhstan attempted in mid-1992 to recreate the USSR by spearheading an effort to form a “Defence Union” of seven former Soviet republics, a “supra-national rouble” and “union bank”. Arkady Volsky and his powerful industrial lobby, which allegedly accounted for 65% of industrial output in 1991 supported Nazarbaev, as did, not surprisingly, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a phalanx of other writers turned out to be secret Eurasia supporters, and one wonders how close the Eurasian point of view is to that of C19th philosopher N.A. Berdayev’s vision of Russia being a bridge between the two worlds, in a country which has a doubleheaded eagle as its state symbol.

President Kravchuk of Ukraine bluntly rejected Gorbachev’s initiatives, as did Vytautas Landsbergis, then Lithuania’s Supreme Council chairman, who said Gorbachev was “speaking as a forthright imperialist.” The Eurasian movement seemed to falter, however it diffused into at least two other movements, and Russia’s dilemma between Slavophiles and westerners continued.

The “Civic Union” which was formed in June 1992 was a powerful right-centrist alliance and brought together the “democratic statists,” which including Arkaday Volsky, Vice-President Alexandre Rutskoi and Nikolai Travkin, chairman of the 50,000 member Democratic Party of Russia. Civic Union tried and succeeded in slowing down reform. Yeltsin had no intention of giving in to the demands of his Vice President and the increasingly outspoken Russian Supreme Soviet chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov who happened to come from Chechnya.

Whilst Yeltsin and his dwindling band of supporters were busy doing battle with the statists, a growing coalescence of the extreme right made its presence known. In October, the ‘Front for National Salvation’ aimed straight for the jugular and clearly stated its aims to unseat Yeltsin. Later that month, Yeltsin tried to outlaw the organisation, but newly established constitutional court ruled that a final decision should be postponed until February 1993. The arrest list that this group drew up replicated that of the KGB during the 1991 coup, but included a few more, such as Gorbachev, Volsky, Gaidar, Kozyrev, Chibais, Sobchak and others. To National Salvation fanatics, all these people were de facto Western “fifth columnists.” In October, one pro-democracy weekly Megapolis Express labelled the new salvation front “GKChP the Second.”

The President began to show an authoritarian side. Slowly but surely, he awarded himself the very perks he had castigated before 1991. The absence of a stable multi-party system increased Yeltsin’s freedom of manoeuvre in a country where the ruler or his party owns most of the land. Sergei Kovalev, the Russian government’s human rights commissioner was increasingly isolated from ministers. Barely days after Vaddim Bakhtin, a loyal Gorbachev reformer was appointed head of the KGB in August 1991 with the mission of “presenting proposals for the radical reorganisation,” but not its closure, he explained that the KGB could not open its 10 million KGB dossiers for fear of “splitting the country apart,” and anyway, going public would make it impossible to recruit informers again.

One of Yeltsin’s first acts in power was to create a new super ministry which encompassed the rump of the KGB and the ordinary police (the Ministry of the Interior). This meant the creation of an enlarged agency of social control which at least on paper would resemble Stalin’s NKVD. Yeltsin started out trying to dilute the power of the KGB by mixing its officers with ordinary police who were more corruptible and therefore easier to control. This super ministry was unanimously vetoed on 14 January 1992 by the constitutional court. This was either a victory for the people or the result of pressure from the KGB. In late January the KGB took back its vital function of monitoring the political loyalty of army officers, and in June once again became the custodians of the country’s border guards, albeit temporarily. Yelstin’s new head of the KGB, Viktor Barannikov turned native as soon as he entered Lubyanka and started defending the KGB’s record during Soviet times. The only real change was that the KGB no longer scrutinized the churches. As a power battle between Yeltsin and the Russian parliament intensified, each side competed for control over the security ministry, which allowed the security service to follow its own agenda. This time the KGB was also interested in the commercialisation of its services, particularly in the export of raw materials.

In November, the communists, whose party had been banned in Russia in August 1991, obtained a decision from the Constitutional Court in November 1991 allowing them to re-found themselves and use some of their old premises under the name of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation under Gennadi Zyuganov. Gone was the atheism and internationalism, but the commitment to Lenin and even Stalin remained.

By the time of the stormy Seventh Congress of the Russian People’s Deputies in December 1992, Khasbulatov’s de facto clout rivalled that of Yeltsin. The man’s ambition knew no end, and he toured around the country issuing statements and doling out cash, seemingly representing “all Rus and the CIS.” He reached out to economic groups threatened by Gaidar’s shock therapy.

Komomolskaya Provda rightly called the Seventh Congress, “a major political defeat” for the Russian President. At one stage, he was abandoned by the heads of the Russian Defence Ministry, the Ministry of State Security and the MVD who in effect sided with the Congress against him. More than 80% of the Congress’s deputies were current or former members of the communist party. At the Congress, Yeltsin fund himself facing a solid, aggressive majority of communists encouraged by the re-legalisation of their Party. Then there were the nationalists and go-slow-towardreform centrists. All wished to reduce Yeltsin’s powers, and if he refused then he was to be impeached. The attempted coup failed by just 72 votes out of the 689 needed. Yeltsin actually offered compromises on major issues, but the deputies did not. By surviving, Yeltsin lost none of his actual powers, with the exception that the Constitutional Court was empowered to approve or reject Yeltsin’s candidate for prime minister, while Yeltsin would in turn be able to organise a referendum to be held in April 1993. Under this brokered agreement, Yeltsin was forced to surrender Yegor Gaidar as his acting prime minister and to settle for a compromise “centrist” candidate, Viktor Chernomyrdin who was already a deputy prime minister.

Yeltsin’s battles were by no means over; in fact this was all only a prelude to what happened in 1993. Nevertheless, people began to get used to the new freedoms. The era of open politics, where Russians actually identified with their leaders, a period which only lasted a few short years under Gorbachev, was drawing to a close. Instead there were bickering, angry men who shouted at each other, and who called themselves politicians. They commanded less and less respect.

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