Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 20

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

Civil war among nomenklatura clans eclipses parliamentary elections

Late autumn 1999 in Russia (and particularly in Moscow, the center of the political and economic life of the country) was marked by a sharp escalation in the battle between two “orders” within the nomenklatura–the pro-Yeltsin clan and the Luzhkov clan. Luzhkov is the mayor of Moscow and the real leader of the Fatherland-All Russia electoral bloc. The country has been shaken by a massive campaign with unprecedented mudslinging and mutual accusations of corruption, graft, contempt for the interests of the public and a myriad of other deadly sins. The pro-Yeltsin nationwide television channels are using their top presenters, Sergei Dorenko and Nikolai Svanidze, to shower the public with more and more compromising material about Luzhkov and his bloc, the Moscow government and anyone associated with them. Fact, fantasy and dirt are interwoven so skillfully that it is almost impossible to work out which is which. It is not a pretty war, but for the public it is entertaining. It is seen as nothing more than the latest round in the grubby carnival which has been going on in Russia’s parody of capitalism for several years.

Against this background, the Duma elections themselves have become, if not invisible, then certainly less interesting and important. Most people have resigned themselves to the fact that there are the favorites (the Russian Communist Party, Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), Yabloko, Unity (otherwise known as Medved [Bear]), and there are the outsiders. Everyone knows that the first lot will form the bones of the Duma in 2000, with some parties getting slightly more of the vote than others, and that the rest have a one in five, or one in ten, or one in a hundred chance of getting into parliament. As a result, no one–apart from professional politicians, political analysts and the members of the electoral blocs themselves–is interested in exactly how many of which set of politicians will get into the Duma with exactly how many votes.

Such is the scene–or at least, this is how it appears on the surface.

At its heart, however, the situation is much more complicated and dangerous. Let me begin by stating that the parliamentary elections are by no means a foregone conclusion. Last month I wrote that for many objective and subjective reasons the Duma vote is likely to throw up some very unexpected surprises. To recap: Due to the populism of most blocs, and their lack of a clear social base (with the exception of the KPRF’s large base of people discontent with the reforms–about 25 percent of voters–and Yabloko’s small but steady base of members of the intelligentsia with a higher than average income–7-10 percent), and also due to the “carnivalization” of the economic, social and political life of the country, most people have “lost their heads.” Or, to put this in normal terms, most people have lost their sense of identity and are capable of unpredictable social behavior; they may vote in the most unexpected way, guided by a semi-subconscious like or dislike which can strike them at the last minute.

In Russia, given its perennial lack of organization and the way it degrades “ordinary” people, and given the people’s dire socioeconomic situation, this is extremely dangerous, because it may unexpectedly hand power to political extremists (both right and left), defeating the apparent favorites. Still more dangerous, even the moderate political forces which may get into the Duma will be very nearly free of any serious obligations toward the voters, and may evolve in any direction, including toward the “strong man” politics so fashionable in Russia today.

And, finally, the most difficult aspect is the centrism of blocs like OVR or Unity–a moderate, wishy-washy, statist, market centrism, based on an incomprehensible mix of democratic and “strong man” ideas, Slavophile and Western ideas, the nomenklatura and populism. This centrism is incapable of solving the system crisis in the country. This means that a “normal,” predicted result in the Duma elections will neither resolve anything nor provide a way out of the maze of contradictions in 1990s Russia, let alone 21st century Russia.

Both the nomenklatura and most of the public sense this on some instinctive level. And if ordinary people are losing their heads, then it looks like the nomenklatura “orders” (or clans, or whatever other terms people are using now to define these new entities), are simply “rabid,” like a pack of dogs (or wolves) finding themselves in a situation where all their nomenklatura-bureaucratic stereotypes and reflexes have stopped working. The key to the matter is (from the point of view of the nomenklatura, of course) that this summer it “suddenly” dawned on the regional and federal bosses that the country had no party of power, that there was no clearly defined and stable leader (or “order” of leaders). Or to be more precise, there were far too many leaders.

In horror, the nomenklatura started flapping about, and were on the point of joining forces with Luzhkov, seeing him as the future president and the current protector of the good old public servants, when it transpired that Yeltsin’s official heir to the presidency–the current prime minister–was far from being the dull pen-pusher he originally appeared to be. There is a popular joke which comes to mind here: “What is democracy in Russia?” Answer: “Yeltsin’s right to elect his successor.” This was when things really got going. The reason for this merry-go-round, however, goes much deeper than the worries of the bosses and the ability of the presidential team and the pro-presidential media to “sell” the prime minister. The reason even goes beyond the hastily organized “small victorious war” in Chechnya. The reason, I repeat, is more profound. It lies at the heart of the existing socioeconomic and sociopolitical structure in Russia. This is what explains both the “floating” position of the voters, the rabidity of the nomenklatura and the dirty froth from the leadership squabbles splashed all over the media.

The reason is that as things stand, the potential for survival–but not development–is now almost exhausted. There is perhaps a year’s or eighteen months’ leeway. The current crazy model has got stuck halfway between the liberal and statist models of Wild West capitalism. It is a mutant capitalism–stricken at its heart by the ulcers of the nomenklatura, crime and corruption–overburdened with the worst relics of the past and supplemented by resurgent semi-feudal practices. Russia needs to introduce qualitative changes to the economic and political power structure, and move away from the omnipotence of the clannish nomenklatura groups (which until recently everyone referred to as “oligarchic”). This would be the ideal solution. The minimum which needs to be done, to prolong “survival,” would be to ease over to a more pro-state, socially oriented model of mutant capitalism. None of the political groups currently visible at the top is capable of providing this solution. The key question in politics today is who can (or cannot) provide the minimum solution, and how.

This is the question masked by the squabbles between the Luzhkov and Yeltsin clans of the nomenklatura; it is this which lies at the root of the ambivalence of the voters, who sometimes seem to sympathize simultaneously with Anpilov (because he is Stalin’s heir), Zhirinovsky (because he’s a straightforward, cool dude), and Putin (because he’s hammering the Chechens) as potential “strong men.” It is this problem at the heart of the postmodern (methodologically speaking), primitive Russian (in form) amalgamation in Putin of the ideas of Margaret Thatcher with her right-wing liberalism and of the image of the classic statist patriot with an anti-Western hue (“If we want to go to war in Chechnya we will–America can’t lay down the law for us!”).

The tragedy of the situation is that no one can win this battle of the nomenklatura clans in the near future. Moreover, some among them–the KPRF, for example–do not seem to want to win. And the saddest thing is that even if one of the clans were to win (and it looks like Putin is ahead at the moment), it will not be able to implement the qualitative transformations the country needs, because these can only be implemented from below, with the active support of a significant percentage of the public (particularly organized workers). But if it [the winner, should there be one] tries to do it from above, using the degenerate officialdom, the result will not just be like Chernomyrdin’s efforts–“We wanted to do things for the best, but everything turned out the way it always does.” There will be a new twist: “We wanted strong rule, but we got a corrupt and rotten junta.”

We should, however, take a closer look at the Putin phenomenon.

As regards his rise (to be precise, his rise in the polls), there are two conflicting opinions (though they are very similar in methodology).

The first is that Putin is basically a run-of-the-mill civil servant, and his popularity rating is “inflated” by the pro-Yeltsin media with the assistance of, in turn, pro-Yeltsin officials (the president’s large “family”), and, most important, those oligarchs who support the president while he’s still hanging on. Correspondingly, the war in Chechnya is seen as the most powerful means of providing a decisive boost, particularly given that the bombs in Moscow came at an extremely opportune time (hotter heads, particularly in the West, suggest that they were deliberately carried out by the special services for this very purpose).

The second view is that Putin is the very leader who Russia is hungry for, riven as it is by squabbles and stricken by the lack of will of the powers-that-be. So this knight in shining armor comes to impose the order so desperately needed in Russia, with the firm hand of a moderate politician who maintains friendly relations with everyone. He is Primakov’s successor, via Stepashin; he is Yeltsin’s placeman; he is not far removed even from the right-wing radicals (through Sobchak); and as a representative of the special services and the organizer of the second Chechen war he is close to the statist opposition. He does not get involved in ideological debate, is not interested in all the “isms”, is not linked to any of the clans, and is only concerned with the state.

Both views, as I mentioned, have the same methodological roots; they take a superficial, political view of the processes. But the root of the matter lies elsewhere: The country needs to move over to a new power system, at least as a palliative to the statist model of today’s deformed capitalism. One year ago, Luzhkov started laying claim to the role of catalyst and agent for this transition; Primakov also tried to resolve this issue more gently by looking for compromises. The nomenklatura had even begun to shift towards him, sensing future victory and the possibility of cushy jobs. But at the last minute the Yeltsin clan managed to change the course of events (though not yet irreversibly). The main thing here is the understanding–which came late, but not too late–that a new form of action is required, not just the image of authority. Putin is a product of the times: Yeltsin’s team needed to find a leader who was (a) loyal, (b) not linked to any other clans, (c) capable of implementing firm policies and (d) not too independent (so that he wouldn’t drop or betray those who brought him into the limelight). They found Putin.

The subsequent tasks of inflating the ratings, organizing the small victorious war, securing the support of everyone they could, and launching harsh attacks on all those who did not want to acknowledge in advance the victory of the future president–these were just formalities, requiring certain technology and very big money, both of which Yeltsin’s team still has. At one time it appeared that they had lost the will to win. But, as has always been the case over the last ten years, at the crucial moment the half-dead leader revives and, drinking some fresh blood, throws himself decisively into the fray.

Nevertheless, it is still too early for the Yeltsin team to celebrate victory. Luzhkov’s clan is not the Civic Union and Supreme Soviet of 1993, nor is it the KPRF of 1996 (very half-hearted in its aspirations to power). The situation today is very different. And then, Putin is a much more complex figure than those who are steering him into power imagine. Beware, gentlemen: You will be his main enemies if he wins.

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.