Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 7

At five, Russia still has not made fundamental choices about its future

by Victor Yasmann

On June 12, Russia marked the fifth anniversary of its declarationof sovereignty with three key questions about itself still unanswered: What kind of a political system should it have? How should itorganize its enormous territory? And what should its borders andrelationships be with its new neighbors, the former Soviet republics?Speaking on Moscow television this week, historian Yuri Afanasievput the three questions even more directly: "Is Russia afederal state as defined in the constitution? Or is she a multi-nationalempire? Or is she a unitarian state?"

In recent months, there have been signs that Moscow plans toanswer the last question in the affirmative, abolishing the currentnational-administrative division of the country and restoringthe pre-1917 guberniyas ("government"). As hasbeen so often the case with the direction of the Yeltsin government,this idea was first advanced by Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskyin 1991. At that time, Zhirinovsky thought it could be appliedto the entire Soviet Union. Now, restricting its applicationto the borders of the Russian Federation, the idea has powerfulbackers in the Kremlin. Deputy Premier Sergei Shakhrai, for example,has called for a gradual shift away from the Soviet-imposed divisionstoward the old tsarist ones.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin convened an all-Russian conferenceon this idea in February 1995. Among the speakers was AlexanderSolzhenitsyn, who specifically rejected any federal arrangementsat all for Russia and who then and subsequently pushed for therestoration of the zemstvo of tsarist times. "CombiningRussia and federalism is a nonsense," Solzhenitsyn said."Never in her history has Russia been a federal state." Instead, he argued, Russia should restore such corporate estatesof the past and that the zemstvo-based local governments are allthe authority the localities need.

It is obvious just how much Yeltsin and his entourage would benefitfrom both of these ideas: Refederalization would break the powerof non-Russian groups within Russia, and the restoration of theestates would allow Moscow a new lever to control the Russianones. But precisely for these reasons both groups are certainto resist any of these changes. Not surprisingly, Zhirinovskypublicly suggested that Yeltsin should use the war in Chechnyaas the occasion for pushing through the first if not the secondof these changes.

That war–whose six month anniversary coincided with Russia’sindependence day–has both reflected and affected the possiblechoice of answers to the two other questions: Russia’s internalpolitical system and her relations with her neighbors. Whileit is probably too early to draw any conclusions about the impactof this war on Russian reforms, one consequence of the fightingis very much in evidence: the revival of an imperial mood notonly within the military and security communities but also amonga larger part of Russian society. The war has marked the disappearanceamong many Russians of the fear of war and the use of force bythe state against the population, a decades-long phobia for mostRussians. Many indeed appear to have accepted that such use offorce is entirely appropriate.

As a result, the old and new nomenklatura have been able to strengthenits position, flaunting its status in Chernomyrdin’s "partyof power" electoral bloc. Yeltsin’s former spokesman PavelVoshchanov told Komsomolskaya pravda last month that this groupis interested in only one thing–remaining in power–and willdo what is necessary to do just that. Even the other electoralblocs–Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin’s and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s–drewmore on the current powerholders than on the population even asthey proclaimed their allegiance to democratic politics and massparticipation.

Parallel to this development has been the revival of open endorsementsof a Russian imperial mission over the former Soviet space andbeyond, and even calls for the rehabilitation of Soviet dictatorJoseph Stalin, whose image and words were much in evidence notonly at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of V-E Day butalso on June 12. And supporting both of these has been a governmentmove against the mass media. One reason why Yeltsin did not tryto impose martial law in Chechnya was because he knew he couldnot at the end of last year impose an effective press censorshipthere. He even turned media criticism of his war to his advantage:Western supporters of the Russian president concluded that sincethe Russian press was free to criticize, the Chechen war was notso terrible after all. Yeltsin clearly recognized that aspectof the situation when he remarked in his pre-independence dayIzvestiya interview that his restraint with regard to the mediahad helped defeat Dudayev’s regime.

Now, as another phase of the fighting comes to an end, Yeltsinand his government are cracking down on the press in a major way. The Kremlin is reimposing its control over national televisionchannels, using state aid to bring the recalcitrant papers intoline, and forcing the sharpest critics out of business. In thelast month, the democratic but anti-Yeltsin weekly Nedelya, Nezavisimayagazeta and Kuranty closed their doors. The government named Itar-Tassdirector Vitaly Ignatenko deputy prime minister with responsibilitiesfor directing the media. He announced that his highest prioritywas to freeze Western media out of the Russian market, and heimmediately took steps that closed much of Ostankino’s productionfacilities even as he and the government gave the green lightfor the pro-government public television channel ORT that is headedby the former communist party secretary of the Institute of InternationalRelations and World Economy Sergei Blagovolin.

This list could easily be extended, but the message is clear:Russia still has not answered the key questions about her future,but ever more people around President Boris Yeltsin are searchingfor answers not in the democratic West but in the autocratic Russianpast.

Victor Yasmann is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.