Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 16

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

The latest cabinet dismissal–that of former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who had had barely three months in the job–was greeted with little more than a sarcastic smile by most Russians, to the effect: What can you expect from him [Yeltsin]? Then comes the thought: When is it going to end? When will he go? Where is the “triumph of democracy” in Russia, when, on the whim of one old man, the country’s top policeman is appointed to rule the country, only to be replaced, three months later, by the top KGB man? Is this a state ruled by law (technically the Russian constitution has not been violated), or a banana republic less the bananas (but with a banana king)? What sort of a constitution is it when one man can play games with the entire country?

What is the significance of Stepashin’s sacking–is it a whim of Yeltsin’s or something more? I shall discuss just two important themes: the crisis of authority and the absence of a “party of power.”

I. The quarterly change of prime ministers does not alarm anyone, and has very nearly become the norm. This is precisely how the political elite reacted to Yeltsin’s latest gambit. Their reaction is not so much a question as a statement of medical fact. I would like to stress that this diagnosis concerns not only the condition of the current Russian president of Russia, but the country’s entire social, economic and political system as well. Moreover, this is a diagnosis which was made several years ago (the illness being chronic): A system crisis. The reasons for the game of prime ministerial leapfrog in Russia, therefore, go far deeper than some other Russian and foreign experts may think. The Yeltsin family and the financial and bureaucratic circles which support it are patently extremely nervous, fearful of total ruin when their leader relinquishes the presidency. There is indeed some basis for this fear, not the least from the experience of Yeltsin’s past: When Gorbachev was being retired, Yeltsin promised him “mountains of gold and rivers of wine”, but just a year later he had already “forgotten” about his pledges to the ex-president (just as he did about the many other promises he has made as “guarantor of the constitution”).

The general state of affairs in the country gives even greater cause for concern, when ruling groups do battle using any methods they like with no regard for any rules. I have already been prompted to write for Prism that a sort of “Jurassic Capitalism” has arisen in Russia, whereby one lot of dinosaurs (corporate-bureaucratic groups) devours other lots of dinosaurs, dealing ruthlessly with anyone who gets in the way. Against this background, one cannot hope for mercy for the fallen: Yeltsin’s departure will spell the end of the high level of state “protection” for all businessmen connected to the “family.”

After all, the departure of the current president will also provide an enormous impetus for change in the administrative and political system in the country. A change of leadership in Russia will lead to a huge shake-up of the whole team–primarily in, but not limited to, the presidential administration (whose role in our country is similar to that of the Central Committee of the CPSU in the former Soviet Union).

A change of president means above all a change of line, a change of the nomenklatura ‘dynasty.’ Despite the games of leapfrog being played among the administration heads and prime ministers, basically one and the same dynasty has remained in power (Primakov was a partial exception). Yeltsin’s departure, however, may signify the fall of the “second nomenklatura” (the first being up of the so-called “foremen of perestroika”–also known as the “first wave of democrats”–who vanished into the political wilderness in the autumn of 1993, before, during and immediately after the state coup which began with the notorious decree number 1400 and ended with the tank attack on the Russian parliament and the murder of hundreds of its defenders).

So what has this to do with Stepashin’s dismissal, you may ask. The answer is that the Yeltsin dynasty is desperately seeking but failing to find an heir to the throne. Having brought about the economic and political crisis themselves, Yeltsin’s team have deepened it to such an extent that it has even hit their own structures. It is well known that a fish begins to rot from the head. The Yeltsin group is no exception. They were offered a chance to compromise, by gradually transferring power (and the gravy train) to the dynasty represented by Primakov, but this chance would have entailed ceding economic influence and relinquishing, albeit only partially, opportunities for the rapid accumulation of capital. Yeltsin’s team did not seize this chance, and it appears that they do not have another. Sacking the totally loyal and efficient Stepashin is a rather hysterical move on the part of the presidential clan. All of this would appear to support the general conclusion that the crisis of authority in the country as a whole also affects the crisis of the “second dynasty of the new Russian nomenklatura.”

II. Prime ministerial leapfrog as a consequence of the absence of a “party of power.” The second theme mentioned above–the absence of a party of power in Russia–is also reflected in Stepashin’s dismissal: neither Kirienko nor Stepashin nor Yeltsin’s current crony Putin have any socioeconomic and political force behind them which is distinct from Yeltsin’s closest circle. Does this mean that there is no such force in Russia at all? I do not want to offer a hasty reply to this question, which is a very important one in contemporary Russia.

Two powerful but unseen processes are underway in Russia, which analysts basically know about but which they sometimes “forget” to mention when examining specific political problems.

First, throughout the years of reform in Russia, a huge abscess of social contradictions has been deepening. While the ruling class is gradually forming into a distinct (if not uniform) force (the “capitalist dinosaurs” mentioned above, the upper echelons of the corporate-bureaucratic groups), most working people are only now becoming aware of their own objective interests–the interests of people enslaved by dual (or even triple) oppression: primitive capital, continuing bureaucratic arbitrariness, and reemerging (in certain places) semi-feudal subjugation. The greater the social tensions and the deeper the contradictions, the greater the challenge to the authorities: There must either be a major review of the “course of reform” (to which Yeltsin swears he is committed) or there will be major social upheaval. The new “party of power” should therefore go some way, at least temporarily and partially, towards meeting the interests of the working people.

Second, in an equally unseen way, but more and more significantly, Russia is gradually drifting away from pro-Western monetarist reform towards a state-nomenklatura form of capitalism. The new party of power must also respond to this challenge. If the country’s new rulers do not resolve this issue–even partially–they will not be able to rule Russia.

It is therefore time to ask the rhetorical question: Does such a party exist in Russia? Before we answer this, I should stress that even if there were such a party, a policy of social great-power capitalism would not resolve the system crisis in society, but would only slow it down, at the same time aggravating the already powerful contradictions in the field of human rights, weakening financial oppression but strengthening bureaucratic oppression and so on…

Who, then, can aspire to the role of the party of power in 21st century Russia? By virtue of its size, one ideal candidate for this role–pursuing a policy of state capitalism with a strong element of social paternalism–is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). But new Russians and their hangers-on have a pathological fear of the KPRF. On top of this–and this is very important–most Russians, while they do not approve of Yeltsin nor particularly want him or anyone like him in power, have even less desire to see a return to shortages and authoritarianism. And, although Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov’s people cannot (and do not want to) move backwards, no one will believe them. Luzhkov’s Fatherland and All Russia are making their bid to be the new party of power. If–and this is a big if–they can (1) ensure real unity in their ranks, (2) lure at least part of the federal nomenklatura over to their side, (3) persuade most Russian citizens that they are fundamentally different from the Yeltsin brigade and (4) come to an agreement with Primakov, then they may triumph.

As far as Russia’s present “masters” are concerned–the Yeltsin dynasty–they are growing frantic in their efforts to hold on to power, feverishly swapping their prime ministers and heirs. But this will not help: The Yeltsin clan will probably soon come to an end (barring, of course, any unforeseen eruptions and disturbances in our fundamentally unstable social order). Nevertheless, the effects of Yeltsinism as a form of social order will continue to be felt for a long time to come; it may simply adopt a new body into which it will transplant its criminal-capitalist soul–if such a phenomenon as Yeltsinism actually has a soul.

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