Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 12

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

The dictum that everything in history repeats itself, not in the form of tragedy, but as farce, is frequently quoted in Russia, both aptly and ineptly. But the conflict between the Duma and the president, in its 1998 version, is, so to speak, a “negation of the negation”–a synthesis of tragedy and farce.

In its recent history, Russia has had more than enough of both.


The firing on the Russian parliament and the killing of many hundreds of people (most of whom were innocent bystanders) unleashed by Yeltsin as the result of his 1993 confrontation with the Russian Supreme Soviet was a real tragedy. It was then that the executive branch, and the president in particular, which did not stop at the cynical mass murder of their fellow-countrymen, moved to introduce a new constitution–formally, through a referendum, but in reality, through massive pressure on the mass media and the threat of imposing another state of emergency–which gave almost absolute power to the president. (In parentheses, I note: from that time on, the Russian president could dissolve the parliament upon any serious disagreement with his policy. In other words, ever since 1993, the legislative branch could only express serious disagreement with Yeltsin by committing suicide.)

The farce is the endless attempts of the opposition, which has broad representation in the Duma, to resist the executive branch and the president. For almost five years, the KPRF and its allies have regularly demanded the resignation of the government, the rejection of the budget, the impeachment of the president, etc., and each time, fail to bring these initiatives to their logical conclusion, and let them fail miserably. And this is truly a farce, for the opposition is consciously (or perhaps unconsciously–self-deception is characteristic of some politicians) setting itself goals which it cannot, or in many cases, does not want to, achieve. After all, it is no secret that: a) the Duma has no rights under the present constitution, and b) even in this toothless Duma, the opposition does not have a solid majority: a minimum of ten to fifteen percent of the “opposition” will “bend” any way the authorities want, if their seats are threatened.

As a result, from 1994 to 1998, the Duma, in spite of all of its attempts to resist the executive branch, has systematically found itself strategically defeated.


The executive branch in Russia is a rather strange entity. In reality, the executive branch is embodied by the president, although, according to the constitution, he is not formally a part of that branch, but stands above it. He is also a “co-legislator”: he has the right not to sign laws and to issue decrees, which sometimes play more of a role in Russia than laws and the constitution.

The permanent confrontation between the executive and legislative branches has a context which is just as permanent. The parliament (before October 1993–the Supreme Soviet, and after that–the Duma) supports a socially-oriented course of reform, opposes the impoverishment of the majority of the population, advocates a state-regulated market economy, protection in foreign trade, and a strengthening of the role of the legislature.

The president and the government conduct a rightist-liberal policy in the spirit of the IMF, under the guise of fighting for the economic recovery. This line was pursued openly in Gaidar’s time. Under Chernomyrdin, it was substantially modified by the influence of various lobbying structures, and accompanied by the unrestrained growth of the government apparatus and of corruption (although the first powerful impulse toward these processes was given even before Gaidar).

To clarify the picture, it must be added that great-power nationalist and Slavophile sentiments have always been strong in the Duma, and that pragmatism, frequently bordering on cynicism, reigns supreme in the government. Both branches of government are, in essence, a battlefield in the war between the clan-corporate structures which control the Russian economy and regional elites.

And yet, the Duma (in spite of all its contradictions and amorphousness) still represents the interests of ordinary citizens and the regions of gigantic Russia. In reality, the activities of the president and the government reflect, above all, the interests of the gigantic, bureaucratic federal apparatus and semi-authoritarian presidential rule, behind which stand the large financial-industrial groups and the indirect, but powerful, pressure of the world’s great powers.

That is why the conflict between these two branches of government is so permanent.

But the Duma is weak, because of its diversity (and it cannot be otherwise in a country with a complex economy and polarized social interests) and its a priori predisposition (due to the constitution’s peculiarities) toward debates, rather than decisions. We recall that the word “Duma,” which comes from the Russian word “to think,” was first used for an assembly of nobles under the Tsars, and later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was applied to an elective legislative-consultative body.

That is why the conflict is always won by the stronger side–the executive branch and the parliament.

But this victory (due to the aforementioned rightist-liberal strategy pursued by the president and the government) has led to the further deepening of the socio-economic crisis, and is therefore a Pyrrhic victory, leading to a new spiral of confrontation, and so on and so forth…

No, not ad infinitum.

The end is predictable: either a radicalization of the opposition, which will directly and unambiguously support, and in some cases, even initiate, massive civil disobedience (like the blocking of the railroads by the miners in May 1998), or the coming to power of a president even more authoritative than Yeltsin and the final subordination of the Duma.


When Kirienko (then still acting prime minister) popped out like a jack-in-the-box and was transformed, in the wink of an eye, into the most popular figure in Russia’s political life, even the most eminent analysts were dumbfounded. Western journalists, who woke up before the others, began to spin tales about how Chernomyrdin and Berezovsky did not want to share the privatized “Rosneft,” and how the latter, who was also said to be Yeltsin’s daughter’s lover (?!), had used her to get the prime minister replaced, and that the ungrateful Kirienko had double-crossed his patron as soon as he had secured Yeltsin’s support, after which, the betrayed Berezovsky had supposedly begun to support the opposition in the Duma to “blackball” the acting prime minister.

The author does not wish to analyze these rumors which have been whipped up by the mass media. What is important is something else.

First, the boorish and high-handed firing of Chernomyrdin (who could and should have been prosecuted–from the opposition’s point of view, or coddled and pampered as a defender of the president–from the point of view of the “party of power”) showed that a regime of personal power has been formed in Russia. Moreover, this act confirmed once again that no promises or guarantees of the “Guarantor of the Russian Constitution,” i.e., Yeltsin, can be believed–he has lied in the past, he lies now, and he will continue to lie. He lied when he said that he would lie down across the rails to prevent a price increase (now it is the miners–to whom he has also lied–who are lying across the rails). He lied in his “Decree No. 1” (!), when he promised that the average salary for teachers would be no less than in industry. He lied when he said that Chubais and Co. would be in the government until the year 2000. And so on and so forth…

Second, Kirienko’s coming to power means the coming to power of a team even more cynical, even stricter in its pursuit of a rightist-liberal course, even more dependent on the president than its predecessors. It was no accident that we chose the image of a fat man who has shed the weight, of a highly-professional and (as the situation with the miners and teachers shows) cynical neo-Gaidar for the title of this article. This premier, together with the willful president, could once again bring the country to the brink of bloody confrontations even worse than the events of October 1993, for they would not be restricted to Moscow.

Third, these events have shown that most State Duma deputies are incapable of decisive resistance and will endure any humiliation or insult, making speeches just for show before and afterwards, but not entering into any real confrontations (unlike the 1993 Supreme Soviet, which, in spite of its shortcomings, accepted the challenge and fought to the end in defense of a constitutional regime in Russia and against Yeltsin’s coup d’etat.)

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly: the events in Russia of the spring of 1998 show that real politics and real conflicts lie not in the sphere of court intrigues (Chernomyrdin vs. Kirienko) and not even in the area of confrontation between the Duma and the president–all these are just games played at the top of the hierarchy. The real fight will begin when tens and hundreds of thousands of citizens–those who supported democracy in 1991 and continue to support it today, from miners to professors–rise in protest and enter into open confrontation with the government, in actions of civil disobedience.

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a Doctor of Economics and a professor at Moscow State University. In the perestroika period, he was a leading member of the reform wing of the CPSU. He is now one of the leaders of the Democratic Socialist Movement in Russia.

Translated by Mark Eckert