Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 11

Moscow’s new approach to politics likely to fail

by Paul A. Goble

Beneath the drama of the last month–the Budennovsk hostage crisisand the start of peace talks in Chechnya, the renewal of Yeltsin’sSecurity Council, and the Duma’s failure to oust or even seriouslylimit the power of the Russian prime minister and president–aresome fundamental shifts in the way Russian politics are playedboth at home and abroad. Domestically, the shift of power fromthe legislature to the executive, and from "new" Russiansto Soviet-era officials, accelerated. Abroad, Moscow took an increasinglyassertive approach to the former Soviet republics and appearedto adopt a Gaullist policy of outrageous behavior which Russia’sWestern partners seemed incapable of resisting. But beneath thesechanges at the highest levels are some disturbing social, economicand demographic trends which may undermine Russia’s quest forstability, and might even power a radical challenge to the existingregime.

Power to the President–and to the People of the Past

Since Yeltsin crushed the Supreme Soviet with tanks in October1993, political power has been shifting from the legislature tothe executive. That process accelerated during the last monthas a result of the Duma’s failure to vote down the government,or to impeach Yeltsin and the Constitutional Court’s increasingunwillingness to challenge any decisions of the executive branch.As a result, the center of Russian politics has shifted from abattle between the parliament and the president to political strugglesbetween the prime minister and the president. The two men remainallies only to the extent that Chernomyrdin continues to deferand Yeltsin continues to feel unthreatened. And within the executivebranch the political battle grounds are now among various largelybureaucratic interest groups–the military industrial complexversus the oil and gas conglomerate, and the agro-industrial complexversus consumer groups, to name but two of the higher profileones. In each of these disputes, the contestants seem more interestedin establishing their own corporate control of portions of thestate and economy, and thus making money through the privatizationof state assets, than in reflecting the will of the people.

Simultaneous with this shift and exacerbating it has been Yeltsin’sincreasing tendency to rely less and less on the new forces ofRussian politics–elected politicians, the media which is sufferingfrom both higher paper prices and lower subsidies, and the new(and often corrupt) Russian businessmen–and more and more onpeople drawn from the political milieu from which he himself sprung:the regional nomenklatura of the party and the old Communist party-Sovietelite. The use of longtime Soviet party official and former Yeltsinopponent Arkady Volsky as a negotiator in Grozny, the retentionof Viktor Yerin in the intelligence community after his dismissalas interior minister, the promoting of deputies to fill the jobsof their displaced bosses, and the recruitment of regional andMoscow Communist party officials into positions just below thevery top, all point to a very different and more traditional kindof politics in Moscow.

Moreover, Yeltsin has increasingly deferred to regional administratorsboth as a source of power and as a constraint on the uncertaintiesof the democratic process. Thus his support, now perhaps lessthan enthusiastic, for Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s "Russiais Our Home" electoral bloc. Thus his demand that the Dumabe elected more from single-member districts, where regional bossesare stronger, than by party lists where political parties mattermore. (The president’s "loss" to the Duma on this point–theDuma will be elected on a 50-50 basis between those elected fromparty lists and those elected in single member districts — wasless a loss than it appeared. Yeltsin was able to have the Dumaagree to severe limitations on the number of Muscovites who couldrun on the lists, and he thus achieved his aim.) And thus hisdemands that the Federation Council be less an elective body thana consultative one which he can use to block the more difficultDuma.

The upcoming parliamentary elections will only increase thistendency, with Yeltsin almost certainly planning a grand bargainbetween himself and the regional elites: you agree to supportme against the Moscow parties, Yeltsin will argue, and I willsupport you against your parties and parliamentarians at home.Such a situation recalls some aspects of the old Communist systemof rule, but with this major difference: Other than personal ties,there is not any crosscutting force such as the Communist Partyor the KGB than can restrain the regional officials from takingever more power within their own spheres even as they defer toMoscow on a limited number of areas. And as a result, the ultimateconsequence of Yeltsin’s assumption of greater power in Moscowcould be a de facto confederalization of the country.

A Gaullist Style of Politics in a Country very Different fromFrance

Changes in Moscow’s approach to foreign policy have been equallyserious. After a period of deferring to the West, Moscow has discoveredthat in many spheres it doesn’t have to and can now plot a newand more nationally self-interested course, even though it remainsin a position of weakness relative to the Western powers. Thisshift has come in two areas: in Moscow’s relations with its immediateneighbors, the former Soviet republics, and in its relationshipwith the United States and the West more generally.

In the last month, Moscow has shown a new assertiveness in itsrelations with the so-called "near abroad." The wayin which this assertiveness has been expressed reflects Moscow’sdecision to look beyond Chechnya, the Russian population has cearlyexpressed fear that any further such involvements will cost toomuch in lives and treasure to make them worthwhile, and the West’sinsistence that Moscow respect at least by convention the independenceof the 14 former Soviet republics. Thus, here as elsewhere, thosewho seek to argue that Moscow is pursuing a benign policy towardthe "near abroad" can cite particular quotations fromsome Russian officials, but the record of Russian actions is disturbing:

–Moscow has used its financial power to break a Latvian bankand set off a political crisis in that Baltic country. One Russianpaper even asked rhetorically what the Latvians could possiblyhave expected after they blew up the Skrunda radar site–somethingthey were entitled to do under the terms of the Russian-Latviantroop withdrawal agreement. And Russian diplomats have informedthe Estonians that Moscow has no intention of ever accepting the1920 Tartu Peace Treaty as the basis of relations, or of apologizingagain for the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which cost Estoniaand her two Baltic neighbors their independence.

–Moscow has refused to come up with the money Belarus expectedto get after voting for closer ties with the Russian Federation,but it has insisted that Minsk toe the line on defense, and onoil and gas pipeline issues. And even with Ukraine, which Moscowmust deal with most carefully because of its size and ties tothe West, Moscow has tried to take a tougher line on Sevastopoland the Black Sea Fleet even while lowering its pressure on Crimeabecause of concerns about a Chechen analogy with regard to borderchanges.

–Moscow has increased its pressure on Moldova by sending Russianreinforcements to the now-rechristened units of the 14th armyin Moldova, on the Transcaucasus by playing various forces againstone another, and in Central Asia by suggesting that its patiencewith the fighting in Tajikistan was exhausted, a suggestion whichboth frightens the other Central Asian countries into deferringto Moscow’s wishes, and reinforces the extent to which the Commonwealthof Independent States has become a club for the protection ofpresidents more than anything else.

But it is in Moscow’s relations with the "far abroad"that Russian foreign policy has shown the greatest change. Yeltsin’stemper tantrum in Halifax was not so much a reflection of eitherhis frustration with Chechnya or of his drinking, but rather ofpart of a new Russian foreign policy which the Institute of Europe’sSergei Karaganov has christened "Gaullism" without DeGaulle.Moscow has discovered–as France did in the 1960s–that its Westernpartners are prepared to make concessions disproportionate toits power in order to keep Russia as a "partner." Thus,Russia’s interests are served by a policy of calculated offensivenessand even outrageousness, one designed to frighten the West intomaking concessions without leading the West to conclude that Russiais not worth having as a partner.

Among the recent examples of such an approach are

–Russian insistence that the West meet its terms for reschedulingthe massive Russian debt or Moscow would not sign any accord atall on this question, combined with a professed willingness andeven eagerness to talk to everyone.

–Moscow’s continued and even more vociferous denunciations ofWestern plans to expand NATO eastward, combined with Kozyrev’sassurances that of course the East Europeans have the right tojoin any alliance they want.

–And Moscow’s willingness to flaunt its bad behavior–Yeltsin’sdecision to elevate the nuclear power minister who arranged thenuclear deal with Iran to his Security Council and the defenseministry’s announcement that troops who fought in Chechnya willparticipate in a US-Russian Partnership for Peace exercise inHawaii next month–combined with professions of good intentionsand a desire to find common ground.

But as Karaganov certainly knows, and as most other Russiansmust suspect, Russia is not France and Yeltsin is not DeGaulle.Except for a few people in some Western capitals, the West hasmuch less of an investment in Russia now than it had in France,and thus Russia has less room for maneuver. Indeed it may notbe able to avoid either seeking membership in organizations wherejoining will inevitably mean that it has less status than manyin Moscow believe they are entitled to, or retreating into isolationism,the Scylla and Charybdis that Karaganov has warned about. AndYeltsin for all his undoubted political skills does not seem tobe in the same league as a politician with the late French president,who not only had real ties with London and Washington from thewar period on which to draw, but also a country that was goingto be part of the Western alliance no matter what he said–andhe, the French, and the West always knew that.

The Shifting Sands Below

For many in the West, these changes at the top of the Russianpolitical pyramid appear to be the harbingers of a new and morestable, albeit less openly democratic Russia at home, and a moremanageable if less slavishly dependent Russia abroad, a positionmany Western experts believe is more sustainable given Russiannational pride and interests. These same Westerners seem lessconcerned about the Russian shift away from the democracy theywere celebrating only a few years ago, are inclined to acceptMoscow’s position regarding the former Soviet republics and even,as Karaganov predicted, are willing to give Moscow more than itsdue precisely for the reasons he outlined.

But just as Yeltsin is not Moscow and Moscow is not Russia, sotoo the highest levels are not going to define by themselvesthe future of Russia anymore than they did at the end of the Sovietperiod. And the broader social, economic and demographic pictureis frightening. In the last month alone, the Russian media havereported that

–life expectancy among males has dropped to 57 years and thatdiseases thought to have been overcome are now endemic

–inflation continues to outrun wage increases and that evermore workers and even soldiers are not paid for months at a time,

–the Moscow-imposed tariff on foodstuffs has already led todramatic increases in prices in Russian cities,

–electric power companies are turning off power to enterprises,and even entire military districts, because the firms and thegovernment are not paying their bills, and that

–the Russian harvest this year will be 10 million tons lessthan last year’s disastrous level, a situation which will forceMoscow to expend hard currency or face hungry people.

Even the Russian government’s efforts to portray Moscow as movingtoward stability sound hollow given an unemployment Russian expertssay will hit 20 percent by year’s end, and inflationary pressureslikely to break the soft peg of the ruble, a situation to whicheven the Russian Central Bank’s experts now seem resigned despitetheir earlier upbeat statements.

In this situation of societal distress, there are three broadpossible avenues of development. The Russian people, who havehad to put up with more than almost any other people on earthover the last decades, may be willing to put up with even this–especiallyif Yeltsin can play a Russian nationalist card against one ormore of its neighbors. That is clearly what Muscovites and manyWestern government officials are hoping for. Or some Zhirinovsky-typepolitician–but not Vladimir Zhirinovsky himself–could catchfire in the parliamentary elections by tapping into social discontent.Or the military and security services could decide to play aneven bigger role than they have so far. Yeltsin didn’t oust defenseminister Grachev, quite possibly because he feared what mighthappen in the angry army if he did, and the other security servicesare equally upset as a result of Yeltsin’s and the media’s effortsto make them the scapegoat for Budennovsk and Chechnya as a whole.Even the threat of the second and third of these possibilitieswill cast a shadow on Russian politics.

And in foreign policy too, Yeltsin and his team may finally gotoo far. The very aggressiveness of their behavior in Chechnyaand on NATO may finally lead first Russia’s neighbors and thenher Western "partners" to conclude that Russia by virtueof geography, history, and its current travails remains a problemand even a threat, precisely because it is in a weakened position.And consequently, these leaders may conclude that because theWest now lacks both the will and the means to help Russia througha cultural revolution that the least bad option available is akind of containment until Russia, with much difficulty, can makethat transition herself.

Paul Goble is the Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor andPrism.