OLYMPUS ON FIRE: ON THE BRINK OF CHAOS OR THE THRESHOLD OF STABILITY?
Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 9
By Vladimir Mironov
Since the start of the year, Russia’s domestic political climate has been heating up. Paradoxically, the first symptom of political tension came with Yevgeny Primakov’s January proposal to conclude a “nonaggression pact” to maintain the status quo among the Kremlin, the White House and the parliament building with regard to personnel, and also to ensure that each side should reject any initiatives designed to lead to a vote of no confidence in the government, the start of impeachment proceedings against the president or the dissolution of the State Duma. Russian history and current political reality reveal no examples of preventive measures taken by the authorities to deal with potential challenges and threats. As a rule, the authorities demonstrate a persistent tendency to react impulsively to events that have already happened. As the first 100 days of Yevgeny Primakov’s government came to an end, several things were happening simultaneously:
–Representatives of the president, the Council of Ministers and the two chambers of the Federal Assembly held talks on signing a joint declaration “On the reinforcement of civil peace and political stability in the country,” but the talks eventually broke down.
–Intrigues surrounded the dismissal of Yuri Skuratov from his post as prosecutor general of the Russian Federation; a victim of these intrigues was the head of the president’s administration and Security Council secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha, who was relieved of his posts by the head of state.
–Open conflict broke out between Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky, which resulted in the latter being edged away from the real reigns of power–access to the head of state. It is possible that the last Russian “oligarch” to remain afloat in politics after the events of August 17, 1998 has only suffered a temporary loss of influence. This is attested, in particular, by the appointment of Alexander Voloshin, an old business partner of Berezovsky’s, as head of Boris Yeltsin’s administration at the end of March this year.
–An increasing number of questions were asked in the president’s administration about how much positive movement there had been in the Russian economy as a result of the work of the current Council of Ministers. Doubts began to be voiced about the effectiveness of the efforts of the new government in overcoming the economic crisis in Russia.
–Pressure increased on the government from various sources—a number of parliamentary parties (Yabloko, LDPR), former members of the government (Viktor Chernomyrdin, the leader of Russia is Our Home), and the leaders of liberal parties and movements Yegor Gaidar (Russia’s Democratic Choice), Sergei Kirienko (New Force), Boris Nemtsov (Young Russia) and Boris Fedorov (Forward, Russia)–demanding the replacement of three members of the cabinet who were linked to the KPRF and the Russian Agrarian Party before they joined the executive.
In mid-April, the latent tension in relations between President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov began to erupt in public clashes between the two statesmen. Russian society and the ruling elite have been struck by the feeling that the developments of the first four months of the year on the Russian political scene are an oblique sign that some event is imminent which may affect the lives of Russia’s citizens. It is no coincidence that the speaker of the Federation Council, Yegor Stroev, said, “I dread the next few months, and I think that the most important thing for me in this period is to coordinate and concentrate the efforts of all political parties to avoid another period of lunacy.” The question is being asked more and more often: Will these political maneuvers bring chaos or stability to Russia?
For the last eight months, one of the most popular themes in Russian politics has been that of ensuring political stability in the country. This was the explanation offered by the president’s close circle for Boris Yeltsin’s decision not to nominate Viktor Chernomyrdin for the post of prime minister for a third time after the Duma deputies had voted him down twice. In order to avoid “rocking the boat” and destabilizing the political situation, the president paid heed to the initiative of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and proposed Yevgeny Primakov for the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers. Politicians, deputies, analysts, experts and journalists all tend to assess the actions and initiatives of top state, economic and financial leaders–the main actors on Russia’s political stage–from this viewpoint of maintaining political stability and preserving the elements of social harmony which have been established.
Yet the perception of the cornerstones of stability and the ways of achieving and maintaining it naturally differ greatly among the supporters of rival political organizations, parties, movements and other associations. One group associates political stability with ensuring that real power remains in the hands of Boris Yeltsin. A second group associates it with extending powers and responsibilities, or even simply with ensuring that the government continues with Yevgeny Primakov at its head. A third links it to the activities of the State Duma and the Federation Council. A fourth pins its hopes on republic and regional political institutions. A fifth is convinced that the country lacks any stabilizing elements and that internal processes may assume a destructive, uncontrollable nature. A sixth, meanwhile, points out that only the combined efforts of all the branches of state power are capable of resolving the major problems facing Russia, including that of political stability.
POLITICAL STABILITY AND THE CONTEMPORARY POLITICAL SITUATION IN RUSSIA
It seems that political stability is very closely linked to the soundness and durability of the political system, to how deeply rooted this system is in society and how adequate it is for society, and to its ability to react efficiently–both offensively and defensively–to changes in the environment. All this assumes, in particular, the preservation of the balance of political forces and institutions which has been established; the predictability of the actions of the authorities; the domination of legitimate structures and a decrease in the influence of informal groups on the authorities’ decision-making process–the “transparency” of this process; and the existence of legally defined rules for mutual relations, certain formal frameworks, political taboos in the work of institutions, parties and so on.
The contemporary political situation in Russia is characterized, first, by the fact that the throne on the political Olympus is to all intents and purposes vacant, not least because the head of state has announced that he will not be participating as a candidate in the election campaign in 2000. More and more often the president appears before the Russian people as a tired old man, using words and phrases that he never used to use, such as “Why are you torturing me?” However, at the same time it cannot be said that the current president is being politically marginalized. What has happened is a normal limitation of his freedom for political maneuver, because the political rules laid down by the current constitution and legislation are becoming binding for all the participants in the political struggle.
Second, Russian politics is characterized by the consolidation of Yevgeny Primakov’s position in state power structures. When he was appointed prime minister, Primakov–an academic, diplomat and intelligence officer, with contacts in the foreign office and the foreign intelligence service–had practically no reliable footing in the country’s internal political state structures, belonged to no political groups and was very much an unknown quantity in Russia’s financial, industrial and business circles. But now the head of government has the support of a majority of parliamentarians and a considerable section of the republican and regional elite. Removing him from his post would be fraught with highly unpredictable consequences for all those involved in the political struggle.
Third, on a federal level a new independent center of political influence is being formed: On the eve of countrywide parliamentary and presidential elections, the members of the Federation Council are beginning to play their own political games, having freed themselves of the president’s control. In the autumn of 1998, seventy-nine senators supported an initiative to approach Boris Yeltsin with a suggestion that he voluntarily step down; in March and April of this year, the upper house of the Federal Assembly twice rejected the head of state’s proposal to remove Yuri Skuratov from his post of public prosecutor.
Fourth, society is beginning to be dominated by a mood for change, but only change which takes place within the framework of legal procedures. The opinion is gaining ground in society that certain changes need to be made to the country’s constitution, which would result in a strengthening of the position of the government and parliament within state power structures. The role of the president is paramount when the strategic development of the country is being decided, when major changes need to be made, when there is no agreement among the political elite on the main issues surrounding the transformations underway, when the ruling politicians’ projects do not enjoy wide social and political support, and when it is necessary to take “manual” control of the political and socioeconomic reform processes. Proposals on the advisability of strengthening the role of parliament and on the movement towards a parliamentary republic attest to the fact that a majority of the political elite has already reached agreement on the direction of the socioeconomic and political transformations, which now require only tactical rather than strategic adjustment.
Fifth, the ongoing economic crisis has considerably reduced the state’s financial capabilities. However, the influence of state institutions on business and financial structures has increased. In this regard, control of the centers of state decisionmaking and of the decisionmaking process itself becomes important for economic subjects. Taking into account the “spontaneous” changes in the balance of power between the branches of state power and the strengthening of the position of federal government and legislative structures, the approach to the election campaign for the State Duma is changing in order to create a powerful group of deputies in the future lower house capable of participating in and influencing the process of creating state legislation. In other words, the Russian political situation is in a state of unstable equilibrium, brought about both by a certain balance of power–or the absence of power–between the branches of state authority and by the potentially volatile and changeable moods in governing circles and in society. In such conditions, the cornerstone of the political system, providing stability, is the government of the country, whose head is appointed by the current president, according to articles 83 and 103 of the Russian constitution, with the approval of the majority of members of the lower house of the Federal Assembly. The government is to a certain extent independent. It has an interest in maintaining the existing equilibrium between the various branches of state power which guarantees it a certain freedom for maneuver when making economic decisions, in observing democratic procedures when making state political decisions, and in sustaining the progress of the forthcoming election campaigns at a federal and republic-regional level. The government as an institution is traditional for Russian state and society, whereas the president and parliament are elements of the state machine which were introduced from outside and have not yet managed to become an integral part of Russians’ lives. It is the government which has the apparatus and material resources required for taking strategic decisions in times of crisis or a rapidly changing domestic or international situation. (The president’s administration is small and auxiliary, and does not have authoritative powers; both houses of parliament, on the other hand, constrained by procedural frameworks, are not in a position to react quickly to problems which arise while transformations are underway.
SUPPORTERS OF POLITICAL STABILITY
In whose interests is it, then, for the current government to continue to operate under Yevgeny Primakov’s leadership?
(A) The prime minister himself. On the one hand he relies on the support of the left-wing parliamentary majority, which is keen not to allow radical democrats to return to important government posts. One manifestation of political stability is the ability of the government to get its decisions passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council, thus turning them into legally binding documents for the whole population. Primakov’s international reputation also depends to a great extent on whether he has a cooperative parliament behind him. In addition to this, if Yevgeny Primakov is a true political prime minister, then he should have the economic block under his control. According to the constitution, the president controls the political block (the Interior, Defense and Foreign Ministries and so on). The desire of the radical democrats, liberal democrats and social democrats to block his strategic economic decisions and to wrench from him the economic block in the government–which would be completely controlled by people from the Chubais-Gaidar camp or from Grigory Yavlinsky’s circle–naturally meets with his opposition. If a proposal were made to Grigory Yavlinsky to join the Council of Ministers, the Yabloko party in the Duma would probably follow the resolution of the central council of the Yabloko movement taken at the beginning of September last year, which envisages giving them twelve key posts in the government, control of the country’s main financial institutions, the implementation of their own program, and powers, formulated by the president and the prime minister, to manage economic policy in its entirety. Were these terms to be adopted, Yevgeny Primakov would become the politician responsible for the social block. In other words, basically a “whipping boy.” It is unlikely that the prime minister–a political heavyweight–would agree to this role or to such a division of state responsibilities. It should also be remembered that attempts by the president and several politicians to foist reshuffles upon the prime minister would turn Yevgeny Primakov from a politician of federal stature, who controls the state decision-making process and whose influence and popularity considerably exceeds that of previous prime ministers, into a high-ranking servant, a sort of “lame duck.”
(B) The heads of the “power” ministries and departments. When dissatisfaction with the existing situation penetrates the ranks of employees of the power structures, and when a significant section of the staff of the armed forces and the Interior Ministry can no longer be seen as a reliable support for the president, then the uncertainty which would dominate political life if the current prime minister were to be removed and an early election campaign were to begin would be fraught with highly unpredictable consequences.
(C) The heads of industrial and agricultural enterprises. Right from the start Yevgeny Primakov declared that his government’s principle task was to ensure a revival of the real sector of the economy. Noting that “spontaneous growth is impossible for market subjects” he announced that “the state must undertake to support and regulate domestic production.”
(D) Most members of the upper house of the Federal Assembly: They have no vested interest in a government crisis which could very well develop into an election campaign, when on the one hand most of them have not yet selected their patron at a federal level, and on the other hand many of them face re-election (this year there will be elections in eighteen federation subjects). Apart from this, there is the threat of isolation from the international community: If Primakov’s government is dismissed, a new prime minister is unlikely to be endorsed, leading to the dissolution of the State Duma and the beginning of an early election campaign to elect a new lower house, with a president whose physical indisposition has more than once forced him to leave the Kremlin for substantial periods (during his presidency Boris Yeltsin has spent 160 days in the Central Clinical Hospital alone). In such a scenario, nobody would be in a position to hold talks with the international community on issues of credits and so on. It is no coincidence that when relations between the president and the prime minister were worsening and rumors were gaining ground that Yevgeny Primakov may be relieved of his post as chairman of the Council of Ministers, the senators demonstrated their willingness to pass an official Federation Council resolution in support of the current government.
(E) The leaders of the Russian National Patriotic Union (NPSR). It should be pointed out that Gennady Zyuganov, Gennady Seleznev and their colleagues have already demonstrated that they only set themselves achievable goals. It seems that the leaders of the NPSR and the CPRF accept the direction that the socioeconomic and political development of the country is taking, and consent to the market transformations, the preservation of democratic procedures and integration with global economic and political structures.
(F) The mayor of Moscow and leader of the Fatherland movement Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov is keen to continue political cooperation with the political heavyweight Primakov, and considers it highly undesirable to remove the prime minister, which could destabilize the political situation in the country. At the same time, in view of the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, Yuri Luzhkov–who is relying on the “protest vote”–is critical of the government’s insufficient action in helping the real economy.
(G) Most of Russian society. Polls conducted by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion show a steady growth in confidence in Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister over the last few months (over 60 percent of respondents), and a negative response to the very idea of his government’s dismissal (about 60 percent).
OPPONENTS OF POLITICAL STABILITY
Opponents of the current Council of Ministers include, first, the extreme right-wing and left-wing opposition, which lies outside the system and which wants to see a strengthening of the state’s position in the economy and politics. Yevgeny Primakov and the political forces which support him are also in favor of reinforcing the state’s position, but their perception of the aims of the reforms and the ways of achieving these aims differs hugely from that of, for example, the members of Viktor Tyulkin’s Russian Communist Workers’ Party or Alexander Barkashov’s Russian National Unity, Viktor Anpilov’s Working Russia or Eduard Limonov’s National Bolsheviks. It is clear that the pragmatic statesmen will certainly not give free reign to communist or nationalist repression which would claim numerous victims and would threaten the country with isolation from international political and economic organizations. Furthermore, this right-wing and left-wing outside opposition does not constitute a serious political threat, as it has almost no serious financial backing, and can call on only tens of thousands of supporters. This opposition is incapable of controlling the federal media, particularly the electronic media. It cannot determine the time, the place or the way in which its activities are viewed. As a result, its influence on Russian society is minimal and to a great extent “secondary,” depending as it does on the real players on Russia’s political stage.
Second, the radical liberals, who want to form a “Pravoe Delo”–Just Cause–coalition together with a number of financial “oligarchs.” In particular, Yegor Gaidar stated at a party conference in April 1999 that “the procommunist Duma majority and the government have no intention of continuing the economic and political reforms in Russia and plan to curtail them.” Meanwhile Boris Berezovsky insists that “Primakov has committed his entire credibility to fighting the reforms. He is trying to create an empire founded on force rather than intellect. Primakov is more dangerous than the communists.” These opponents of the government control a large swathe of the media, including the electronic media. Under the banner of “the struggle against the threat of a return to totalitarianism” they hope to mobilize their electorate–which is to some extent demoralized and disillusioned with its leaders–and they are prepared to assume the role of independent political players capable of causing commotion and controlling the situation.
Third, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s liberal democrats. One of the LDPR leaders in the Duma, Aleksei Mitrofanov, believes that the president “should first of all dissolve parliament, where the communist’s electoral base is,” and then dismiss Yevgeny Primakov himself, because he has created the most unstable situation in the country for several years. The willingness of LDPR to enter into conflict with the government is dictated by the fact that scandals, dirty tricks and the protest vote–which both Aleksandr Lebed and Yuri Luzhkov will also be chasing–will be major factors in the forthcoming election campaign.
Fourth, Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko movement. The formation of a left-wing majority in the State Duma sharply reduced the influence of the Yabloko parliamentary party. Previously the forty Yabloko deputies frequently determined the outcome of the voting on various bills. Apart from this, Yevgeny Primakov has absolutely no desire to hand over the government’s economic block to Yavlinsky, to the understandable annoyance of the Yabloko leader, who points to the lack of any real improvement in the country’s economic situation in the months since the current cabinet has been in office.
Fifth, the president himself and his entourage. By accepting that Yevgeny Primakov is irremovable, the Kremlin would lose its last lever of influence on the government, and become a sort of “Queen of England”–ruling but not governing. Apart from this, the president, his family and close circle clearly fear a strengthening of the prime minister’s position. They take a dim view of the very idea of a “power party” forming around Yevgeny Primakov. At the same time the government is the only federal institution which is loyal to the president during his periodic clashes with the Federal Assembly. This is why assurances can sometimes be heard from the president’s administration that Boris Yeltsin considers Yevgeny Primakov his “strategic ally.”
All this points to the conclusion that the predominant trend in political development in Russia is more closely linked with stability than with chaos. The political, economic and manpower resources of those who want to preserve the current socioeconomic and political situation are greater than the resources of those who wish to demolish it. This means that we can view the future with optimism.
Vladimir Alekseevich Mironov is a senior fellow of the Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.