Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 4 Issue: 25

Russia’s political crisis worsened over the past fortnight as few took seriously a new initiative by the Kremlin ostensibly aimed at battling crime, corruption and political extremism. There was also little to cheer about in the economy. Russia’s upper house of parliament emerged as a new and unexpected barrier to a possible deal on the state budget, while the International Monetary Fund said that Russia’s economy would continue to shrink in 1999. Meanwhile, the political crisis in Russia only added invective to a furious attack by Russian elites on U.S. and British air strikes directed against Iraq. The clash over Iraq, moreover, came as the United States intensified its criticism of Russia’s military cooperation with Iran. Things looked a little brighter for Moscow during talks in New Delhi, however, as a visit by Russia’s prime minister resulted in a package of bilateral agreements and a pledge to raise Indian-Russian relations to a new level next year.


With President Boris Yeltsin back at work and a new team running his apparat, the Kremlin’s focus over the last fortnight was on a familiar set of problems–organized crime, corruption and political extremism. General Nikolai Bordyuzha, the new Kremlin administration chief, gathered the heads of Russia’s “power” ministries to begin working on what he said was his prime task–ensuring law and order in Russia in 1999. Bordyuzha emphasized the problem of political extremism, showing reporters copies of anti-Semitic literature that had been purchased recently on the streets of Moscow.

Oleg Sysuev, first deputy head of the presidential administration, said that Yeltsin had ordered Bordyuzha to dispatch “special military inspectors” to investigate extremist activities in the southern Russian regions of Krasnodar and Stavropol. There, the neo-Nazi movement Russian National Unity (RNU) has been particularly active. But it was Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov who really seized the initiative. He banned an RNU congress planned for Moscow. When RNU leader Aleksandr Barshakov threatened to march on the capital with 100,000 men, Luzhkov answered with the equivalent of: “Just try it.”

The president, meanwhile, publicly upbraided Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin for, in Yeltsin’s words, having said “everything is fine” in the fight against crime. In fact, the Russian head of state told Stepashin as the cameras whirred, the total number of crimes had increased 5.7 percent over last year. Yeltsin warned Stepashin not to doctor the statistics and not to ease up in the law-and-order campaign. The following day Stepashin criticized his own deputies–like Yeltsin, in front of the cameras.

Indeed, despite the Kremlin’s public campaign to convince a skeptical public that it was really going to impose law and order, many observers had the feeling that the country had already spun out of control. A group of leading Russian writers published an open letter warning that “evergrowing criminalization of society and total corruption” were “plunging the country into political and economic chaos.” They also said that “the weakness of presidential power” and the inaction of law enforcement agencies could mean the emergence of “a new Stalin-Hitler model of totalitarian society” in Russia.

The sense of growing chaos was only reinforced by the situation in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok. There, supporters of Viktor Cherepkov, whom Yeltsin had earlier dismissed by decree, refused to vacate the mayor’s office to make way for Yuri Kopylov. He is the acting mayor named by Primorsky regional Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, Cherepkov’s longtime nemesis. Russian television channels showed footage of a vigorous shoving match which took place when Kopylov’s deputies tried to enter the mayoralty. The political stand-off came on the heels of another low point in the city’s seemingly endless energy crisis.


The situation in the economy and state financing also brought little seasonal cheer. In a strange twist, the Communist Party faction in the State Duma promised to vote in favor of the 1999 budget plan drafted by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s government. But the parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, composed of regional leaders traditionally loyal to the government and the Kremlin, said they would oppose the budget on the grounds that it would cut subsidies to local governments and limit their tax-levying powers. Many observers had already dismissed the budget as unrealistic: One newspaper called it a “political fantasy” based on unreal numbers and projections.

Adding to the gloomy mood, Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov reported that Russia no longer had either hard-currency or ruble reserves and that the state’s total debts had reached 120 percent of GDP. The International Monetary Fund, which has come under increasing criticism for having been too optimistic in its economic forecasting, predicted that Russia’s economy will have contracted 5.7 percent by the end of this year, and will shrink another 8.3 percent in 1999.

Amidst the chaos, Russia’s various political groupings continued their planning for next year’s parliamentary elections and, by extension, the presidential vote scheduled for 2000. The center-right coalition recently set up by Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais held its founding session, but its leaders could not even agree on a name. Luzhkov likewise held the founding session of his centrist movement, Otechestvo, and used his keynote speech to launch yet another attack on Chubais, Gaidar and Co. As the fortnight came to a close, word came that a movement of older vintage, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s Russia is Our Home (ROH), was on the verge of splitting up. A large number of members of ROH, once called “the party of power,” are reportedly ready to defect to Luzhkov.


Russia’s deepening domestic woes did not dampen the reaction of political leaders to developments in the Persian Gulf, as U.S. and British air strikes on Iraq elicited a series of blistering attacks from Russian government and parliamentary officials. In an effort to convey its outrage, the Kremlin took the extreme step of recalling Russia’s ambassadors from Washington and London, and ordered the country’s defense chief to skip a meeting of the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council in Brussels. As the level of invective rose ever higher in Moscow, Russian legislators also made clear their intention to put off any consideration of the START II (strategic arms reduction) treaty.

The end of the four-day U.S.-British strikes brought some conciliatory noises from Moscow, but it seemed a sure bet that the struggle over UN policy toward Iraq would continue in the deliberations of the Security Council. There, Russia took the lead in pushing for a quick review of Iraq’s compliance with UN disarmament resolutions. Moscow, joined by France and China, also began to push for a reorganization of UNSCOM–the UN Special Commission charged with disarming Iraq–and for the dismissal of its chief, Australian diplomat Richard Butler. The United States and Britain, meanwhile, kept their military forces ready in the Gulf and called for a tightening of sanctions on Iraq. Not surprisingly, diplomats predicted that the emergence of a new Security Council policy on Iraq could be weeks away.

Moscow’s near hysterical reaction to the latest developments in the Gulf appeared to be the result of several factors. First, the U.S.-British air strikes, coming as they did against a background of dire economic and political crisis in Russia, appeared to highlight post-Soviet Russia’s sense of growing impotence on the international stage.

Second, the strikes represented what Moscow sees as the penchant for the West–and the United States in particular–to act as the world’s policeman. Russia’s denunciations of the strikes dovetailed with its earlier criticism both of threatened military action by NATO against Yugoslavia, and of U.S. proposals which would broaden NATO’s military mandate more generally. As Russian officials made clear repeatedly, Moscow especially fears the use of force by the United States or NATO without a specific UN mandate. The Russian reaction to developments in the Persian Gulf was, finally, a reflection of the growing politicization of Russian society and the propensity of Russian elites to define the country’s national interests almost solely in terms of defying Washington.


For Washington and Moscow, moreover, the air strikes against Iraq were not the only source of diplomatic disagreement. The two countries also clashed sharply–and for the umpteenth time–over accusations by Washington that Russia is aiding Iranian efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, including ballistic missiles and nuclear and biological weapons. The admonitions from Washington were conveyed, first, by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a December 9 meeting in Brussels with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. A delegation of U.S. government officials led by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott continued the effort in Moscow on December 10-11. Talbott reportedly told Moscow that Russian authorities were not doing enough to stop the transfer of sensitive military technologies to Iran.

U.S. officials upped the ante on December 16 when they warned Moscow bluntly that continued cooperation with Iran in this area could lead to U.S. sanctions against Russian nuclear energy concerns and might also jeopardize lucrative space launch contracts. The warning followed a “Wall Street Journal” article which detailed contacts between Russian nuclear research institutes and Iranian specialists. The United States reportedly fears that the clandestine Russian-Iranian cooperation could further long-term efforts by Tehran to manufacture plutonium or highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. As it has in the past, Moscow appeared to dismiss the U.S. allegations.


Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov faced easier sailing on December 21-22 during talks with Indian leaders in New Delhi. The talks produced seven bilateral accords, including a key agreement which extends Russian-Indian military-technical cooperation until the year 2010. The talks also produced a joint statement in which the two countries pledged to sign an agreement next year that would establish a Russian-Indian “strategic partnership” for the 21st century. Russian President Boris Yeltsin will reportedly travel to New Delhi sometime in 1999 in order to sign the partnership agreement. The ailing Yeltsin postponed two previously scheduled summit meetings with Indian leaders this year, the last of which was to have taken place in early December.

Primakov was rebuffed, however, on a proposal that Russia, India and China form a “strategic triangle” aimed at ensuring peace and stability in the world. The proposal presumably grew out of vague intimations from Moscow–made in the wake of the U.S.-British bombings of Iraq–that Russia was prepared to organize some sort of international “bloc” that might serve as a counterweight to the United States and NATO.