Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 22

Russia’s budget battles continued over the last two weeks, but the high-stakes contest over economic policy was in some regards overshadowed by an unseemly display of anti-Semitism in Russian public life. That unedifying development did little for Russia’s regions, some of which continued to struggle with serious energy shortages and other problems. In the diplomatic sphere, the country’s leaders turned their attention to the latest conflict in the Persian Gulf and to a long-awaited Russian-Japanese summit meeting. Shifting its gaze to the south, Moscow appeared to resuscitate the “Brezhnev Doctrine” as justification for a possible military intervention in Tajikistan.


The past fortnight in Russian politics began with the government putting the final touches to its anticrisis economic program and ended with an ugly debate over anti-Semitism and the role of Russia’s press. On November 1 the government approved a set of measures aimed at pulling the country out of its economic tailspin, with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov declaring it imperative to “strengthen the regulatory role of the state.” Government officials, however, promised that monetary emissions would be minimal. Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov said that no more than 25 billion additional rubles (around US$1.6 billion). would be needed before year’s end while First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov put the ceiling at 15 billion rubles.

Liberals from previous governments and other observers were quick to question the figures. Former Acting Premier Yegor Gaidar, ex-Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and former Economics Minister Yakov Urinson all warned that the budget deficit for the fourth quarter of 1998 would be more in the area of 75 billion rubles. Kommersant daily put the figure at a staggering 118 billion rubles–close to US$8 billion. The critics warned also that the emission needed to cover this gaping deficit would lead to a burst of inflation in the first quarter of next year. They said that hyperinflation (40-50 percent per month) could be one result, and that the value of the ruble could drop to 30-50 to the dollar, or even lower.

The government’s anticrisis plan got bad reviews from the International Monetary Fund as well. The IMF continued to sit on the more than US$4 billion in aid that it had promised last summer but which it had decided to withhold pending the Primakov government’s action plan. Official Washington also warned Russia not to return to the inflationary practices of the early 1990s. None of the critics, however, could have been reassured by the Russian Central Bank’s decision to release an additional 14 billion rubles to bail-out several big banks which, in fact, had gone belly-up after last August’s crash.


Intriguingly, however, there were indications at the end of the fortnight that the government was in actuality prepared to adopt a super-austere 1999 budget–complete with a 2-percent-of-GDP budget surplus(!)–in order to pry loose the coveted IMF billions. Also intriguing–albeit in a sinister way–were reports that the communist-led opposition majority in the State Duma had signaled its readiness to back a tight, Chubais-style 1999 budget if the government were to agree to the creation of “observer committees” to oversee the content of television and radio broadcasts. In a letter to Primakov, communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and other opposition leaders said the staffing of these committees should reflect “contemporary Russian society in demographic, political and other terms”–a clear reference to the opposition’s oft-repeated charge that the media is controlled by Russia’s liberal Jewish intelligentsia.

The parallels to Weimar Germany were also reinforced by the Duma’s refusal to condemn comments made last month by Communist Duma deputy Albert Makashov. During an opposition rally, the former Soviet army general had called for the “Yids” to be rounded up. Undeterred, Makashov subsequently told Italy’s “La Stampa” that Russia should institute quotas on the number of ethnic non-Russians in high government posts. He also accused an aggressive NTV television reporter of behaving like “the last Yid.” Following the Duma vote on Makashov’s October comments, CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky called for the Communist Party to be banned. He was joined in his call by Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais and other members of the liberal intelligentsia. A group of nationalist cultural figures, meanwhile, accused the liberals of “Russophobia.” “Zavtra,” the nationalist weekly, featured a headline proclaiming that 130 million Russians backed Makashov.


Beyond Moscow, the situation in some regions–particularly Russia’s Far East–was getting critical. Energy shortages in Kamchatka and the city of Vladivostok left schools, hospitals and daycare centers without heat and electricity. One thousand residents of Chukotka, located across the Bering Strait from Alaska, had to be relocated.

U.S. and Russian officials, meanwhile, agreed on a deal worth nearly US$1 billion to provide Russia with food. Under the terms of the agreement, the United States will provide 1.5 million tons of wheat and 100,000 tons of other food products, free. Washington will also offer Russia a low-interest loan of US$600 million to buy additional American food. Moscow apparently dropped its demand that the humanitarian shipments be taxed, and U.S. officials expressed confidence that there will be sufficient oversight to ensure that the aid is used properly. The United States will have two officials working full-time in Russia to oversee the program.


As the diplomatic skirmishing in Yugoslavia settled momentarily into the background, Russian leaders turned their attention over the past fortnight to another international conflict which has long been a source of friction between Moscow and Washington: Iraq’s defiance of UN weapons inspectors. The latest confrontation between Iraqi authorities and the international community flared up on October 31 when Baghdad announced that it was ending all cooperation with the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) in charge of dismantling Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqis also demanded the removal of Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who heads UNSCOM.

During an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on November 1, Russia joined with other council members in approving a statement which condemned the Iraqi actions as a “flagrant violation” both of previous council resolutions and of a memorandum of understanding signed in February between UN Secretary General Kofi and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. On November 5, moreover, Russia went along again with a UN resolution which formalized the November 1 statement and demanded an immediate end to Iraq’s defiance of the UN weapons inspection regime. Moscow continued to criticize the actions of the Iraqi leadership, and Russian diplomats suggested that they were using their influence in Baghdad to urge renewed cooperation with UNSCOM.

The unanimity of the November 5 UN resolution vote and Russia’s willingness to join with the Western powers in publicly criticizing Baghdad failed, however, to hide deep divisions among council members over policy toward Iraq. As had been the case during previous confrontations between Iraq and the UN both last autumn and again in February of this year, Russia has continued to spearhead opposition to demands by London and Washington that the Security Council authorize military strikes on Iraq. That Russian opposition was manifested in both the November 1 UN Security Council statement and the November 5 resolution, each of which condemned Iraq but contained no mention of possible punitive measures in the event that Baghdad failed to comply with UN demands.

Russia hardened its public opposition to the force option, moreover, as the United States moved on November 10-11 to beef up its military might in the Persian Gulf and as Washington signaled a renewed willingness to use military force against Iraq. Russian diplomats in Moscow and New York each charged that military strikes on Iraq would both undo much of UNSCOM’s previous work and further destabilize the Persian Gulf as a whole. A move by Russian lawmakers to approve an end to Moscow’s observance of UN sanctions against Iraq was defeated. But the attempt nonetheless reflected continued strong sentiment in Moscow to maintain both Russia’s friendly relations with Baghdad and Moscow’s continued defiance of the United States on the issue of strikes against Iraq.


The focus of Russian elites was also focused over the past fortnight on the long-awaited November 12 summit meeting in Moscow between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The visit by Obuchi was noteworthy in several respects. It was, to start with, the first official visit to Russia by a Japanese prime minister in some twenty-five years. It was also the first official summit meeting between the Russian and Japanese leaders since the two countries launched a major diplomatic initiative last year aimed at fully normalizing bilateral relations. Two previous summit meetings–held by Yeltsin and former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto–had been informal “no-necktie” affairs. In addition, the November 12 talks marked Yeltsin’s first meeting with a foreign leader since a recurrence of health problems forced the Russian president from the Kremlin. There had been speculation prior to the Moscow summit that Yeltsin’s infirmities might force a cancellation or postponement of the event.

The November 12 talks were, finally, the occasion for Yeltsin to respond formally to a Japanese proposal aimed at resolving the long-standing Kuril Islands territorial dispute. That dispute, which stems from Moscow’s seizure of the four south Kuril Islands at the close of World War II, has been the primary obstacle to fully normalized relations between the two countries in the post-war era. Reports that the unpublished Japanese proposal called for the eventual transfer of the islands to Japan has, not surprisingly, been the cause of considerable political commotion in Russia. Yeltsin’s response to Obuchi–which was to be in the form of a “counter-proposal”–was expected to offer no concrete concessions on the territorial issue. What remained unclear was whether an absence of progress on the Kurils–called the Northern Territories in Japan–would ultimately doom efforts to improve Russian-Japanese relations in other areas. At stake especially was work on a draft treaty formally ending World War II and pledges by the two sides to boost bilateral economic cooperation.


Boris Yeltsin’s Russia is not Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Tajikistan is not Czechoslovakia, and 1998 is not 1968. Yet, when the Tajik government, Russia’s protege, came under threat from rebels last week, Moscow reached into the past and came up with the core of the Brezhnev doctrine.

The “Brezhnev doctrine” had come into official existence in 1968 to justify Moscow’s military intervention in Czechoslovakia. Its main elements had already been developed in connection with the 1956 intervention in Hungary and it was later recycled to support the intervention in Afghanistan. The doctrine postulated that Moscow had a right–and indeed an obligation–to intervene militarily in support of a satellite government which both was threatened from within and had “requested assistance.” The doctrine invoked bilateral and, preferably, multilateral treaties of alliance as a “legal” basis for such intervention. Thus it came to pass that the Warsaw Pact, originally aimed against external adversaries, ended up being invoked in support of intervention within the Pact’s own signatory countries, against internal political forces. the USSR’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, ultimately repudiated the “Brezhnev doctrine” in favor of “new thinking.” By abjuring intervention in a sphere of influence held together by force, they ipso facto allowed it to unravel.

The original “Brezhnev doctrine” was buttressed by the communist ideological justifications obligatory at that time. Yet, stripped of its ideological packaging, it embodied a generally applicable method of power politics, one aiming to enforce Moscow’s control within a contiguous sphere of influence. It licensed intervention to secure the permanence of arrangements whereby a country was included within that sphere and had a government certifiably loyal to Moscow. The continuity of that approach became evident last week when post-communist Russia invoked a de-ideologized version of the Brezhnev doctrine with respect to Tajikistan. The Tajik government, installed and kept in power by Russian grace, had just come under attack from rebels of uncertain allegiance. These sought to change Tajikistan’s constitutional setup, which enshrines the supremacy of a narrowly based group in the seat of power in Dushanbe. The rebels were suspected of acting as proxies for Uzbekistan and, thus, of aiming to bring Tajikistan under the influence of that aspiring regional power.


On November 5, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s chief spokesman, Vladimir Rakhmanin, issued an official statement expressing Moscow’s readiness to intervene militarily in support of the Tajik government. Russia, the statement announced, “is prepared to render the necessary help to Tajikistan in counteracting the armed provocation and restoring the constitutional order… A decision to take such measures is being considered in the framework of the 1992 [CIS] collective security treaty and other multilateral and bilateral treaties.” (Russian agencies, November 5). Noting that no “request for assistance” had yet been received from the Tajik government, the statement promised that “such a request would be considered upon receipt.” On November 11, after the Tajik government had defeated the rebellion (probably with some Russian air support), Rakhmanin recalled for the record that “Russia had from the very outset expressed readiness to offer the necessary assistance” (Russian agencies, November 11). That succinct proposal contained the non-ideological nutshell of the Brezhnev doctrine:

1. An offer to intervene militarily against an internal attempt to change the constitutional setup. That setup had been imposed by military intervention in the first place, along with a Russian-oriented government which has never subsequently passed the test of free elections.

2. Multilateral and bilateral alliance treaties of doubtful validity, never properly ratified, and in any case designed against hypothetical external threats, serve to rationalize intervention inside an individual “allied” country. In this case, a ritualistic reference to the 1992 CIS collective security treaty (long since discarded) replaced the earlier ritualistic references to the Warsaw Pact.

3. The importance placed on a “request for assistance” as a cover for the action. In this case (unlike those of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979), the troops were already based in Tajikistan under the guise of “CIS peacekeeping forces” and could have been sent into action without having to cross the border. The aggression would therefore have been less conspicuous than those earlier cases. Nevertheless, Moscow’s statement verged on soliciting a Tajik request for Russian military assistance.

4. No pretense of seeking authorization from the UN or some other recognized international authority. During those very days, Moscow vehemently protested against a possible use of force by others–that is, by NATO in Kosovo–without UN authorization. It similarly denounced a symbolic resolution of the North Atlantic Assembly (a parliamentary body). which recommended dispensing with UN or OSCE authorization for peacekeeping actions when urgently necessary. Yet in offering to intervene in Tajikistan, Moscow proceeded in a purely unilateralist fashion. This is a clear indication of sphere-of-influence thinking. Indeed, it smacks of “exclusive” influence, since a partial or even predominant influence short of exclusiveness would still require at least going through the motions of international consultation about a military intervention.

In the event, the Tajik government forces prevailed without a direct intervention by Russian troops. Yet CIS member countries would do well to ponder the implications of Moscow’s offer to intervene. It invoked the CIS collective security treaty–a dead-letter document–as a basis for sending Russian troops into action on the territory of a signatory state. This tactic is repeatable, particularly in countries where Russian troops continue to be stationed and where Moscow arbitrates internal conflicts, seeking a “guarantor’s” role and the attendant prerogatives of enforcement. In trying to set up a “CIS collective security system,” Moscow seems prepared to use it for keeping the “allies” in line. This would extend to the Eurasian land mass a function once performed in Central Europe by the Warsaw Pact.