Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 1

The Fortnight in Review

The year 1997 closed with a flurry of political activity in Russia as President Boris Yeltsin and his parliamentary opponents maneuvered over the state budget and sparred on the issue of land reform. Amid claims of some positive developments in the Russian economy, Yeltsin also hinted at yet another government reshuffle. In the foreign policy sphere, Yeltsin approved a long-awaited blueprint for Russian national security planning. Concurrently, the announcement of a package of military cooperation agreements between Russia and Belarus underscored the continued pursuit by the two countries of their common "strategic interests," Belarusan president Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s periodic taunting of the Kremlin notwithstanding.

Russia Moves Forward on Budget and Land Reform

Russia experienced a burst of activity at the end of 1997 following President Boris Yeltsin’s return to the Kremlin after two weeks’ absence recovering from the flu and before the New Year and Orthodox Christmas festivities claimed the country’s attention. On December 24, the State Duma acceded to Yeltsin’s appeals and approved the draft 1998 federal budget in the second reading. Russian law requires the Duma to consider the budget in four readings before it goes to the upper house, so the country entered 1998 without an agreed budget.

Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev described 1997 as "the year parliament taught the government that, in the future, not a single reform can be adopted without the Duma." On December 26, Yeltsin made a ground-breaking overture to the opposition-dominated parliament when he held a long-awaited roundtable with parliamentary leaders to discuss the vexed issue of land reform. President and parliament had been at loggerheads for months over a land code that would outlaw the free sale of agricultural land. The issue has plagued Russia for centuries and the roundtable did not resolve it. Agreement was however reached to set up a joint working group to hammer out a compromise land code over the next three months.

Yeltsin called the roundtable "a new form of reaching democratic decisions." He offered to compromise with his opponents by agreeing that Russia’s land market would be kept under "strict state control," including a ban on sales to foreigners and on the re-sale or change of use of a plot for an unspecified period after it is purchased. The president did not, however, give ground on his previously expressed determination to establish a land market that will at long last allow agricultural land to be freely bought and sold.

Yeltsin Hints at Government Reshuffle

Speaker Seleznev said the Duma was working on a proposal for a coalition government that would be submitted to Yeltsin by January 14. Yeltsin maintained a harmonious tone in his end-of-year radio address on December 26. Unusually introspective, the president mused on the importance of spiritual values and civil responsibility and worried that, amidst their getting and spending, Russians might be losing sight of their traditional national values. He regretted that the reforms his government had undertaken so far had spawned a new breed of mega-rich entrepreneurs "wallowing in personal success" while ignoring the needs of the poor and the dispossessed. The gap between rich and poor was widening, Yeltsin said. Russia must not, he went on, "turn the market into a new idol" and forget about morality and ethics. He said his own rapprochement with the Duma, and the introduction of ad hoc institutions such as presidential/parliamentary roundtables and regular meetings of the "Big Four" (the president, prime minister, and speakers of the two houses of parliament) were milestones toward "replacing confrontation with dialogue." Yeltsin hinted that a government reshuffle might be in the cards when he promised that the government would correct its mistakes and "draw the necessary conclusions" in the New Year.

Signs of Improvement in Russian Economy

According to Russia’s State Statistics Committee, GDP grew in the first eleven months of 1997 by 0.3 percent over the same period in 1996. The Russian government’s proudest achievement in 1997 was its continued success in curbing inflation. Consumer-price inflation fell to 11.3 percent last year, well within the government’s 11.8 percent target and down from 21.8 percent in 1996. The government is forecasting 5.7 percent inflation for 1998.

For the moment, the Russian government is sticking to its initial confident prediction of 2 percent economic growth this year. The IMF and the OECD have, however, reduced their earlier predictions to 1 percent at best. Even so, this would be the first economic growth Russia has recorded since 1989. The main reason for the international organizations’ relative pessimism is that the Russian economy is now so integrated into the world economy that it can no longer protect itself against the turmoil currently afflicting emerging markets worldwide.

Russians reacted calmly to the redenomination of their currency, which saw three zeroes lopped off the ruble on January 1. Because the New Year holiday was followed by Orthodox Christmas, the new ruble notes entered circulation only slowly. Three times in the past, Soviet and Russian citizens had been cheated out of their savings by currency reforms ordered by their governments. This time, the government took elaborate precautions to ensure that the confidence of the population in their currency was not shaken.

Russian National Security: the Concept

Russian diplomatic activity slowed considerably over the holiday season, but the period was nevertheless noteworthy for the approval by Boris Yeltsin in late December of a set of guidelines for Russian security policy. The "National Security Concept" is a lengthy document intended to orient Russian policy-makers under the new conditions of the post-Cold War period. It outlines the major threats to the country’s security and establishes a set of domestic and foreign policy goals aimed at strengthening Russia’s geopolitical position. Drafting of the security concept began in the late Soviet period, but its completion foundered both on rapid changes in the international environment and on the political upheavals — and the related political infighting between competing interest groups — that have been a regular feature of the Russian political scene. The long failure by the country’s political elite to reach a consensus on the security concept complicated efforts to draft a series of other documents, including Russia’s military doctrine, that in principle needed to follow from the concept.

In substantive terms, the National Security Concept highlights a series of key, and inter-related assertions: namely, that Russia faces no immediate danger of large-scale aggression, and that, because the country is beset with a myriad of debilitating domestic problems, the greatest threat to Russia’s security is now an internal one. The document focuses in particular on the dangers posed by Russia’s economic woes, which are described frankly and at length. It also points to internal political, ethnic, and cultural tensions that threaten to undermine both the viability and the territorial integrity of the Russian state. The concept clearly suggests that today’s relatively benign international climate affords Russia the opportunity to direct resources away from the defense sector and toward the rebuilding of the Russian economy. In general, it places this rebuilding effort in the context of continued democratization and marketization.

A Post-Cold War Russia

With regard to military policy, the National Security Concept serves as a post-facto justification for the down-sizing of Russia’s armed forces that has occurred since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and for the continued restructuring envisioned in the Kremlin’s still evolving military reform program. By emphasizing domestic rather than foreign threats to Russia’s security, it would seem also to justify the rapid strengthening of the country’s internal security forces relative to the regular army over the past ten years, even if current defense reform plans aim to moderate that policy somewhat. In a related fashion, the document describes an alleged threat to Russian economic interests posed by foreign competitors, and underscores the importance of the role played by Russia’s intelligence services in countering it.

The concept reiterates Moscow’s opposition to NATO enlargement and its call for multilateral organizations such as the UN and the OSCE to play a greater role in the ensuring of international security. In this general context, the concept highlights the importance of Russian participation in international peacekeeping missions as a means of maintaining Moscow’s influence abroad. The document also emphasizes the overriding importance of Russia’s strategic forces to the country’s security, and, again disavowing the no first-use pledge made during the Gorbachev period, states that: "Russia reserves the right to use all the forces and systems at its disposal, including nuclear weapons, if the unleashing of armed aggression results in a threat to the actual existence of the Russian Federation as an independent sovereign state." With regard to conventional weapons, the concept proclaims a policy of "realistic deterrence" in discarding officially any effort to maintain parity with the armed forces of the world’s leading states.

In more purely diplomatic terms, the National Security Concept also states formally what has long been a cornerstone of Russian foreign policy: i.e., that the rebuilding of Russia is best served not by a passive diplomatic posture, but rather by an aggressive and multi-faceted diplomacy aimed at winning membership, or increasing Moscow’s influence, in various international organizations, while simultaneously striving to make Russia a player of import around the globe.

Russian Security Council Ascendant?

In institutional terms, the National Security Concept and the decree accompanying it appear to signify the reemergence of the Russian Security Council as the country’s premier agency in the formulation and implementation of national security policies, and a parallel rise in the political authority of its secretary, Ivan Rybkin. If so, the change would bring to a close an approximately 18-month period — which began with a Kremlin move to limit the power of then Security Council secretary Aleksandr Lebed — during which the Council found itself relegated primarily to dealing with Kremlin policy toward Chechnya. What remains unclear, however, is whether Rybkin possesses the political clout to exercise the many political prerogatives now assigned to him, and whether the concept itself will actually bring coherence to Russian security policy rather than being just another empty statement of intentions.

The Creeping Satellization of Belarus

Foreign and domestic observers of Belarus are not certain whether the taunts launched periodically by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at the Kremlin reflect emotional instability, calculated pressure, or an alternating mix of the two. The president’s outbursts remind observers sometimes of the adage that there is method even to irrationality. Lukashenka’s differences with the Kremlin are in any case real. He denounces Russia’s economic reforms, resists a takeover of his state enterprises by Russian capital, manipulates the bilateral customs union for unilateral advantage, consorts with opponents of President Boris Yeltsin, attacks Yeltsin’s "entourage" as Western agents, and waxes nostalgic about the great power, the USSR.

Along with all this, Lukashenka constantly demands to be rewarded for his loyalty to Russia in the sphere of foreign policy and security. Therein lies the crux of the matter for both sides. No amount of political blackmail or outright insults have yet budged Moscow from its policy of relying on Lukashenka in order to acquire a political and military ally in Central Europe. And by the same token, differences over politics and economics have not stopped Lukashenka from working with official Moscow toward that goal.

Military Agreements Signed

Just before Christmas, Russian defense minister Igor Sergeev signed in Minsk with his counterpart Aleksandr Chumakov (who happens to be a native of Russia) a package of nine military agreements toward creating a "single defense space" of Russia and Belarus. According to Sergeev, that goal and the agreements to implement it represent the military dimension of the Russia-Belarus Union. Lukashenka similarly stated on the occasion that the agreements aim to defend "our common fatherland and the borders of the Union."

Official Minsk offered a narrow glimpse into the subject matter — though not into the actual content — of five of the agreements. These five deal with the principles of bilateral military cooperation, joint actions to ensure regional security, unification of air defense forces, military-industrial cooperation, and the creation and work plan of a joint "kollegium" [top-level policy and management board] of the two countries’ Defense Ministries. One or several of the agreements cover the use of military airports, testing ranges, and other military facilities in Belarus by Russian forces jointly with Belarusan ones. According to Russian General Staff officials accompanying Sergeev in Minsk, the "single defense space" would encompass the entire territory of Belarus and the western regions of Russia. The officials stated that the Belarusan armed forces "currently possess sufficient amounts of modern arms and hardware" — apparently an indication that Moscow does not have immediate plans to resupply the Belarusan forces.

A Move Against NATO

Sergeev pointedly stated that Russia "does not plan to station its forces in Belarus inasmuch as NATO has pledged not to station its forces in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary." Elaborating on the linkage, members of his delegation added that "Russian military groupings may be deployed in Belarus in response to crisis warnings." The agreement as summarized and the accompanying remarks suggest that Moscow currently plans to move units from time to time in and out of Belarus for exercises; and that it wants to signal that it may station its forces in Belarus if NATO forces are deployed in the new member countries.

The Russian defense minister described the agreements with Belarus as a response to "NATO’s eastward enlargement and to the U.S. policy aiming at world leadership by a single country." Disclaiming any intention to "surprise" NATO, he voiced the hope that the alliance would accept this development "with understanding." Sergeev’s notion of understanding would seem to imply a dividing line between two alliance systems along the Poland-Belarus border.

Belarusan Neutrality Disregarded

In a follow-up comment, Chumakov announced that the National Security Council of Belarus is finalizing a new military doctrine, to supersede the one adopted in 1992 and to reflect the emergence of the Russia-Belarus Union. The 1992 military doctrine had been predicated on neutrality, which was enshrined in the country’s constitution. Placed at imminent risk by the creation of the Russia-Belarus Union, the neutrality would be nullified by the development of that Union’s military component. This lends a farcical note to the recent acquisition by Belarus — thanks to Russian and Cuban support — of observer status within the relic of the "movement for nonalignment."

KGB Component

Cooperation between the Belarus KGB (still so named) and Russia’s Federal Security Service complements the developing military relationship of the two countries. Moscow and Minsk have recently formed a joint Security Committee of the Russia-Belarus Union. In keeping with a decision of Yeltsin and Lukashenka, the Russian side will chair the Committee for the first two years. Even as the Russian Defense Ministry’s delegation was in Minsk, Lukashenka paid homage to the KGB on its anniversary and warned that Belarus is being "targeted by an enormous combination of foreign intelligence agencies," among whom he singled out the CIA. KGB chief Uladzimir Matskevich in turn warned that foreign "enemies of the Russia-Belarus Union" are at work against Belarus.

Lukashenka, at the same time, regards the Belarusan democratic opposition and the republic’s leaders who were in office during the first years of independence as opponents of the Russia-Belarus Union and as adherents of neutrality. The president is correct in this case. In his remarks on the KGB anniversary, he described the organization as a "guarantor of stability in our society and of its constitutional foundations" — a reference to his own authoritarian rule imposed in November, 1996. Lukashenka remarked that "the [political] opposition’s increasingly frequent references to the KGB indicate that the organization has regained its bearings." This and similar statements on the occasion suggested that the authorities are confident of having won, at least for the time being, the struggle against the internal opposition, but are worried by perceived external adversaries. Indeed, the stability of Lukashenka’s rule is essential for the Russia-Belarus political and military alliance to develop. The Kremlin evidently realizes this fact and seems to proceed accordingly.

Political Rapprochement Reflects "Strategic Interests"

Moscow’s relations with Minsk are also advancing rapidly on the political track. During the same week that the military agreements were signed, the Energy Ministry in Minsk reported an abrupt increase in Russian oil deliveries to Belarus. This represents in effect a political as much as an economic payoff that Lukashenka has striven to obtain even as Russian deliveries to other CIS countries are declining. And also that week, Russia’s cabinet of ministers approved a request that the Belarusan embassy in Moscow be authorized and supported in opening branch offices in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Murmansk, Krasnodar, and Tyumen. The Kremlin had previously dragged its feet on that request because it had felt that Lukashenka might use such facilities to establish a political foothold in Russia’s regions.

The Belarusan president must have valued particularly Yeltsin’s personal gesture of inviting him to visit Russia’s Yaroslavl oblast "at any time suitable to him," in addition to their upcoming meeting as heads of the Russia-Belarus Union. Yeltsin added assurances that he has instructed the government to "fully support the visit," which "advances the goals of our Union." Yeltsin’s gesture may even be perceived in Minsk as amends. Last October the Kremlin canceled Lukashenka’s scheduled visit to Yaroslavl in protest against the indictment in Belarus of Russian ORT Television reporters; Lukashenka had responded with a torrent of abuse over the cancellation of his visit.

The timing of Yeltsin’s reissue of the invitation was doubly significant: it occurred on the very day — December 17 — that the KGB-staged trial of the ORT journalists actually began in Belarus. That was also the same day that the Kremlin announced the dispatch of the Russian Defense Ministry’s delegation to Minsk in order to sign the military agreements.

These developments and their timing illustrate the Kremlin’s readiness to condone Lukashenka’s dictatorial excesses for the sake of what Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the preceding week in Minsk, had described as common "strategic interests." This same sentiment was echoed in a year-end statement by Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in which he predicted that "unification" of Russia and Belarus will accelerate in 1998 because "the President sticks to a strong position on this issue."


"The Fortnight in Review" is prepared by Senior Analysts Elizabeth Teague (Russia), Stephen Foye (Security and Foreign Policy), Vladimir Socor (Non-Russian republics), and Analyst Igor Rotar.

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