Back to the USSR: Russia turned a corner last week, but the road it has chosen is not one of reform. It wants Soviet-style economic controls and regional domination. Tony Barber reports

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The Independent Online
AS RUSSIA sank ever deeper into turmoil last week, it was easy to overlook the news that emerged from Room 19 of the Institute of the Brain, one of Moscow's more bizarre scientific establishments. While Russians elsewhere were storming currency exchanges to convert rapidly devaluing roubles into dollars, the institute solemnly announced that, after seven decades of exhaustive study, scientists had concluded that there was 'nothing sensational in the anatomical structure of Lenin's brain'.

This extraordinary pronouncement had a political purpose. The institute's scientists were driving another small nail into the coffin of the communist myth, debunking the contention, sustained throughout the Soviet period, that Lenin was the supreme representative of a breed of Bolshevik supermen whose seizure of power in 1917 was the most glorious achievement in history.

But the institute's timing was ironic. Even as it was doing its bit to consign Russian communism and its ideological trappings to history, something close to a communist counter-revolution was taking place within the walls of the Kremlin.

The turbulent events of the past seven days are a defeat for President Boris Yeltsin, a huge setback for the cause of reform, and a warning to the West that the world is becoming a much more dangerous place. They represent a triumph for reaction, above all for the Russian nationalists who are determined to restore Moscow's control over the former Soviet republics that became independent in 1991.

The chief beneficiary of the chaos, though he took care to stay out of the spotlight last week, was Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He will be ideally placed in coming months to exploit popular discontent with squabbling politicians, social disorder, hyperinflation and eroding living standards. If he had written the script himself, he could not have shaped events more perfectly to suit his intended bid for the presidency in 1996.

AT THE centre of the Russian whirlwind lies a paradox. Just over 100 days ago, Yeltsin's forces blew up the old Russian parliament and killed 147 people in the name of reform. Yet he now presides over a government that is committed if not to a blatantly anti-reformist course, then certainly to slower economic change and a more intemperate foreign policy. Yeltsin must also work with a parliament that, as a result of the nationalist and Communist successes in last month's elections, is at least as hostile to him as was its predecessor.

It therefore seemed little more than wishful thinking on Bill Clinton's part when, interviewed on CNN last Thursday, he expressed the view that Yeltsin would pull through and transform Russia into a stable, prosperous democracy. 'He's a very tough guy. He believes in democracy and he's on the right side of history,' Clinton said.

The composition of Yeltsin's new government suggests that such faith is seriously misplaced. Out is Yegor Gaidar, the former economics minister and guru of market reform whom Yeltsin had publicly vowed to keep in his government. Out is Boris Fyodorov, the former finance minister whose tight money policies had offered a small ray of hope on an overwhelmingly bleak economic scene. Out is Ella Pamfilova, the former social security minister and another reformer.

The government is now dominated by men who have a strong taste for communist- style state controls of the economy. Even more ominously from the Western point of view, these men seem increasingly to regret the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, let it be known last week that he favoured keeping Russian troops in places 'which have been a sphere of Russian interests for centuries' - this from a man the West has championed as the embodiment of a responsible Russian foreign policy.

A key figure throughout the week was Yeltsin's increasingly powerful Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who is generally identified as a 'centrist' in the Western media. He disputed last week that the new government had a more conservative profile, saying: 'The government will not retreat from the course of continuing and deepening reform.'

Yet Chernomyrdin is a man whose credentials as an old- style communist industrialist could scarcely be bettered. Under Leonid Brezhnev, he held the post of 'instructor of the Department for Heavy Industry of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party'. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, he was minister for the gas industry. Since he took over the premiership in December 1992, he has made it clear that he stands for more state intervention in the economy. 'The period of market romanticism is over,' he declared last week.

More disturbing still, Chernomyrdin does not hide the fact that he stands for a more assertive foreign policy. Last year he ruled out any compromise over the Kurile Islands, the territory that Stalin's army seized from Japan at the end of the Second World War and which is the obstacle to better relations with Tokyo. Like Sergei Shakhrai, another supposed moderate reformer who now holds the post of Nationalities Minister, Chernomyrdin appears to envisage the gradual reorganisation of Russia and former Soviet republics into a new federation in which Moscow takes the lead.

The first step down that road has already been taken, with the announcement that Russia and Belarus are to form an economic union. It was that move, coupled with the extraordinary decision to spend the equivalent of pounds 340m on a new building for the Russian parliament, that prompted Gaidar's resignation a week ago.

Perhaps the most telling remark about Chernomyrdin and his political views came from Zhirinovsky. 'As long as there is Chernomyrdin, there is stability,' he said. That is an endorsement to send a chill down Western spines.

The liberal camp, which has been in disarray since its defeat in the 12 December elections, is disheartened and alarmed. 'The government reshuffles are extremely dangerous. Government statements now are reminiscent of those by Zhirinovsky,' said Anatoly Sobchak, mayor of St Petersburg.

Fyodorov, predicting that Russia would soon suffer from Ukrainian-style hyperinflation of 70 per cent a month, warned: 'We are on the brink of Ukrainianisation.'

IT WAS, in fact, in Ukraine that one of the week's most serious developments took place. It underlined that the Russian crisis is not a crisis contained within the borders of the Russian state, but is interwoven with simultaneous crises among Russia's neighbours, the former Soviet republics that are known in Russian - with more than a touch of a suggestion that they are not truly independent - as the 'near abroad'.

In the Crimean peninsula, a constant point of friction between Ukraine and Russia since the Soviet Union's disappearance, a Russian nationalist called Yuri Meshkov won the first round of presidential elections on a platform of seceding from Ukraine and uniting with Russia. He seems certain to win the run-off on 30 January, if the authorities in Kiev allow the vote to go ahead.

While celebrating his success with champagne in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, Meshkov played down his separatism, saying he was more interested in economic ties than a full political union with Russia. But Russians account for 67 per cent of Crimea's 2.65 million people, and they have very little sympathy for either the concept or the awful economic reality of Ukrainian independence.

Like their compatriots in eastern Ukraine, the Russians of Crimea are bitter at the poverty and crime that have engulfed their lives since Ukraine achieved sovereignty. They are receptive to the kind of 'Russians first' message which Zhirinovsky peddles and which now seems likely to form the basis of the foreign policy pursued by Chernomyrdin's government. In the Crimean election campaign, only one of six candidates stood for co-operation with the Ukrainian government in Kiev, and he came a distant second.

The result means the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over who owns the Black Sea fleet, which is based in Crimea, is likely to grow sharper. It also spells more trouble for President Leonid Kravchuk over his decision to hand over Ukraine's nuclear weapons to Russia for destruction. Few Ukrainians believe that Russia has genuinely reconciled itself to the idea of a separate Ukrainian state, and many argue that the Crimean result demonstrates the need to build up Ukraine's defences.

Ukraine's days as a nuclear power are almost certainly numbered, since it lacks the economic strength to maintain an arsenal of intercontinental weapons and since the missiles on its territory have a finite life. But no government in Kiev could tolerate Crimea's secession.

The chance that Crimea will descend into conflict is increasing because of another destabilising factor: the return to the peninsula of about 250,000 Crimean Tatars, a people whom Stalin deported to Central Asia in 1944 and who oppose Crimea's inclusion into Russia. One prominent Tatar politician was murdered during the election campaign, and last Wednesday gunmen fatally wounded another.

THE all-important question is the extent to which Yeltsin and the new Russian government will take up the cause of the 25 million Russians who, with the Soviet Union's collapse, were turned into ethnic minorities in the states of the 'near abroad'. Here the signs for the West are not encouraging.

Soon after Zhirinovsky's electoral success, Western commentators were predicting that Russia's leaders would adopt a more nationalistic foreign policy in order to cut the ground from under the far-right demagogue. It was also argued that Yeltsin would fall in line with such a policy, because he owed a debt to the forces that had enabled him to crush the armed revolt at the White House, Russia's old parliament building, early in October.

However, this analysis failed to recognise the degree to which Yeltsin, Kozyrev and most other Russian politicians seen as 'liberals' in the West had already nailed their colours to the mast of Russian nationalism. As long ago as October 1992, Yeltsin had suspended the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic republics on the grounds that they were discriminating against their Russian populations. Although the pull-out resumed later, Moscow shows every sign of playing the ethnic Russian card as a way of exerting pressure on the Baltic states.

The same is even truer in the case of Moldova, where Russia has allowed the former 14th Soviet Army and local Russian Communists to carve out a separatist 'Dnestr Republic' on the left bank of the Dnestr River. Moldova's ethnic Romanian leaders supported Yeltsin in his conflict with the Russian parliament, but he offered them nothing in return. In fact, when he drew up a list last June of places where Russia wanted to maintain military bases, he put Moldova at the top. Russia has also intervened decisively in the wars in Georgia, forcing Eduard Shevardnadze to take his country into the Commonwealth of Independent States, and in Tajikistan. The economic union with Belarus is part of the same process.

Yeltsin approved all these steps, and there should now be no doubt in the minds of President Clinton and other Western leaders that the chief feature of Russian foreign policy is now the reassertion of Moscow's hegemony over the 'near abroad' and, to a certain extent, the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

The fact that Yeltsin has generally taken a more conciliatory line in his relations with the West can be explained by what Dmitry Furman, a liberal Russian intellectual, calls the 'dinner jacket' and 'flak jacket' phenomena. When the President and his advisers deal with the US and Western Europe, they pursue an elegant, thoughtful and constructive 'dinner jacket' policy.

This involves summits and promises not to put domestic reform on hold. But when Russia's leaders deal with the 'near abroad' and Eastern Europe, they put on their flak jackets and pursue policies not far removed from those of the old Soviet Politburo. This means bringing the Baltic region, Transcaucasia and Central Asia back into Moscow's orbit, and it means putting pressure on Eastern European countries not to join Nato. It is a policy of unspoken military intimidation.

THE vital point, rarely mentioned in the speeches of Western leaders, is that there is almost total agreement among Russian politicians, from 'liberals' to Zhirinovsky, on the desirability of dominating the 'near abroad'. As the writer Viktor Bondaryov put it: 'If you listen to their speeches, it is difficult to tell apart the former democrats from the most active 'patriots' of today.'

The new Chernomyrdin government will certainly continue this foreign policy. But it would be vain to hope that this strategy, coupled with a pause in economic reform in order to increase social welfare spending, will take the wind out of Zhirinovsky's sails.

The December elections demonstrated that he has a solid electoral base. It is not composed of people hit hard by the Gaidar-Fyodorov economic reforms; they tended to vote for the Communist and Agrarian parties. Rather it is composed of voters who want some order and discipline at home and a strong Russia that is not humiliated abroad.

Last week saw the defeat of Russian liberalism - possibly temporary, but probably longer-lasting. The defeat was inflicted by Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin and others whose primary objective is to neutralise Zhirinovsky. This means that economic conservatism and a foreign policy moulded by imperialist memories are now the order of the day.

The formal reconstitution of the Soviet Union is a remote prospect, principally because of the economic cost. But Russia's leaders are committed to policies that undermine the liberal principles supposed to form the basis of the post-Communist Russian state. The country's authoritarian traditions are rearing their heads again.

This situation has arisen not because Yeltsin and his colleagues are especially anti-democratic. On the contrary, the death of liberal Russia is a direct consequence of the free vote held on 12 December. But that vote was, in turn, made necessary by Yeltsin's tank assault in October on the old Russian parliament. He may yet rue the day when he spilled blood in the name of reform.

(Photographs and map omitted)