Khasbulatov channels the opposition forces

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PLACING Ruslan Khasbulatov on the political spectrum is trickier than it seems. Since the chairman of Russia's parliament is President Boris Yeltsin's chief opponent, and since Mr Yeltsin is seen as the champion of the reformers, it has become the fashion to label Mr Khasbulatov a conservative. Yet this term does not do justice to the complexity of his character or to the fluidity of post-Communist Russian politics, which do not fit into neat categories.

A 50-year-old native of the Chechen republic in south Russia, Mr Khasbulatov is a pipe-smoking professor of economics who was virtually unknown before he entered parliament in 1990. Perhaps the most interesting fact about him was that, along with all other Chechens, his family was deported to Kazakhstan in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.

In August 1991, his reputation took off when he sided with Mr Yeltsin and the democrats in defeating the hardline Communist coup. Mr Yeltsin later threw his support behind Mr Khasbulatov to ensure that his ally succeeded him as chairman of parliament.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr Khasbulatov has been anything but a Yeltsin ally. But he would reject the view that he has swapped liberal for conservative political clothes. Instead, he would contest that to oppose die- hard Communists in 1991 is not the same as to offer unqualified support for Mr Yeltsin in 1993. Politics have moved on, he says, and the big issue now is to ensure that Russia's presidency does not become so strong that it crushes the legislature and acquires the potential for dictatorship.

His critics see several flaws in this argument. First, for a defender of democracy, he has done some strange things. He built up a militia whose ostensible task was to protect Russian politicians but which was in practice loyal to him as chairman of parliament. Last October he deployed this force around the offices of Izvestia, a liberal newspaper whose criticisms of the parliament he cannot abide.

Second, Mr Khasbulatov's power base, the Congress of People's Deputies, was elected three years ago and is packed with former Communists whose commitment to democracy and economic reform can be questioned. From these people, and from representatives of the military-industrial lobby, Mr Khasbulatov draws considerable support.

He co-ordinated the parliament's successful effort last December to kick out Mr Yeltsin's acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, the architect of Russia's market-based economic reforms. Mr Khasbulatov recently described Mr Gaidar as a competent economist, but added: 'He should be carrying out his experiments somewhere on the moon, where there are no people.'

The assault on Mr Gaidar was part of a wider campaign by Mr Yeltsin's opponents to alter the entire thrust of Russian policy since late 1991. They want not merely more state involvement in the economy and the retention of privileges for former Communist bureaucrats, but a less pro-Western foreign policy and greater Russian influence over other republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The attainment of these goals requires a weak Mr Yeltsin, and so his opponents see Mr Khasbulatov as a natural ally. However, the chairman sometimes looks a man whose greatest concern is to amass personal power and status. For example, his critics ask, why did he choose to move into a Moscow apartment once occupied by the Soviet lover of luxury par excellence, Leonid Brezhnev?

Mr Khasbulatov predicted last October that he would die a violent death. That may have been a touch melodramatic, but a lasting compromise between him and Mr Yeltsin, his former patron, still seems far away.

(Photograph omitted)