Yeltsin's Russia: Is it the West's fault or was it his?: One man against the congress

Helen Womack
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:01

BORIS YELTSIN was close to apoplexy, his ministers were exasperated almost beyond endurance, and the poor Russian people were bored and appalled in about equal measure. But one person was enjoying the chaos at last week's Congress of People's Deputies. 'I am waiting in the wings, my moment has nearly arrived,' crowed the extreme Russian nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, as he paced the smoky corridors of the Kremlin.

Mr Zhirinovsky, leader of the misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party, is not a deputy of the Communist-dominated Congress. He gained access to the Grand Kremlin Palace as a journalist, because he edits his party's newspaper, the Liberal.

Dressed in a blue suit rather than the battle fatigues he usually favours, Mr Zhirinovsky strutted about, being offensive to everyone he met. Menacingly, he told the Russian Orthodox priest and reformist deputy, Father Gleb Yakunin, that he would be among the first to be arrested when the 'liberals' came to power. He was accompanied by a sidekick who kept saying out of the corner of his pimply mouth: 'Weimar Republic. Isn't it just like the Weimar Republic?'

It is hard to know just how dangerous Mr Zhirinovsky himself really is. Some analysts see him as a buffoon who distracts attention from far more serious potential dictators, as yet hidden from view. But the world should tremble with apprehension at what may come to fill the power vacuum if an already weakened President Yeltsin is swept away in today's storm of anarchy.

HOW ON EARTH has Mr Yeltsin, so inspired and inspiring when he leapt up on a tank to resist the 1991 hardline coup attempt, got himself in such a mess? His supporters in his home town of Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) say it is because he has been bending over backwards to be fair, to play the game by the rules, to avoid being called a dictator. Alya Tanacheva, a volunteer who worked to get him elected President in 1991, said: 'Of course we are proud that the first President is from our city. He still has many friends here. But they complain: 'If only he had been as tough as he was when he ran Sverdlovsk.' ' Mr Yeltsin was Communist Party boss in the city until Mikhail Gorbachev brought him to Moscow in 1985.

Mr Yeltsin himself now seems to have given up hope that the Congress, led by his arch-rival Ruslan Khasbulatov, will ever enter into sensible power-sharing negotiations with him. But to the last he was trying for a compromise. More in sorrow than in anger, the President said in a speech to Congress on Thursday: 'Accord is necessary, not only for me and you, it is essential to the present and future of Russia. I believe that if we can bring ourselves to stop stirring up passions and hysteria, we shall be able to organise calm, joint work. Not so long ago, we got on quite well in this respect. I think you deputies have not forgotten those days.'

Was he making one more effort to woo them, or was he deceiving himself? The fact is that Mr Yeltsin has never had a smooth relationship with the Russian Congress of People's Deputies.

The assembly was elected in March 1990 to represent the Russian Federation, which was then just one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union. The notorious Article Six of the old Soviet constitution, guaranteeing the political monopoly of the Communist Party, had been scrapped only weeks earlier. This meant that in theory any of Russia's fledgling parties was free to field candidates in the election, but that in practice only the Communist Party, which had ruled unchallenged for 70 years, had the machinery ready to pull in the votes. This was especially true in Russia's benighted provinces.

The result was that 82 per cent of the deputies who got in were from the Communist Party. The smaller parliament, chosen to carry out the day-to-day work of the bi-annual Congress, was only slightly more liberal.

Mr Yeltsin, who had become disillusioned with communism after being ousted from the Politburo in 1987, and who left the party at its 28th congress in the summer of 1990, was looking for a power base from which he could challenge his rival, Mr Gorbachev. In June 1990, the Russian Congress chose him as its chairman, the post Mr Khasbulatov now holds. But Mr Yeltsin's victory was by no means easy.

Nearly half the Congress was made up of hardliners, with reformed Communists accounting for another substantial bloc, while those with a vision of a Western market economy were in a minority. The vote had to be repeated six times before it became clear that Mr Yeltsin, more charismatic than any of his opponents, had scraped in. As his No 2, he chose Mr Khasbulatov, a pipe-smoking economics professor and a Chechen by ethnic origin. The decision was seen as an attempt by Mr Yeltsin to win sympathy from Russia's far-flung regions.

This was the period of ever larger street demonstrations against Mr Gorbachev, who refused to break with the Communist Party. The protesters carried portraits of Mr Yeltsin, whom they saw as their champion against privilege, corruption and repression. But in June 1991, Mr Yeltsin did what Mr Gorbachev never dared: he stood for direct election and was overwhelmingly voted in as Russia's first President, by an electorate which also answered 'yes' to the question of whether they wanted a strong presidential system.

At this point, Mr Khasbulatov should have moved up to take Mr Yeltsin's old place as chairman of Congress, but there was something about him that a large group of the deputies did not like, and he was trusted only to be acting chairman. Then, in August 1991, an eight-man Emergency Committee briefly seized power from Mr Gorbachev, and Mr Khasbulatov seemed to prove his democratic credentials by standing together with Mr Yeltsin during the defence of the parliament's White House. His reward was to be confirmed in the post of Russian Congress chairman, a position that became more powerful with the demise of the Soviet Union and Soviet Congress at the end of 1991. At about this time, Mr Khasbulatov's relations with his mentor began to deteriorate.

Mr Yeltsin had used the old Soviet political system to give himself a leg-up to power, but now he was to find the Machiavellian Mr Khasbulatov exploiting it against him and his plan to turn Russia into a law-based, market- oriented democracy. The old Soviet constitution was and is still in force, and although the President was now supposedly in charge, it said that ultimate power rested with the 'soviets' or councils: the Congress at national level and the miniature versions in the provinces.

Mr Khasbulatov, who thought he could advance his career by allying himself with the conservative collective farm chairmen and managers of socialist industry in the Congress, opposed Mr Yeltsin's decision to give a chance to the young team of radical economists led by Yegor Gaidar, who launched Russia's first serious economic reforms by freeing prices in January last year. Last April, for example, Mr Khasbulatov dismissed Mr Gaidar's well-educated team as 'boys who have lost their way'. He went on undermining them by, for example, doing nothing to stop the central bank, which Congress controls, from issuing credits to state industry, when Mr Gaidar wanted a tight monetary policy.

Mr Khasbulatov claimed that he was defending parliamentary democracy from Mr Yeltsin's overweening ambitions, but he himself was the real bully.

The chairman tried to reassert control of the newspaper Izvestia, formerly the organ of the rubber- stamp Supreme Soviet, forerunner of the Soviet Congress, and now one of Russia's most liberal and lively publications. Last October it was revealed that Mr Khasbulatov had established what was effectively a private army of 5,000 men who, outside the control of the Interior Ministry, were supposedly guarding the deputies. Mr Yeltsin ordered that the group be disbanded, but many of his supporters, who accused Mr Khasbulatov of plotting a coup, were disappointed that the President did not move against his enemy then, and declare direct rule.

Scandal has also surrounded Mr Khasbulatov. Last autumn a young woman called Daria Aslamova brought kiss-and-tell to the Kremlin by writing in the popular newspaper Sobesednik that the Congress chairman, a married man, had invited her into his library to 'look at his pipe collection'. And last week, women deputies protested that the chairman constantly made sexist and vulgar remarks about them. A few weeks ago, Mr Khasbulatov deeply embarrassed the visiting Swedish Prime Minister by telling him Mr Yeltsin was not up to his job, an act of disloyalty that flew in the face of international protocol.

LAST DECEMBER it became clear to the world how destructive Mr Khasbulatov is. Mr Yeltsin wanted Congress to endorse Mr Gaidar, who was acting prime minister, in his post so that he could press on with reforms, particularly privatisation. But, manipulated by the wily chairman, the deputies forced the President to sacrifice his premier and appoint instead the more conservative former oil industry bureaucrat, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Ironically, only weeks after taking over the government and finding out what problems Mr Gaidar had been dealing with, Mr Chernomyrdin, who had seemed to some to be in the pocket of Congress, declared his support for the President, saying he was the only person who would allow him to get on with his job.

In the ultimately unsuccessful battle to save Mr Gaidar, Mr Yeltsin had ceded to Congress the right to appoint the foreign, defence, security and interior ministers. That did not achieve the desired end, so in frustration he said he would hold a referendum in January 1993 to ask the people who should rule Russia: the President or Congress. This was rash because, according to the constitution, only Congress can call a referendum.

The two sides backed off from outright confrontation in December, and a deal was brokered by the constitutional court chairman, Valery Zorkin. They agreed that Congress would encroach no further on presidential powers, and the referendum would be put off until April. It would be about general constitutional issues, with both men having a say in the wording of the questions.

The respite lasted little longer than the hangover after the new year holiday. Mr Khasbulatov did not want the referendum, because he feared the people would prefer Mr Yeltsin. Mr Yeltsin did not really want it either, because he realised ordinary Russians were exhausted by economic hardship, and might be too apathetic to take part. He offered two truces in the power struggle, so Russia could get down to tackling its economic problems, but Mr Khasbulatov rejected both out of hand.

Then last week in Congress, the chairman described the December deal as the 'work of the devil', and persuaded the deputies to scrap even that modicum of accord. In an atmosphere of frenzy, Mr Yeltsin stormed out in protest. It seemed that a referendum might be on the cards after all - though without Congress approval - or even emergency rule. His representative, Sergei Shakhrai, told reporters: 'There are only two ways out: a referendum or early elections. Otherwise, we are on the verge of revolution.' The hard-line MP Sergei Baburin commented that when a state started questioning whether the president or parliament was the stronger, it was 'on the verge of civil war'. Rumours flew that a column of military trucks was approaching the Kremlin. The Kremlin commandant later denied any unusual security activity.

While the Kremlin seethed, ordinary Russians were impassive. They simply got on with the struggle to make a living. This is at once the great virtue and the great vice of the Russian people. They will endure almost anything. With some exceptions, such as the Kuzbass miners who said they would strike to support Mr Yeltsin, they do not believe they have the power to change anything.

IN ALL of this, it is possible to blame Mr Yeltsin for sometimes reacting too emotionally, for not always being fully prepared to deal with Congress, for occasionally lapsing into the old thinking of the Communist bureaucrat that he was, after all, for most of his life. Some say he was better in opposition than in power. Last December, particularly, he handled matters badly; after defending Mr Gaidar stoutly, he looked feeble when he suddenly dropped him. Also, it is no secret that Mr Yeltsin, 62, is a heavy drinker. But he has apparently acted in good faith, something one cannot say of the power-hungry and dishonourable Mr Khasbulatov.

Which will finally triumph is hard to predict, since Mr Yeltsin and Mr Khasbulatov seem to have reached a stalemate, neither sure of enough support in the army and the provinces to prevail. If the President were to risk trying to become a benign dictator, the West would be uneasy; it is Russian reform, not the person of Mr Yeltsin, that it is encouraging with financial aid. But the prospect of Mr Yeltsin impotent before Mr Khasbulatov is even more frightening. Despite his rhetoric, the latter is a cynical authoritarian whom some ordinary Russians compare to Stalin.

Fresh elections might seem to be the answer, but they are no guarantee of democracy in this country, so inexperienced in the ways of freedom. Little progress has been made towards multi-party politics since March 1990, when the Communists were still strong. Now they are thoroughly discredited in the minds of most Russians, but few other convincing parties have emerged.

It is not inconceivable that a fanatic such as Mr Zhirinovsky, or worse, will promise to raise this humiliated nation and gain power through the ballot box. After all, Hitler did it in Germany in 1933.

(Photograph omitted)

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