Three years after the August coup that nearly brought down the Gorbachev regime, the Russian revolution continues. Along with potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes assiduously cultivated at their dachas by the Russian population, momentous political realities and decisions are ripening in the hothouse of the summer.
"For the fourth year in a row, Russia is poised for an autumn that is likely to determine the course of its politics, not just for the balance of 1994 but for most of 1995 as well."
For the fourth year in a row, Russia is poised for an autumn that is likely to determine the course of its politics, not just for the balance of 1994 but for most of 1995 as well.
This anticipation of the "hot autumn" is shared across the political spectrum: from the free-market radicals of Yegor Caidar's Democratic Choice of Russia to the leftist and "national-patriot" militants (cumulatively known as the neprimirimye, "irreconcilables") whom former Vice President Alexandr Rutskoi is attempting to unite and lead. The "irreconcilables" base their hopes on a fairly plausible analysis, related to me by one of Rutskoi's top advisors. (At the time, the good general was touring the provinces, setting up local chapters of his "Great Power" movement that would work to restore "the great power of Russia" within the borders of the former Soviet Union).
The dramatic decrease of the rate of inflation is seen by the opposition not as tentative monetary stabilization but as trickery: the government's non-payment of salaries to workers in thousands of state-owned or state-subsidized enterprises. The latter got around the empty coffers by offering their workers "prolonged" summer vacation. Most took the offer, and not unhappily. Come September, however, these millions will leave the countryside and pour into the cities, demanding back their jobs and their salaries.
For the neo-communists and "national-patriots," this homecoming could not have happened at a better time. For it is precisely then that the government is to initiate the second stage of privatization, unprecedented in world history. This fall the state is scheduled to sell off for cash up to 20 percent of its assets -- including some of Russia's largest enterprises -- to whomever offers most money: individuals or companies, Russian or foreign.
Simultaneously, the government is to end subsidies to most plants and factories. A tsunami wave of bankruptcies and unemployment is expected to accompany this economic revolution. (When the privatization bill came before the Duma, the Communist deputies denounced it as the "theft of national assets" and called for a "massive opposition movement" to stop it.)
In this scenario the regime headed by President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin faces a very rough very rough choice. It could try to contain the political avalanche by keeping afloat at least the largest enterprises, relaxing its strict monetary policy, further increasing the already huge budget deficit and letting the inflation rate jump back -- perhaps as high as 25 percent a month. Or it could stand firm and face its most serious political crisis since the October 1993 rebellion.
The militant opposition sees a golden opportunity in the government's predicament and has made detailed plans for seizing the moment. The campaign will open in the early fall with a congress that is supposed to gather into a mega "front" all those united by hatred of Yeltsin, capitalism, democracy or the loss of the Soviet empire, no matter how much they dislike each other. This group ranges from Communists to extreme nationalists and fascists. (Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party is excluded because of its leader's intensely personal competition with Rutskoi for the presidency of Russia.) Simultaneously, demonstrations will be organized to commemorate the Oct. 3 rebellion. The opposition hopes to march hundreds of thousands protesters through Moscow streets.
After this show of strength and unity, the leftists and "national patriots" plan to demand that parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for the fall of 1995, be advanced to next spring. They will present this demand to a shaken regime and a scared Duma as the price for maintaining civic peace and order. The opposition calculates that the ultimatum, if accepted, should result in a landslide victory: up to 75 percent of the seats in a new parliament.
After that, the resignation of Chernomyrdin and his ministers and the appointment by Yeltsin of a prime minister from the victorious coalition would only be a matter of time. According to this scenario, a broken and dispirited Yeltsin might be allowed to serve out his term but most certainly would bow out of the presidential elections in 1996.
Not surprisingly, government officials and pro-reform democratic politicians (including those in opposition to Yeltsin) do not see things getting out of hand quite so dramatically. They acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, but point to a number of factors that would prevent the "irreconcilables" from exploiting the turmoil. They contend (and are supported by the public opinion polls) that inflation is seen by the public as a greater evil than unemployment. If only the government does a good job explaining its policies to the people (a very big "if," admittedly, given the government's record), it may count on the support of the majority of Russians.
Nor, in this view, will the boom of unemployment be lowered as suddenly -- and with such devastating impact -- as the leftists hope. Many of the unemployed have adjusted by finding part-time jobs in the private sector. The only utterly hopeless are the "company towns" of the military-industrial complex. There, a closing of a plant means the end of hot water, perhaps even electricity, kindergartens and often hospitals. Still, most of these towns are in the Urals and Siberia, and labor unrest there is unlikely to produce the numbers, the organization and, ultimately, the political sweep that would seriously threaten the regime.
Finally, the infighting among the "irreconcilables" is just as fierce as among the democrats, and their ability to unite, even for a few months, is highly questionable. Much will depend on the militant opposition's largest and best organized detachment, the 600,000-member Communist Party of the Russian Federation and its leader, Gennady Zuganov. This fall the Communists could finally face the moment of truth, which they have skillfully evaded since last December. Like their colleagues in Lithuania, Poland and Hungary, they could strive for legitimacy and, perhaps, even power as social-democrats who accept democracy and private property. Or they could have a go at the Kremlin in the company of radicals of dubious, if any, allegiance to the rule of law.
Also working against the opposition's scenario are the dual anchors of Russian stability today: the speaker of the Duma, Ivan Rybkin, and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. Both are by far the two most pleasant surprises of the 1994 political year. Elected on the Agrarian (rural Communist) list, Rybkin, so far, has been a model consensus seeker and broker between the parliament and president, instilling both with a sense of discipline, responsibility and a need for give and take. Chernomyrdin, too, defied expectations. Having labeled Gaidar a "market romantic," he promptly adopted Gaidar's policy tandem -- tight budget and privatization -- and has ridden it since last January.
Paradoxically, it is the prime minister's career in the state oil and gas industry that makes him largely impervious to the relentless pressure from the "red managers" for more government handouts. He used to be one of them, and knows how little they care about their workers' well-being and how little respect their workers have for them. Consequently, unlike Gaidar, who had never worked outside the golden fishbowl of the Moscow establishment, Chernomyrdin is not likely to be influenced either by the director's threats of "leading workers into the streets" in protest, or by their crocodile tears about the hardships suffered by their employees. And when the chips are down Chernomyrdin is no wimp: he stood by Yeltsin, solid and weighty, last October and did not blink.
Then, of course, there is Yeltsin himself -- namely his demonstrated capacity to resist outright pressure and to do very well in just the sort of crisis for which the opposition is readying itself.
The earliest test of strength between the "irreconcilables" and the pro-reform democrats, is likely to center around the issue of the postponement of the parliamentary and presidential elections. About the time the opposition will push for early elections, Democratic Choice hopes to attract other democratic forces to participate in a congress of their own. The congress is expected to adopt resolutions in favor of postponing each elections by two years: parliamentary to 1997 and presidential to 1998. They might then call for a nationwide referendum on the issue and work to have their proposal approved by the majority of regions and the two Houses of the Federal Assembly.
"Regardless of which of the two scenarios will materialize, by October we should be ready with a well-informed, flexible but forward-looking game plan of our own. In the coming hot autumn in Moscow our stakes will be very high indeed."
Support for the delay is surprisingly broad: it is also favored by many in the democratic opposition and even by Speaker Rybkin. The main justification is two-fold. First, 1995 and 1996 are too soon for the fruits of economic stabilization to become obvious. Proponents of delay seem to hope that, in the extra two years, the economic ecology of post-Communist transition will complete its dirtiest phase, in which the beached whale of the state economy is picked clean by the assorted vultures of the organized crime allied with rapacious politicians, thieving bureaucrats, profligate enterprise managers and crooked cops. Once the non-privatized state assets are stripped bare, this reasoning goes, the feeders will move away to launder their money and enjoy life, clearing the air and space for "real" entrepreneurs. These will in turn lay the foundations of "civilized capitalism" as opposed to its "wild West" variety that is dominant today.
In addition, time is needed to grow the backbone of any democracy: the electorate with real stakes in the system, especially the property-owning middle class.
If the elections are held on schedule, the argument goes, the confused, cynical and badly hurting electorate might again turn to a protest candidate: a nationalist demag ogue, like Zhirinovsky, or worse yet, to someone considered by the pro-reform politicians a leftist imperialist, like Rutskoi. In either case, they warn, the West will have a potential disaster on its hands.
It is this point that Yeltsin, who has been silent on the subject but is widely assumed to support the postponement, is likely to emphasize to President Clinton during next month's Washington summit. The Russian leader is expected by Moscow insiders to gauge, ever so delicately, a possible U.S. reaction to the shelving of the elections.
This would be a tough call. Yet the challenge to the United States goes well beyond choosing sides. Regardless of which of the two scenarios will materialize, by October we should be ready with a well-informed, flexible but forward-looking game plan of our own. In the coming hot autumn in Moscow our stakes will be very high indeed.
Leon Aron is the E. L. Wiegand Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.