Opinion Section,  December 18, 1994


Gregory Freidin

"Yeltsin Is Performing an Operation In Chechnya and In His Nose," ran the banner headline in "The Evening Moscow" on December 14. That was the first day that Moscow papers came out after the long weekend commemorating the first anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Like the snow fall of the last few days, bitter irony has blanketed the capital city. Moscow newspapers -- the post-communist, uninhibited vox populi, whose freedom the Constitution guaranteed -- were silent, as their staff were enjoying the long weekend; the army and the security forces, effectively shielded by the President from the parliamentary challenge according to the same Constitution, were roaring into the Chechen Republic, guns ablaze, to wage a war for which there is practically no support among the people; and the President, the guarantor of the Constitution was, in a manner of speaking, thumbing his nose at the public and his old political friends by remaining unheard and unseen, as he lay in the hospital, recovering from an operation on his deviated septum. Unlike Chechnya, where fighting had been going on sporadically for some time, Moscow was quiet, but for a rally or two, while in the Kremlin, a subtle but a significant change of government was in the making.


In a way, sending the troops into Chechnya, and the hey and cry over it issuing from the headquarters of Yeltsin's reformist supporters, has had a more powerful effect on the realignment of the political forces in Russia than the disbanding of the parliament in October 1993. However distasteful many of the "democrats" (as the advocates of a Western-style democracy and capitalism are referred to here) might have found Yeltsin's decision to shell the parliament building, by and large they closed ranks behind the President. Indeed, the confrontation between the President and the intransigent and retrograde parliament served as the basis for a renewal of the alliance between the tough communist party boss turned reformer and the Western-oriented intellectuals, like many members of Yegor Gaidar's party, who had entered Russia's political fray in the days of perestroika.

The alliance had had a venerable history, dating back to Yeltsin's participation, along with Andrey Sakharov, in the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies, the champions of the radical version of perestroika, and even more important, as the coalition that brought Yeltsin to power as the first President of Russia in June 1991. It was the same alliance that gave the full meaning to Yeltsin's fledgling presidency three months later during the failed coup d'etat in August 1991.

Judging by where matters stand today, this alliance has have been irreparably damaged by the decision to send troops to Chechnya. "The party of war has won," intoned Nikolay Vorontsov, one of the more visible members of Russia's Choice, Chairman of the Committee for Science in the State Duma, and one of the few politicians with an intimate understanding of the Northern Caucasus region. The expression harked back to the Gorbachev years, when the "party of war" referred to those who advocated brute force against the republics wishing to secede from the Soviet Union. Such actions of this "party" as the assault on the television studios in Vilinius in December 1991 made Gorbachev the hostage of the authoritarian forces. A similar drama is now unfolding around Yeltsin, with the sole exception that Gorbachev had never relied on the "democrats" politically the way Yeltsin has used them as his power base. Seen in this light, the events of the past few weeks should give enough food for thought to the fans of conspiracy theories, for whoever masterminded Yeltsin's latest decision to use force, if indeed such a mastermind there was, laid a perfect trap both for Yeltsin and his reformist allies.

The sense of betrayal that the "democrats" are experiencing today is all the more bitter for it. One hears this bitterness and resignation in Yegor Gaidar's acknowledgment that, hard as he tried, he was unable to reach Yeltsin and talk him out of the invasion -- the same Yegor Gaidar who stood by Yeltsin back on October 1993 when everybody in the government, including the security forces and the army, appeared to have deserted the President. One hears the bitterness and incredulity in Sergei Yushenkov's disclosure that the two secure telephones that he, as Chairman of the Duma's Committee on Military Affairs, had used regularly were disconnected after he had criticized the idea of sending the troops to the Caucasus. And one hears the bitterness, if mixed with restrained satisfaction, when Grigoriy Yavlinsky says his "I told you so," referring to his warning of a year ago when he maintained that by endorsing the "lesser evil" of the Constitution tailor-made for Yeltsin, the democrats were inviting the greater evil of the presidency run amok. For his own part, Yeltsin, vulnerable as a result of his unpopular decision, must feel bitter about being abandoned by the democrats. For him, their criticism at this moment of crisis is proof positive that well-meaning and intelligent as they are, they are nevertheless ill-suited to become the stewards of the Russian state.

Even at the height of his love fest with the democrats, Yeltsin included in his inner circle his old friends from the party apparat. Over the years, their presence, along with Yeltsin's gradual shift toward Russia's political center and sometimes further to the right, has made many of the reformers feel uneasy about the President. The gradual elimination of their most visible leaders from the government following the reformer's failure to win the majority in the parliament has strained the erstwhile alliance to the breaking point. And the reformer's inability to close ranks , the running feud between the parties of Yegor Gaidar and Grigorii Yavlinsky, along with their increasing criticism of the President on a whole range of issues was bound to make Yeltsin receptive to the other voices in his entourage, those who share with the President his history in the communist party apparat and who possess a far greater tolerance for authoritarian methods then the President's friends in what is now a barely polite opposition. Yeltsin's low standing in the polls and the resulting political, perhaps, even psychological, need to shake off the lethargy that periodically overcomes Russia's first elected President, made the decisive, contrarian move in Chechnya all the more irresistible.

Whether the occupation of Chechnya was calculated to lend legitimacy to a the coming shift toward a stiffer authoritarian rule (the increasing attacks on the press over the last few days, the thinly veiled threat to close down the Independent TV channel, and the crude intimidation of the channel's backer, the banker Vladimir Gusinsky, may be pointing in this direction), whether it was a trap laid by the antidemocratic functionaries around Yeltsin and meant to alienate the President's democratic supporters, or whether it was merely the result of an impulsive decision made by the President known for his "decisiveness" -- is now beside the point. In either case, the outcome is bound to be the same: a presidency held hostage to what the Russians call the "power ministries," Defense, Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, and recently, the Main Administration for Protection of the Russian Federation, the rough equivalent of the US Secret Service. Perhaps, sensing their increased influence and lack of control at the top, the two rival security agencies practically battled each other outside the Mayor's office two weeks ago <Dec. 3> when two details, one from the Counter-Intelligence, the other, from the Secret Service, both armed to the teeth, refused to yield to one another's orders to present their i.d.'s. With forty thousand troops --and counting -- from the "power ministries" digging themselves in in Chechnya, their influence in policy decisions will be growing. From now on, it seems, Yeltsin would have to rely on forces other than those composed of elected officials. The bill for the rushed and mishandled elections and the referendum on the hastily compiled constitution of last December has come due and much of it will be charged to the reformer's failure to win a majority in the State Duma. They will now be relegated to the status of a disloyal opposition.

Two likely outcomes of this political realignment come to mind:

1. the strengthening of what is already increasingly authoritarian rule, with Yeltsin relying more and more on the administrative infrastructure, including the Federation Council, staffed with top provincial administrators, and of course the "power ministries";

2. some form of the above combined with an alliance with the "center-right" majority in the Duma.

The Duma elections are scheduled for December 1995. If they take place, Yeltsin may be able to get the kind of parliament he wants: pragmatists with a tolerance for "forceful" solutions to the problems faced by the Russian state. This is, it seems, what Yeltsin now thinks Russia needs and wants. The same goes for Yeltsin's possible successor, if the pesidential elections, scheduled for 1996, do indeed take place. The present line-up of the most electable candidates gives one a good idea what this type looks like: the Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and among the younger generation, First Deputy Premier Oleg Soskovets and, of course, General Alexander Lebed. They are characters of a similar type: earthy, clever, pragmatic, and very, very strong. Finally, it appears, a post-communist Russian leader type has crystallized, and he looks, well, a little like a Jimmy Hoffa, a Richard Daley or, more exactly, like a sturdy and head strong merchant, "a khoziain," out of a play by the 19th-century Russian playwright, Nikolay Ostrovsky. Their time has come.

Copyright (c) 1994 by Gregory Freidin