Scattered Opposition

Russia's democracy movement has split over the pace of economic reform.


For Russia's reformers, December was the cruelest month. At the Congress of People's Deputies, Boris Yeltsin capitulated to reactionary former Communists, first by firing several outspoken reformers in his administration, then by dumping his acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar. As they saw their people and policies jettisoned by the president they had supported, democratic legislators talked of "betrayal" and "catastrophe ."

"This is a monstrous defeat," Gleb Yakunin, a priest and former dissident who had been one of the strongest Yeltsin loyalists, told the Associated Press. "With such a president we cannot go into battle." Apart from the tactical loss, there was the humiliating demonstration of how little influence reformers had on the president.

According to one source within Democratic Russia, the coalition of reform parties that helped bring Yeltsin to power, some deputies came up to Yeltsin after his speech nominating career Soviet apparatchik Viktor Chernomyrdin for prime minister and said, "Boris Nikolayevich, don't you realize that Democratic Russia will go into opposition?"—to which Yeltsin is said to have replied, "They can go fuck themselves."

"We'll have to say good-bye to the president, because he's made such fools of us," Vasily Selyunin, a reform-oriented economist, said in a telephone interview four days later. "Before the Congress, we had a conference [of reformers], and [Yeltsin] spoke to us and said that he was joining our ranks. But he had no such intention. He just wanted to gain leverage by having us on his side….From now on, the democratic forces, if they still mean anything, will have to work without the president, and even against the president if we have to. He's no longer our president."

Within days, however, most of Democratic Russia seemed ready to forgive Yeltsin. When 881 DemRussia delegates gathered at Moscow City Hall for the movement's third annual convention on December 19 and 20, criticism of Yeltsin was muted. Despite a few speeches decrying the president's actions, most delegates seemed eager to believe that the appointment of Chernomyrdin was only a necessary maneuver to fend off the reactionaries.

One resolution urged Yeltsin to "use all his powers to continue with reform and retain key figures from the Gaidar cabinet." It went on to say, "If fears about the abandonment of reform policies prove correct in the nearest future, Democratic Russia will declare its readiness to go into opposition not only to the government but to the President."

By New Year's Day, it looked as though Yeltsin would in fact continue his reforms and preserve most of the Gaidar cabinet; in late December, he even appointed Boris Fyodorov, co-author in 1990 of a radical 500-day plan to bring the Soviet Union to the free market, to take charge of "economic reform strategy." This softened the blow, but DemRussia was still on the outside looking in, more an interest group than a ruling party. December's events demonstrated the precarious position of Russia's reformers and the formidable political obstacles confronting them.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle is the Russian legislature, a remnant of late Communist rule. Reformers control no more than a quarter of the seats in the working legislature, the Supreme Soviet; another 20 percent or so tend to side with them, but only if certain compromises are made. The picture may be even worse in the full Congress, which meets to ratify major decisions and legislative changes. Elected for a four-year term in 1990, before the failed coup and subsequent collapse of the Communist Party, it is dominated by former Communists.

"It is as if the Tory membership of the House of Burgesses from 1765 were still running America in 1785," quips Lawrence Uzzell, an American working in Moscow for the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.

Much as Mikhail Gorbachev zigzagged between the reformers and the hardliners, Yeltsin is caught between the reformers identified with the Gaidar government and a modernized breed of ex-Soviet conservatives—the captains of state industry, represented by the well-organized Civic Union. This bloc of three "center-right" groups (whose unofficial leader is the savvy apparatchik Arkady Volsky, the chief of industry under Gorbachev) claims merely to champion a more gradual road to the market. Its principal demands, however, are for stronger government controls over the economy and for more subsidies to militarized Soviet-era industrial dinosaurs.

The new prime minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, who spent years as a top official in the Soviet oil industry, is generally regarded as a Civic Union man. One of Chernomyrdin's first acts as prime minister was to push through $480 million in new loans for state energy companies.

Such barriers to reform would challenge the most cunning political operatives. And Russia's democracy movement is marked more by good intentions and sound but abstract economic principles than by political savvy. As a political movement, Russia's reformers are in disarray—torn by personal and policy feuds and hampered by political naivete. Above all, they are unsure what to think of Yeltsin and his policies, whether to remain loyal to the man and his reforms, however partial those measures may be, or to break ranks in hopes of finding a better path to capitalism and democracy.

Without an alternative strategy, Democratic Russia's periodic threats to go into opposition have taken on the futile quality of a child's vow to hold his breath until he gets his way. Time after time, the coalition backs down and continues to support Yeltsin, each time losing a few more of its leaders to splinter groups—groups that in many cases claim only a dozen or so members. The staunchest Democratic Russia partisans concede that the number of its activists has dropped to about 40 percent of 1991 levels (more like 10 percent, critics say).

It was not always so. In 1990, activists from several radical groups forged Democratic Russia as a united front against the Communist Party. A year later, the coalition claimed a nationwide membership of 300,000, and in Moscow its rallies could draw half a million people. Instrumental to Yeltsin's election to the Russian presidency in 1991, DemRussia appeared on its way to becoming a ruling party when Communist power collapsed in the wake of the failed August coup.

But, recalls former DemRussia leader Leonid Batkin, "the Yeltsin government did nothing, even though at the time it was possible to do almost anything: dissolve the Congress, legalize private property, hold new elections." And Democratic Russia did little to pressure him. Once the post-coup opportunity passed, the coalition began to unravel, no longer held together by the glue of opposition to communism (sound familiar?). In October 1991, DemRussia lost its "right flank" when several parties that opposed the dissolution of the Soviet Union ended their membership in the coalition.

Radical democrats, irked by the lack of decisive steps to reform the economy and the power structure, also grew restive. The radicals, led by historian Yuri Afanasiev—one of the original leaders of the democratic movement—quit in March 1992, taking several small parties with them; Batkin, a Renaissance historian and political commentator, was among the evacuees. Four months later, Marina Salier, a member of DemRussia's 18-person leadership council, also quit to form an opposition group called the Russian Constituent Union.

The radicals contend that the hardships of transition have been made much worse by a badly flawed economic reform plan—above all, the decision to deregulate consumer and food prices while keeping production, distribution, and retail trade in the hands of government monopolies for at least another year. As a result, Russians face both shortages and skyrocketing prices; markets cannot clear because no real markets exist. Such "reforms" have enriched the very nomenklatura who benefited most from the old system.

"Sacrifice was inevitable. Everyone knew that," says Salier, a 56-year-old geologist from St. Petersburg who left the Communist Party in 1988 after she became active in the pro-reform Leningrad Popular Front. "But we were horrified by the scope of the hardships. Besides, we saw that these sacrifices were not being made for democracy but for something altogether different."

Salier says some of the democrats who have defected to the "red and brown" communist/nationalist coalition were pushed in that direction by the absence of a credible democratic opposition to Yeltsin. When the "red-and-browns" speak of rampant corruption and plunder disguised as privatization, she admits, they are telling the truth. "The establishment democrats" lie to put a better face on things.

With well over 90 percent of commercial and industrial properties still in government hands, about the only privatization taking place is the kind known as "nomenklatura privatization": The state-appointed directors of an enterprise turn it into a "joint-stock company," dividing the shares among themselves. Other slices of the pie go to former apparatchiks and the families of high-level army brass. (In a bitter pun on the Russian word privatizatsiya, this has been dubbed prikhvatizatsiya, something like "pilferization.")

The problem is not just that prikhvatizatsiya isn't fair but that it doesn't create a real market economy. As economist Boris Pinsker puts it, "the umbilical cord connecting these properties to the government is not cut." The new owners use their official connections to make deals, demand subsidies, and keep out unwanted competition.

The nomenklatura still enjoy most of the privileges—special stores, dressmaking shops, health spas—that Yeltsin once vigorously campaigned against. Last spring, the president issued an executive order (marked "not for public release" but leaked to the press) that exempted from privatization a long list of establishments catering to apparatchiks. And Salier notes that even the Gaidar privatization plan contains a suspicious number of exceptions. She points to the text: "Entities to be privatized are listed on one page, followed by a seven-page list of what cannot be privatized, or can only be privatized by special permission—i.e., for a bribe."

Economist Larissa Piyasheva, who resigned in August as Moscow's figurehead privatization chief (see "Russia's Real Radicals," April 1992), denounces the plan for leaving too many enterprises in the hands of the state. Even when an enterprise is "privatized," at least 20 percent of stock will be maintained in government holdings, which retain the right to approve major decisions on business strategies. The result, warns Piyasheva, who has joined Salier's Constituent Union, is an unprecedented model of mixed ownership—"a mutant that will make the creatures of Chernobyl look good." And, she adds, the government's high taxes and confusing regulations actively discourage the creation of new jobs; stagnant mass unemployment is the likely outcome.

Not everyone is so critical. As the Gaidar privatization was getting under way in October, both democratic politicians and most members of Russia's fledgling business community expressed the view that this program, for all its flaws, was probably the best that could be done. Reflecting a common attitude, economist Vasily Selyunin, who had worked closely with Piyasheva in the past, guardedly endorsed the reform program: "Of course it's bad, but no better plan is possible." Fearful of a Civic Union victory, Selyunin dismissed Afanasiev and other radicals as frustrated careerists and chided his old friends for their inflexibility: "At least [with the Gaidar plan], we'll get something started; otherwise, we'll be set back by God knows how many more years."

The moderates who now make up DemRussia maintain that their declining popularity is the inevitable price for painful market reforms. "We're doomed to support unpopular measures," DemRussia chief coordinator Vladimir Boxer argued in October. "Other parties and movements were afraid to assume this responsibility."

And though few moderate democrats dispute the facts that make up the radicals' indictment of the Yeltsin regime, many wonder how things could have been different. Says Arkady Dubnov, a journalist at the weekly Novoye Vremya who is sympathetic to the radicals, "Piyasheva talks as if 99 percent of people didn't understand that things are bad for them, as if only she understood it. They do understand. They just don't want things to get even worse."

Dubnov fears that a new Russian revolution would almost inevitably turn into a bloodbath. The transition to democratic capitalism, he says, must be an evolutionary one, and that means giving the nomenklatura a chance to benefit from reforms.

But Russian democrats have a low capacity for compromise, whether because of the totalitarian legacy of the Soviet past or because of their longtime marginality. Disagreements over political or economic strategy are cast in stark moral terms. (Piyasheva has referred to Gaidar's economic policies as "criminal" and "evil.") And disputes are often personalized: Someone with whom one agrees on 90 percent of policy issues but differs on the remaining 10 percent becomes not just an opponent but a bad person.

Explaining that an attempt last summer to create a radical reform group, the Liberal Union, failed because the people involved were no good, Salier remarks that one of its would-be co-founders, economist Vladimir Tikhnonov of the Entrepreneurs' League, "really likes [DemRussia leader] Lev Ponomaryov—he told me so himself." Her contemptuous tone leaves no doubt that this attitude self-evidently disqualifies Tikhnonov from the venture.

Moderates, for their part, scoff at the radicals for pulling out of Yeltsin's coalition. "By [that] logic, as soon as the Christian Democrats [in Western Europe] have brought a government to power, they should go into opposition. It's ridiculous," says Pyotr Filippov, a leader of the DemRussia faction in parliament.

Reformers, such moderates believe, have enough trouble overcoming opposition from the conservatives. Facing such foes, they say, democrats can only hurt their cause by fighting with each other or officially opposing Yeltsin. They are particularly exasperated with those who went into opposition early in 1992.

"To go into opposition—at the time that Yuri Afanasiev and Marina Salier spoke about this, everyone was in opposition to the government and to the president except for the DemRussia movement and the organizations that are part of it. Did we have to add our opposition as well?" asks DemRussia coordinator Vera Kriger. "Our approach was and is and will be different: working constructively in the areas where we can make a difference. Our experts at the Supreme Soviet made many specific proposals which were included in the privatization law and were passed by the Supreme Soviet. It is very difficult to get this Supreme Soviet to pass anything at all, but it passed."

DemRussia leaders bristle at accusations of blind loyalty to the president, citing their criticism of the extension of credits to failing state enterprises. But they seem to see some truth in the charge that their failure to criticize the government has put it under one-sided pressure to placate the right. "We must criticize the government from the left," says Filippov.

Kriger too, is ambivalent: "We trusted those people. We agitated for them. We got millions to vote for them. Then how can we abandon them, and, moreover, go into opposition to them? Was it not our task to help them? That doesn't mean just patting them on the head and saying, 'Oh, what good boys you are.' It means helping them with deeds, criticizing them." As long as anti-reform forces control Congress, Yeltsin's political cunning may well be the best hope for reform. But the line between clever maneuvering and appeasement that makes reform meaningless is a dangerously thin one, as Gorbachev found out.

The president himself isn't terribly popular—his approval rating dipped below 30 percent in some polls by the fall of 1992. And despite a July survey of Muscovites showing 42 percent with either "complete" or "partial" confidence in Democratic Russia, public apathy or cynicism gives well-organized former Communists the upper hand. When an election was held last summer in the Moscow suburb of Dmitrov for a vacated seat in parliament, voter turnout was 30 percent (rendering the election invalid under Russian law, which requires a minimum 50-percent turnout). The former first secretary of the local Communist Party committee, who had the resources to mobilize supporters, came in first.

And the power of the nomenklatura has been barely dented. This is especially obvious in the provinces, where yesterday's head of the local Communist Party committee is often today's "democratic" mayor. More than 75 percent of Yeltsin's "direct representatives"—officials appointed to make sure that local authorities do not block reforms—are former first secretaries of regional Communist Party committees.

But if the endurance of nomenklatura perks is rattling, the endurance of KGB power and secrecy is downright ominous. In the last years of Gorbachev, despite assurances that the KGB was no longer spying on Soviet citizens, most people suspected that this was not entirely true. These suspicions were fully confirmed after the fall of the Soviet regime, when officials of the "reorganized" and renamed Russian security service admitted to recent surveillance of democratic activists, giving new assurances that this would not happen again.

Batkin, the Renaissance historian and former DemRussia leader, remains skeptical: "When a top official of the new Russian KGB testified at the Constitutional Court hearings [on the legitimacy of Yeltsin's ban on the Communist Party] and was asked if this practice continued today, he just smirked and shrugged. You should have seen his face."

To achieve real reform would take a complete overhaul of the political system with clearly delineated separation of powers and efficient checks and balances. One of the resolutions of the DemRussia convention urges exactly that. And Marina Salier wants to do more than call for change. She and her Constituent Union are gathering signatures to call for a referendum on whether to dissolve the legislature and elect a constitutional convention. Under Russian law, if the sponsors of a referendum can collect 1 million signatures, the measure must be placed on the ballot.

Among other provisions, Salier believes a new constitution must contain the words, "Private property is sacred and inviolable." It would also establish a new legislature, presumably less dominated by reactionaries (although given current mistrust of politics, some reformers fear that new elections might produce a communist-dominated body).

The idea of a constitutional convention has been in the air since the radical Democratic Union proposed it as an alternative to the 1990 elections. In 1991, the Free Democratic Party of Russia (of which both Salier and Yeltsin loyalist Kriger were cofounders) became the first serious political party to back a convention. And last April, a convention seemed a real possibility when Yeltsin tentatively called for a referendum. Excited DemRussia members organized committees to collect signatures but abandoned the effort when Yeltsin's call turned out to be a mere ploy to wrench emergency powers from Congress.

The idea of a constitutional convention still appeals to many moderate and radical democrats, but most doubt that it is realistic at this time, with political enthusiasm at low ebb. And even if Salier succeeds in collecting the necessary signatures, the referendum faces a major obstacle: The Russian Congress does not always obey Russian law.

Last year, DemRussia launched a drive to gather signatures for a referendum on legalizing private ownership of land, seen as a way to get around the intransigence of the parliament. Despite a slow start, hampered by mixed signals from Yeltsin, democratic activists succeeded in collecting 2.5 million valid signatures—1.5 million over the required minimum. Yet in December the anti-reform Congress refused to sanction the referendum, prompting DemRussia to appeal the issue to the Constitutional Court.

Salier herself does not expect the current petition drive to succeed. But she thinks a new constitution is essential to fulfill the promise of the reformers' revolution.

"Yeltsin spoke to [the U.S.] Congress and declared to a standing ovation, 'The communist regime has collapsed,'" she says. "Did any one of these congressmen ask him, 'What has replaced it? Do you have a new constitution? What political system does Russia have now if the communist system is gone?' Well, who can answer that question? It's just what it always was. There is no new political system."

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a writer in Middletown, New Jersey, and author of Growing Up in Moscow. She spent four weeks in Russia last fall.