Russia Turns the Corner

Stephen Sestanovich. Foreign Affairs. Volume 73, Issue 1, January/February 1994.

Drug dealers, gangsters, flagrantly corrupt bureaucrats, destitute pensioners, an embittered intellectual class—it is sorry figures like these who increasingly shape our image of Russia. Together, they are thought to have made the recent electoral victory of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his neofascist party almost inevitable. They give weight, moreover, to forecasts of grimmer things—unappeasable popular anger, the collapse of public order and eventually dictatorship.

New democracies in danger always call forth comparisons with the doomed Weimar Republic, and there is no denying that the analogy is useful for thinking about Russia’s prospects. But, it is only useful if we take the similarities, and differences, seriously enough. The Weimar record teaches more than the lesson that well-organized, charismatic thugs can feed on social distress. It is a reminder to look at political fundamentals and beyond the mood of the moment to the institutions, interest groups and issues that define the new regime.

Over the long term, Russians have to create what they call a “rule of law” state, based on legal norms consistently applied. Without progress in this direction (and Boris Yeltsin’s new constitution is a major step forward), any democracy remains precarious. Yet here again the Weimar analogy can keep us from too narrow a focus. Germany in the 1920S was both a Rechsstaat and a highly vulnerable democracy, and its fatal weaknesses suggest how Russia, too, could lose its way. German generals endured civilian rule, but they adapted to it little and identified with it less; the industrialists who had produced decades of rapid economic growth under the Kaiser saw their achievements threatened in the Weimar years; worst of all, fascist ideologues were able to say that liberalism was a by-product of national defeat and could never restore German greatness.

If Russian democracy is to take hold, it must succeed where the Weimar Republic failed. It must build support among crucial constituencies and neutralize issues that could be its undoing. Three tests of success stand out. The first concerns the armed forces: Do those who control the instruments of coercion accept the new order? The second test has to do with economic transformation: What is the political balance of power between those who want to hang on to remnants of the command economy and those who expect to do well in the market? Finally, there is the problem of legitimacy: Does the new regime embody traditional patriotic values, or are its domestic and foreign policies seen as a threat to national identity and pride?

Russian democracy has to defend and define itself in these three areas—the politics of force, the politics of money and the politics of patriotism. These were the crucial battles that the Weimar Republic lost. By contrast, Russia’s democrats have begun to win them. Their progress does not mean that the danger of fascism can be ignored; the December elections allow no such complacency. But the political achievements of the past year mean the new regime that the fascists want to destroy has put itself on a more secure footing. It goes into the battle stronger than many think.

The Politics of Force

To many observers, post-communist civil-military relations pose a dilemma from which democratic leaders cannot escape: they are damned if they rely on the army and damned if they do not. The past year has vividly illustrated both halves of this problem. In December 1992, when Yeltsin made his first open challenge to the parliament, by calling unexpectedly for a referendum to test popular confidence in the executive and legislative branches, he was forced to back down almost at once—not least because the military immediately expressed its neutrality, which was universally read as a sign of opposition. Yet when Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev abandoned his neutral pose and ordered tanks to the White House, the question raised by many analysts was whether Yeltsin could ever extricate himself from his deal with the devil.

This is the wrong way to look at the military’s decision to take sides. What happened in the past year was not the slow emergence of a deal with Yeltsin, but something far more important—the growing realization within the high command that its own fate is inseparable from that of Russian democracy. This is still a provisional result, but the fact that it occurred at all—particularly in light of the anti-democratic leanings of many generals—is extremely important for understanding where Russia is headed over the next five years.

How did it happen? Part of the answer is that there is hardly any institution of the new Russia under more acute stress than the army, and Yeltsin has been prepared to make a great many concessions to the military—from pay to perks and promotions to the interpretation of arms control treaties. Marginal inducements of this kind matter (Grachev was quoted not long ago as saying that the generals would “fight” for their dachas), but bribes alone cannot make the armed forces an ally of Russian democracy. Perhaps the single most important factor in fixing the high command’s pro-Yeltsin orientation has been, ironically enough, the strong latent opposition to him in military ranks.

For all their rhetoric about neutrality, a great many officers became active in Russian politics in the late 1980S and early 1990s, and the vast majority of them were anti-Yeltsin extremists. They ranged from the organizer of the hypernationalist Officers’ Assembly, Colonel Stanislav Terekhov, a proponent of a loony foreigners-are-brainwashing-us theory of Western subversion, to Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, whose challenge to Yeltsin was especially ominous because, as an Afghan war hero and serving general, he was thought to have a large residual following in the armed forces.

The conservatives’ attempt to find supporters in the military meant that they posed a completely different threat to the army from that posed by liberals. Yes, the Yeltsin government’s program of economic shock therapy meant privation for officers and their troops, but conservative politicians were actually trying to split the military as an institution. As early as last spring, General Grachev complained angrily to parliament about the support it provided for meetings of the Officers’ Assembly, offering a platform for the group’s wild calls “to use force and man the barricades.” Said Grachev:

Is that really constitutional? Is that really just? Is that really within the framework of the laws which state that the army is outside politics and should not get involved?

Saying he had raised this problem before without getting any help from legislators, the defense minister called on parliament to back a crackdown on political agitation within the military.

In making such an appeal, of course, Grachev knew that he had no chance of getting the support he wanted. Yeltsin’s opponents could not afford to encourage military discipline. To succeed, Rutskoi and then-Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Ruslan Khasbulatov needed to break the military apart; it was Yeltsin who was trying to keep it together. As a result, steering a neutral course between the president and parliament became less and less viable for Grachev. Such a stance merely created the conditions for drawing the army deeper into politics.

Against this background, the high command’s support for Yeltsin during the confrontation of September and October 1993 was barely a matter of choice On the first full day of the crisis, Grachev said that he and his colleagues were “appalled” that parliament had appointed General Vladislav Achalov as its own defense minister—a move, he warned, designed to set soldiers against each other in battle. As the army’s newspaper editorialized when the uprising was over, the survival of the military depended on preserving unity of command:

If the Army, despite everything, maintains its unity, controllability and stability it becomes in itself a factor of colossal stabilizing force for all society. However, if it does not hold firm, allows itself to be split, or starts living not on the principle of a “single order,” but of two, three or ten orders, then it is no longer the Army but simply “materiel”—”cannon fodder” for a civil war.

The generals acted against the conservative-nationalist insurrection not as part of a deal, or because Grachev saw that he too would go down if Yeltsin fell, or even because there was a threat to public order that the police could not handle by themselves. The military leadership, for all practical purposes, had made its choice before the crisis, and its support for the government was based on the strongest of instincts—institutional self-preservation. It is no small matter for Russian democracy that the generals see their survival this way.

There has, of course, been another threat to the integrity of the military: economic necessity has obliged many units to fend for themselves, to negotiate their upkeep with local politicians, enterprise directors and farm managers. Extrapolate this trend into the future a few years, and it is not hard to conjure up military formations independent of headquarters, serving regional rather than national interests; in a word, warlordism. But extrapolation of this kind misses the time-bound sources of today’s problems, many of which will not recur. Above all, the resolution of the standoff between president and parliament puts most political problems in a new context. It has not ended the economic crisis that subjects military units in the provinces to so much stress, but it means that they will no longer receive political protection from those in Moscow who see them as a lever to bring down the government.

The high command now clearly has a freer hand to do what it has wanted to do for some time—tighten discipline in the ranks. Grachev knows, for example, that the Officer’s Assembly and similar opposition groups are much better organized in the country at large than they are in Moscow, and he will try to curtail their activities. He is in fact likely to be far less patient with all kinds of political activity and agitation in the armed forces. This is why, breaking with the practice of recent years, senior officers now say that being a politician is incompatible with being a soldier; those who run for office will be suspended from their military duties. In looking ahead to the state of Russia’s armed forces five years from now, this trend toward a stricter separation of military and political roles is the right one to extrapolate.

Admittedly, a military establishment that has restored its internal unity may be better able to advance its own interests in the political system as a whole. For some time to come, Russia’s leaders will feel the need (in the words of one senior minister) to “give something to the generals.” The army’s ability to get its way on major issues carries with it any number of problems for a government trying to maintain a stable fiscal policy and shrink the size of the defense industry. But as long as the army operates basically as an interest group, rather than as an alternative government, the threat to democracy is limited. The military men who wanted to create an alternative government lost what may prove to have been the deciding round at the White House on October 4.

The Politics of Money

Russian democracy faces no task more difficult than remaking the economy bequeathed it by Soviet central planners. This is the second test for evaluating the consolidation of the new regime. In purely economic terms, last year’s results were only slightly better than those of 1992. Yet the broader political question that concerns us cannot be answered by looking at exchange rates and production trends. What matters most is whether the rigors of economic transformation are strengthening those with an illiberal, undemocratic agenda. This worry has not quite disappeared, but it is greatly diminished.

In 1992 the radical economic reforms of Yeltsin and his economic czar, acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, brought into being what seemed like a particularly potent new political opposition group, the Civic Union, which was dominated by members of the old Soviet industrial elite. Its leader, Arkady Volsky, who once oversaw heavy industry for the Central Committee, tried—with real success—to give his group the aura of political inevitability. Claiming to speak for 40 percent of parliamentary deputies, Volsky said the time was past for academic experiments in economic policy; only people who knew the “smell” of factories firsthand could get things back on track.

It was hard to ignore such a challenge, and for much of 1992 Yeltsin and his colleagues explored a possible accommodation with the Civic Union. The idea was always a little dubious (there were simply too many conflicts between its program and the government’s), but there seemed no other way to broaden the political base of reform. In 1993, by contrast, a proposal for such a coalition was not even broached. What Yeltsin’s government did instead was to co-opt Soviet-style industrial managers without adopting industry’s program. Despite fits and starts, the substance of policy has remained basically reformist. The managers—above all, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin—give the government legitimacy in industrial circles and make it steadily harder for the Civic Union to speak for them.

Volsky’s idea was that economic turmoil would force the government to turn to experienced “businessmen” (as he called himself and his associates), But he never faced the conflict between those of his supporters who wanted the old economy back and those who expected to flourish in the new. Meanwhile, others better prepared to address this choice began to copy his real innovation—a political lobbying organization. Many groups now proudly claim to speak for the new Russian bourgeoisie and boast of the impact they expect to have on government policy. Perhaps the most important of these is Gaidar’s Association of Privatized and Privatizing Enterprises, formed last June while he was out of office. Gaidar and other advisers to Yeltsin have turned Volsky’s insight around: rather than use the grievances of the old economic elite to slow the pace of change, they want to identify businessmen who have succeeded in the market and make them the spokesmen for reform.

The changing role of the industrial elite was evident in the fall 1993 election campaign, in which one party after another presented itself as the voice of business. There was, of course, a very practical reason for politicians to court entrepreneurs: the campaign’s financing rules permitted extremely large corporate contributions. But this motive hardly diminished the significance of the change from a year earlier. In 1992 the “industrial lobby” had shaky democratic credentials; in 1993 the leading parties of business were unimpeachably the parties of reform. There were almost three times as many candidates for parliament from privatized businesses as from state-owned enterprises. In this new setting Volsky’s Civic Union lost its central role; it was spurned as an ally even by those, like economist Grigory Yavlinsky, who wanted to tap dissatisfaction with government policy.

Over the past year, as fear of the old guard’s revenge subsided, it was replaced by worries about a new form of money politics—the seemingly unrestrained drive for autonomy by Russia’s regions. Relations between the central government and the provinces are being thoroughly remade by the creation of a market economy, and the result will be a far more decentralized system of rule than Russia has ever known (probably more so than most Russians can now imagine). The living standards of the provinces will come to depend more on their natural endowments, populations, infrastructures and so forth than on subsidies, grants and decisions made in Moscow.

What unnerves Russians about this process, apart from its novelty, is the possibility that it might somehow spin out of control, that provincial assertiveness could leave the central government too weak to hold the country together. The conflict that developed last year over the nonpayment of taxes by regional governments was easy to interpret as a sign that matters were getting out of hand. Finance Minister Boris Fedorov, for one, was apocalyptic on the subject. “The state,” he said, “is basically finances, money and the budget.” A Russia that cannot collect taxes doesn’t exist.

Yet Russia’s federal tax crisis was much less momentous than it seemed. Like political agitation in the military, it was in part an extension of the conflict between a reformist government and a conservative parliament. The decision (or threat) to withhold taxes was typically made by a regional legislature and, just as typically, overruled or ignored by the regional executive (in most cases an appointee of the president). Yeltsin’s deputies charged that the federal parliament was actually egging on its provincial sisters in their mischief, and there was plenty of evidence to support such a view.

Now that the confrontation with parliament is behind them, Yeltsin and his colleagues can deal much more effectively with the problems that it spawned. Although the central government is still being weakened in many ways, it retains major points of leverage over the provinces. As early as September, for example, the Cabinet began to hint about its possible responses to nonpayment of taxes: suspension of financing for federal spending in the territories; revocation of export licenses for strategic raw materials; termination of credits from the central government, including credits for purchases of foodstuffs; and a freeze of cash support for territorial banks.

One of the particular targets of this threat was the republic of Bashkortostan, which was unable to defy the central authorities for long. According to Russian media reports, its 1,700 oil wells were temporarily shut down, and federal purchases of the republic’s oil were suspended. This squeeze soon had its effect. On October 1—before the White House shoot-out—Bashkortostan and the federal government announced an agreement on resumption of tax payments.

The revolts of the enterprise directors and the provinces were caused by economic change, which has fallen well short of expectations. Further tests are ahead, of course, and the one that seems to be next—the structural transformation of heavy industry—could have more dangerous political consequences than anything yet seen. No one really knows what will happen when millions of Russians are thrown out of work. Yet even here—post-communist Russia’s biggest undertaking to date—there are reasons to be skeptical of alarmist scenarios.

For one thing, structural transformation is already underway, even without a full-blown government campaign. Industrial employment declined by three million workers in 1993, according to Gaidar, with virtually no effect on the unemployment rate. His explanation: Russia’s expanding service sector has picked up the slack.

Second, because joblessness will begin to rise in the near future (no matter how fast services grow), the government knows that it must build a functioning system of unemployment relief. As Gaidar puts it, policy must shift from protecting vulnerable factories to protecting vulnerable people. Such a welfare system would, moreover, immediately ease pressure on the state budget. Finance Minister Fedorov argues that paying unemployment benefits costs only a third of what it takes to keep running factories where the unemployed used to work.

To date, the attitude of the Russian people toward economic reform has been, as Sartre might have had it, that of the crowd waiting to take the bus, not the crowd waiting to take the Bastille. An effective social safety net would go a long way toward solidifying popular support for the Yeltsin government’s program. One recent poll found that 84 percent identified inflation as a prime concern; only 30 percent cited unemployment. These numbers are certain to change as more workers lose their jobs, but even unemployment need not threaten the regime if the government shows that it can help people through the transition.

The Politics of Patriotism

The third challenge that Russian democracy must meet concerns national identity and pride. The country’s current troubles evoke centuries-old anxieties about whether Russia has a distinctive mission that can only be served by rejecting Western models. To this long-standing ambivalence, the collapse of the Soviet Union added a psychological jolt that may be felt for years to come. Russia’s relations with other former Soviet states—the so-called “near abroad”—will for the foreseeable future be the most important single issue in the politics of patriotism. This patriotism, however need not pose a threat to the consolidation of democracy; to the contrary, there are already signs that it is losing its emotional charge.

This is not because the opposition has neglected it. For hard-line nationalists, who like to call the Yeltsin government an occupation regime, patriotic appeals are a way of challenging the legitimacy, even the moral fitness, of Russia’s new rulers. Democrats, they say, are basically traitors. Both Aleksandr Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov made increasing use of this theme in their struggle with Yeltsin last summer and fall. Typical was Khasbulatov’s charge that democrats consider patriotism inherently antidemocratic. “[H]ow can we not love our own people?” he fulminated to journalists. “I want to see the word patriotism in the newspapers.”

One reason that democrats have sometimes done poorly in the politics of patriotism is that Khasbulatov’s claim was not his usual crude invention. Some Russian reformers really do consider patriotism dangerous and repugnant. The leaders of Democratic Russia, the umbrella group that united the anticommunist opposition in the days of Gorbachev, tirelessly repeat their view that democracy and patriotism are incompatible. In taking such a categorical stand, Democratic Russia may well play into the nationalists’ hands, but it does not in any sense speak for the current government. Yeltsin himself has long made full use of the rhetoric of national pride and frequently refers to patriotic sentiment as a great national resource in rebuilding the country. One of his closest advisers, Vladimir Shumeiko, recently acknowledged that a post-communist regime, like its predecessor, must have its own ideology, and he identified the animating idea of all government policies as the “revival of Russia as a mighty state.” For him, there are no contradictions between modernity and tradition: the goal of reform is “a new democratic state that is still Russia all the same.”

Another of Yeltsin’s deputies has gone still further in trying to appropriate nationalist themes. At the start of the fall campaign, Sergei Shakhrai, expounding the goals of his new party, known as the Party of Russian Unity and Accord, said that an alternative name for the group might be the “All-Russian Conservative Party”—dedicated to preserving the family, traditional morality and so forth. This might be dismissed as simple slogan-mongering but for one fact: in the Russian reformist vocabulary of the past few years, the word “conservative” has been virtually synonymous with “Stalinist.” That it can now be dusted off and used without embarrassment by leading democrats like Shakhrai suggests the ongoing normalization of Russian politics.

Patriotism and the Russian Periphery

In its public rhetoric, the Yeltsin government is effectively protecting its patriotic credentials. It has been decisively helped over the past year by the mistakes of the so-called red-brown coalition. Communists and fascists grossly misread the popular mood (which is one of worry, not fanaticism), and by resorting to violence they demonstrated that their brand of patriotism is a formula for civil war.

Yet Yeltsin and his colleagues have had to contend with more than rhetorical challenges on the patriotism front. In the past year Russia has begun to face the practical difficulties involved in creating viable post-imperial relations with the other former Soviet states. At issue here is a problem far more complex than whether, as Western commentators like to ask, the Russians “accept” the sovereign independence of their new neighbors or want the empire back. For Russian policymakers, the real question is whether the new democratic regime can deal effectively with the problems created for it by the breakup of the U.S.S.R.

If over the next several years these problems seem manageable—close economic ties are restored, no new security threats appear, Russian minorities feel safe—then there is not likely to be any serious revanchist movement in Russia; only extremists will demand the restoration of the Soviet Union’s old borders. If, by contrast, the former Soviet states represent a continuing source of turmoil and threats to Russia’s own well-being, then there will be a consensus that the country should act to protect itself. Liberals, moreover, will join this consensus. They are not prepared to be advocates of national weakness or chaos.

For now, however, there is no consensus, only ambivalence. The mixed feelings toward all former Soviet states was aptly captured by the columnist who described the dualism of public opinion toward Russia’s southern neighbors:

On the one hand, the consciousness of the average citizen is warmed by the thought that “[the Central Asian nations] will not be able to do without us after all.” On the other hand, quite often angry exclamations are heard: “Our people are hungry themselves, and these have to be fed too.”

From deeply ambivalent views come deeply ambivalent policies. Responding to the first hall of this sentiment—the half that desires some sort of reintegration with the former Soviet states—the government in the past year negotiated an agreement with them on a Russia-dominated economic union and ruble zone, involved Russia more deeply in ethnic conflicts in Tajikistan and Georgia, coaxed Azerbaijan into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and offered continued energy subsidies to Ukraine as part of a deal on the Black Sea fleet and nuclear missile forces.

This is a generally popular record. The “near abroad” is seen to have created a host of new challenges to which Russia cannot respond passively. Foremost among these is the need to protect the position of Russian minorities now living beyond Russia’s border not least so as, to prevent an unmanageable mass exodus back to Russia. Policies of all kinds—from creating the ruble zone to defending the Afghan border against Islamic fundamentalists—are explained in relation to this goal: giving Russians abroad the confidence they need to stay put, Foreign Minister Kozyev’s description of government policy in dealing with the civil war in Tajikistan is applicable to many other issues as well: “We cannot afford to do nothing.”

Yet there is a second side to policy toward the “near abroad” that is far more grudging and much less activist and prepared, given Russia’s troubles at home, to make sacrifices for what is now foreign policy. Reintegration is simply expensive. Almost all the policies that have been put in place to create “special relationships” with the former Soviet states are criticized as unaffordable. No sooner had agreement been reached on the ruble zone, for example, than senior Russian officials began to express doubts about its destabilizing impact on economic reforms. Russia said Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Shokhin (now a leading member of Shakhrai’s “conservative” party), cannot afford to play wet nurse to poor neighbors. Russian negotiators quickly began to impose stricter conditions for monetary union, and the idea receded into the future. Money and patriotism were at odds; money won.

The same choice is evident in other areas as well. With its heavy reliance on export earnings, Russia cannot easily continue subsidizing energy deliveries to other former Soviet states. Yet a sudden cutoff would subject its neighbors to worse economic trials, with uncertain political effects. The result, for now, is a compromise, but one tilted heavily in favor of Russia’s own interests: in the first nine months of 1983, oil deliveries to former Soviet states were down 41 percent.

Even security issues are seen in a double perspective. In thinking about the “near abroad,” the high command clearly wants to be able to station forces on the territory of other Commonwealth states. Defending the old Soviet border (rather then fortifying the new Russian one) is a familiar and recognized military mission. However, getting involved in ethnic and communal conflicts is not. General Grachev himself has said that such peacekeeping missions rouse painful memories of Afghanistan. They are, besides, very expensive, and as Yeltsin said at a CIS summit meeting last spring, Russia cannot bear the cost by itself.

Ambivalent policies like these mark the start of a transformation in the politics of patriotism. The problems posed for democracy are real, but not so irreducibly emotional as they appeared in the initial aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. At that time, it was impossible to discuss the “near abroad” coolly. There was no common ground between those who believed that preserving the empire was inconsistent with democracy and those who regarded it as a single indissoluble motherland.

Since then, the shock of the empire’s collapse has begun to wear off. The reasons for Russia to take an interest in the affairs of its neighbors have become clear to all, but so have the problems raised by such involvement. A new, more practical view of the “near abroad” is emerging, with fundamental implications. If democrats are free to fashion Russia’s post-imperial role on the basis of costs and benefits, dispassionately weighed, they will have a far better chance of securing the legitimacy of their new regime.

Weimar Russia?

To say that Russia is solving three problems crucial to the creation of a democratic system does not mean that they will stay solved. The failure of Weimar democracy is an important reminder that a new regime can collapse even after a period of seeming stability. In the middle 1920s, Germany experienced a solid half-decade of economic growth and political normalcy—the kind of record that, were Russia to repeat it in the 1990s, would lead most commentators to declare victory. It was only at the end of the 1920S, with the renewal of economic crisis, that it became clear how ill-prepared German democracy was for hard times.

If Russian democracy takes hold and survives until 2005, it will not have lasted any longer than the fragile Weimar Republic—famous as the “republic without republicans.” The comparison suggests how foolish it would be to argue, at this early date, that Russia can no longer be knocked off its democratic course. Obviously it can be. The question is, how easily? Certainly much of the progress that has been made in the past year would be at risk without Yeltsin. Routine derailments of democracy are, unfortunately, not hard to imagine. In each of the three arenas we have examined, Russia’s leaders will face a similar temptation—to finesse their political problems by spending money they don’t really have. The generals want big budgets, the old industrial directors want cheap credits, the weak governments of the “near abroad” want cheap oil. In the short run, at least, inflation can be made to seem like a strategy for staving off threats to democracy. In the long run, it will deny Russia the stability it desperately needs. To stay on its feet, Russia needs something like the solid middle years of Weimar.

And yet stability is not by itself the secret of democratic success. Democracies do not succeed merely by hanging on. They have to build new institutions, remake old ones, contend with powerful opponents, answer challenges to their legitimacy. In this light, the recent past has brought both very bad and very good news. It has identified a new and quite frightening enemy of the regime. But it has also marked the waning of other challenges—force, money, patriotism—that not long ago seemed very serious. In the past year, the Yeltsin government has gone a long way toward claiming these resources of power as its own. The struggle is far from over. Yet for all the country’s troubles, the disorder of everyday life and the lack of constitutional traditions, it is getting easier to imagine Russian democracy’s success.