Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Shattering illusions

(November 1991)

From Socialist Review, No.147, November, p.7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

How quickly the conventional wisdom changes!

Immediately after the failure of the conservative putsch two months ago we were told that, regardless of what happened elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the Russian Republic faced a future full of hope, since Yeltsin was committed to the market and to ‘democracy.’ Today things look very different. You can hardly pick up a serious Western newspaper without reading comments about the chaos in Yeltsin’s government. These reflect what the politicians closest to Yeltsin himself are saying. His deputy president, Rutskoy, complains of ‘complete anarchy.’

The economics minister Saburov has just resigned, complaining of ‘the impossibility, given the present composition of the Russian government, of implementing a programme to stabilise the economy and shift to market relations...’ An editorial in Izvestia tells:

‘It is no longer possible to conceal the profound political crisis that has gripped the power structure ... The institutions that make up the sovereign democratic state have lost their common language and have embarked on an internecine confrontation.’

The most recent series of squabbles broke after Saburov reached an economic treaty with other republics. Rutskoy denounced it for turning Russia into a ‘milch cow for the other republics.’ Yeltsin himself stayed silent, holidaying in a state dacha on the Black Sea while both sides claimed his support. When he eventually returned to Moscow he came out with a form of words to paper over the abyss between the sides by saying Russia should sign the treaty – but not agree to the strong central bank which is its key feature.

But the crisis is too deep to be resolved more than temporarily by such manoeuvres. And it is about more than just the economic treaty.

The Yeltsinites were able to win virtually every freely contested election in the Russian Republic for more than two years because their programme, which combined talk of democracy and ‘Russia’s sovereign rights’ with a commitment to accelerate the turn to the market, could promise all things to all people.

It provided a populist focus to the growing numbers of people who were turning in bitter anger against the old nomenklatura, while enabling large sections of the nomenklatura itself to evade that anger by declaring their support for the market and for ‘a sovereign Russia.’

There were huge contradictions within the programme. Declining living standards fuelled people’s hatred of the nomenklatura, but the market implied a continued fall in living standards. The sincere democrats wanted a transfer of power to elected bodies at all levels, the market reformers a ‘single economic space’ under a strong government. The workers wanted to kick out bullying managers, the ex-nomenklaturists to turn themselves into private owners with unlimited managerial powers.

Yet all these contradictions could be concealed so long as the Yeltsinites were in opposition.

The failed coup changed all that. Suddenly they were the real power, not just in the Russian Republic, but also in what remained of the Union government. It was Yeltsin who decreed the dissolution of the old ruling party. It was his prime minister, Silayev, whose emergency economic committee took over the economic powers traditionally exercised by the Union prime minister.

But any exercise of power exposes the contradictions in their programme. Accelerating the move to the market means forcing many of Russia’s enterprises out of business and plunging millions of those who voted for the Yeltsinites into even greater poverty than at present. It also means taking measures to tear down barriers to trade erected by the other republican governments and by Russia’s own autonomous republics and local councils.

The logic of this policy is a centralised authoritarian structure. That is why the Yeltsinites Silayev and Yavlinsky who run the emergency economic committee now denounce bids for economic independence by the republics with words virtually indistinguishable from the August putschists.

It is, however, a logic which those who still look to popular support to maintain their political standing find hard to accept. Hence the behaviour of Rutskoy and, to a certain extent, of Yeltsin himself. They need the Union to be the whipping boy for unpopular policies, and try to blame Silayev and Yavlinsky in the same way that they used to blame Ryzhkov and Pavlov.

The contradiction is expressing itself at every political level. Inside the Russian Republic Yeltsin has been trying to create the conditions demanded by the radical marketeers by imposing his own appointees to run the localities. But members of the Russian parliament and of local councils who were elected on the Yeltsinite ticket are obstructing him, just as his government in turn is obstructing Silayev and Yavlinsky.

The failed coup has simply led to one weak fragmented structure of power giving way to another. Such a structure is necessarily buffeted this way and that by contending social forces, without satisfying any of them.

On the one side, Russia’s entrepreneurs have expressed their dissatisfaction with the performance of a government whose programme promised them a star role by threatening an economic boycott of Popov’s Moscow.

On the other, there have been demonstrations and token strikes in provincial cities like Orenburg, Perm and Krasnoyarsk over food shortages, and the Federation of Independent Unions has called for ‘autumn days of action to defend working people in the transition to the market.’

Yeltsin’s administration, like Gorbachev’s before it, is losing support from all sides: one opinion poll records 50 percent of people as not believing it can alleviate the country’s problems.

Since August the fashionable belief that the market and democracy are inseparable twins has been put to the test in the Russian Republic. It is a test that it is failing as the economy continues to tailspin and discontent gathers on all sides. It cannot be all that long before someone else tries to impose an authoritarian solution, whether from within Yeltsin’s adminstration or against it.

Last updated on 11 June 2010