WORLD

STREETS OF FURY

AS THE RUSSIAN ECONOMY DECAYS, BORIS YELTSIN CULTIVATES A TOUGHER, MEANER PUBLIC IMAGE

MALCOLM GRAY November 16 1992
WORLD

STREETS OF FURY

AS THE RUSSIAN ECONOMY DECAYS, BORIS YELTSIN CULTIVATES A TOUGHER, MEANER PUBLIC IMAGE

MALCOLM GRAY November 16 1992

STREETS OF FURY

WORLD

Even the historic cobblestones of Red Square were ensnared last week in the turbulent politics of the Russian capital. As ordinary Russians grappled with problems that included hyperinflation, falling industrial production and ethnic warfare within the country’s own borders, the Red Square controversy stood out as one of the lesser tales of conspiracy and intrigue now coursing through Moscow. Even though the Soviet Union collapsed nearly a year ago, Nov. 7—this year a date that marks the 75th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution—is still an official holiday. But Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has enraged diehard Communists by cordoning off large sections of the square, ostensibly for repairs. As a result, the Communist faithful who traditionally gather on the square on the anniversary had no access to the tomb where the remains of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin are still on display. Pravda (Truth), the still-functioning newspa-

AS THE RUSSIAN ECONOMY DECAYS, BORIS YELTSIN CULTIVATES A TOUGHER, MEANER PUBLIC IMAGE

per voice of the banned party, rejected Luzhkov’s bland explanation that the pavement work was simply a coincidence. In spite of it, Pravda said, the anniversary celebrants would march as close as possible to Lenin’s tomb.

The Red Square dispute underlined the fact that Russia is in the midst of another, chaotic

revolution, designed to reverse the effects of seven decades of Communist rule. But after almost one year of economic shock therapy, there are few signs that the hoped-for result of that program, a market economy, is taking root. There is also no end in sight for the financial suffering that most Russians endure, a problem that, according to a rash prediction by Russian President Boris Yeltsin last fall, would last only eight months. Now, with inflation at 28 per cent in October—the steepest increase since January, in a year when prices on most retail goods rose by 1,500 per cent—Yeltsin is taking steps to ensure his political survival. Indeed, his recent efforts to gain support from conservative politicians, industrial managers and army leaders strikingly resembles the course followed by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev during his last year in power (page 29).

Yeltsin has deliberately cultivated a tougher, meaner image. For one thing, he abruptly

halted the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic states late last month. He declared that the pull-outs would not resume until Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania signed agreements covering vaguely defined social protection for Russian soldiers and their families. Russia had agreed to withdraw an estimated 150,000 soldiers from Baltic garrisons by the end of 1994. But with roughly half that number already back on Russian soil, Russian army leaders have repeatedly voiced concern about the lack of adequate housing for troops returning from the Baltics and former Soviet bases in Eastern Europe.

At the same time, new language and citizenship laws in Estonia and Latvia have made it harder for Russian minorities in those countries to become citizens. Russia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Vitali Churkin, denied that there was a formal link between a resumption of the troop withdrawals and human rights problems facing the 1.67-million ethnic Russians who form about 20 per cent of the Baltic states’ population. But, Churkin added, “If the human rights situation is calmer, then the withdrawal of Russia’s troops will also be easier and calmer.”

Yeltsin has been busy on other military fronts, as well. On Nov. 2, only two days after dispatching 3,000 soldiers and two battalions of paratroopers to stop the first serious outbreak of ethnic warfare on Russian territory, he declared a state of emergency in the tiny Caucasian region of North Ossetia. There, in mountainous territory near Russia’s border with Georgia, battles between nominally Christian Ossetians and Moslem Ingush fighters

have left scores of people dead. Despite apparent religious overtones, the conflict is essentially a land dispute that can be traced to Josef Stalin’s widespread uprooting and dispersal of ethnic groups that he suspected of disloyalty.

In 1944, the Soviet dictator accused the Ingush, Sunni Moslems who now number about 100,000 people, of collaborating with the German invaders, and he deported the mountain people to central Asia. Soviet authorities allowed the Ingush to return to the Caucasus in 1957, but they received only two-thirds of their former homeland. In the current fighting, some Ingushi are striving to retake their land from North Ossetia.

Yeltsin supporters claim that the Russian president had little choice but to send troops to stop a conflict rooted in Stalin’s policies of deportation and division. The Georgian-born dictator also split Ossetian territory, the homeland of some 400,000 Moslem tribesmen, between Georgia and Russia. Indeed, government officials in Moscow note that North Ossetia is one of about 20 ethnically distinct regions scattered across the vast Russian federation. Failure to maintain control in the Caucasus, they argue, will fuel ultranationalist fears that Russia is breaking into a patchwork of independent ethnic groupings.

To many analysts in the Russian capital, Yeltsin’s gunboat-style diplomacy in the Baltics was simply the latest signal to Russian nationalists that he will protect the interests of fellow countrymen in former Soviet republics. Yeltsin’s Caucasus crackdown also revealed his sensitivity to nationalist pressure. In September, in fact, he cancelled a visit to Tokyo after prominent nationalists strongly objected to a swap of Russian land for cash. Under the terms of that proposed trade, Russia would have relinquished the Kuriles, a Pacific island group that the Red Army wrested from Japan during the last days of the Second World War, in return for increased financial aid from Tokyo.

Yeltsin has even indulged in some outright political theatre recently, displaying his toughguy side to opponents who, he claims, want to overthrow him. He banned the National Salvation Front, a small, newly formed group of ultranationalists and former Communists that had attracted little public attention or support before it incurred the president’s wrath. Yeltsin also ordered the dissolution of a 5,000member security force under the direct control of Ruslan Khasbulatov, the speaker of the Russian parliament and a severe critic of Yeltsin’s economic reforms. But Khasbulatov’s socalled private army has never posed a threat to a leader who commands the loyalty of the Russian armed forces.

Still, Yeltsin does face the expiry of special powers, which allow him to rule by decree, at a Dec. 1 meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies, Russia’s highest legislative body. The Congress is packed with hardliners and conservatives who are unlikely to extend Yeltsin’s emergency powers. And many of its members have stated their intention of voting out the government headed by acting prime minister Yegor Gaidar. With only middling success,

World Notes

IRELAND GOES TO THE POLLS

The Irish government collapsed after Prime Minister Albert Reynolds lost a confidence vote in parliament. The defeat, by a vote of 88 to 77, happened one day after the Progressive Democrats, junior partners in the Fianna Fail-led coalition government, resigned from Reynolds’s cabinet. Reynolds had accused their leader, Industry Minister Des O’Malley, of being “reckless, irresponsible and dishonest” in his testimony to a tribunal on Ireland’s beef industry. A general election will be held on Nov. 25, the same day as a referendum on abortion.

BLOODSHED IN ANGOLA

Renewed fighting between Angolan government and rebel forces left an estimated 1,000 people dead. Last year, the rebel Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), supported by the United States and South Africa, ended a 16-year war against the former Sovietand Cuban-backed government. But UNITA rejected the outcome of United Nationssupervised parliamentary elections in September which gave a landslide victory to the leftist government.

MAJOR SQUEAKS THROUGH

Overcoming Labour Party opposition and a rebellion in his own Conservative Party, British Prime Minister John Major won a critical parliamentary vote on the Maastricht treaty for closer European union. MPs voted 319 to 316 to support the treaty. Major, who had staked his political and personal prestige on winning the vote, said that he would delay British ratification of the treaty until after a Danish referendum in May.

A MODERATE SURVIVES

By a vote of 18 to 17, Yugoslavia's upper house of parliament rejected a motion of no-confidence in Prime Minister Milan Panic, an American millionaire who took office in July with a pledge to restore peace in the disintegrating federation and lift UN sanctions against Serbia. A senior Panic aide said that the federal government would now focus its energies on ensuring “free and democratic” federal and Serbian elections next month.

NUCLEAR CUTBACKS

Russia’s parliament ratified the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks treaty signed by President George Bush and then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. The treaty obliges each side to reduce its number of long-range nuclear missiles to 1,600 and the number of nuclear warheads to 6,000 within seven years.

that 36-year-old economist has fought a yearlong political battle for such free-market goals as an end to subsidies to inefficient state industries. And as Dec. 1 looms, Gaidar and other cabinet ministers frankly acknowledge that they are running out of time to make the privatization of Russia irreversible.

To be sure, Gaidar’s freeing of retail prices has filled once-bare shelves in state stores. But with workers earning about 6,000 rubles per month on average—$19 with the battered ruble now trading at 313 per dollar—many consumers cannot afford such ordinary goods as winter boots, which now cost about 7,000 rubles. And even as Gaidar complains about critical legislative reforms that still need to be put into effect—including the right of ordinary citizens to buy and sell land—influential democrats are increasingly questioning the Gaidar team’s determination to end subsidies and let the market determine which enterprises would then survive. Prominent among them is St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoli Sobchak, who has voiced concern about the social effects of policies that would swiftly throw millions of Russians out of work. Said Sobchak: “For 70 years under communism everything about capitalism was automatically bad. Why do we have to switch so suddenly to the opposite view?”

The prime beneficiary of such doubts has been Arkady Volsky, the main spokesman for Civic Union, a political bloc that champions Russia’s captains of state industry. Volsky openly advocates the Chinese model of eco-

nomic reform—proceeding by small steps. Civic Union has the support of many Congress members, and last week Yeltsin and Volsky met to discuss a possible alliance on Dec. 1. The price for such co-operation: Civic Union representatives gave to Yeltsin with the names of government ministers they want replaced. Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s strongly pro-Western foreign minister, is on that hit list as is Anatoly Chubais, the deputy prime minister in charge of privatization.

While Gaidar’s hold on office is also weak, the prime minister has clearly steeled himself to accept massive surgery on his cabinet. Said Gaidar last week: “The future of Russia’s reforms does not depend on this government being intact. What is really important is whether we can create a workable consensus with the industrial sector that does not undermine the possibilities for a sensible economic policy.” Yeltsin seems to hold similar views. And that presidential embrace likely will result in a slower approach to the largely untackled job of transferring Russia’s state-owned enterprises to private hands—a policy switch that resembles Gorbachev’s tilt towards conservative forces during his last year in power. Privately, Yeltsin sometimes acknowledges the comparison with his old rival. Still, close associates add that he usually insists on one important distinction. Unlike Gorbachev, Yeltsin likes to say, his tactical shift will allow him to stay in office.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow