WORLD

RED TIDE RISING

Two years after the Soviet Union died, Communists still hold the reins of power

MALCOLM GRAY February 14 1994
WORLD

RED TIDE RISING

Two years after the Soviet Union died, Communists still hold the reins of power

MALCOLM GRAY February 14 1994

RED TIDE RISING

WORLD

Two years after the Soviet Union died, Communists still hold the reins of power

MALCOLM GRAY

Two years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Communists still have a firm hold on the power and privileges of office. In Moscow, a conservative cabinet of Soviet-era industrialists and statefarm boosters now runs the Russian government. And in the 450-seat state duma, the lower house of the country’s federal assembly, Communists and their ideological soul mates in the Agrarian party form a powerful opposition bloc of 102 members. The U.S.S.R. is indeed gone, but many of the familiar political figures who presided over the old empire’s decline and fall are still going strong in the independent states that took its place. In fact, 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics are now led by onetime highranking Communist party officials—Estonia, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia are the only three former republics with non-Communists at the helm. Said Yuri Davidov, an analyst at the Canada-U.SA Institute in Moscow: “Good administrators could not develop outside the system, non-Communists found it difficult to get experience running government—and people have reacted against that weakness.”

Those post-Soviet rulers are a mixed bunch of nationalists, democrats, free-market reformers and conservatives with little in common beyond now-faded Communist party membership cards. They range from Boris Yeltsin, a former party boss who fought his way to the Russian presidency by campaigning as an anti-Communist, to Turkmenistan leader Saparmurat Niyazov, an autocratic president who is the focus of a personality cult in his impoverished Central Asian republic. But even though they have wildly divergent theories on the best way to rebuild their countries’ shattered economies, post-Soviet leaders tend to favor a style of governing that pre-

dates the Communist era in Russia and other former republics: reform flows down to the people from the ruler on high. Yeltsin, for one, has not seen the need to form a political party embodying his views. Instead, he has consistently represented himself as the leader of all Russians—a latter-day czar who has demonstrated a clear preference for ruling by decree.

Certainly, Yeltsin gave former economics minister Yegor Gaidar and other reformers the opportunity to create a market economy in Russia. Through such measures as lifting state controls on prices, Gaidar and his allies in government at least set Russia on the road to capitalism. But the reformers failed to shut off the flow of easy government credit to obsolete and inefficient state enterprises— a measure that Yeltsin clearly feared would lead to high unemployment and widespread social unrest. As a result of that caution, only five such enterprises in all of Russia last year filed for bankruptcy. And with the large-scale industrial plants and farms of the Soviet era surviving, the managers who ran them have also retained their position as powerful regional barons.

Those Soviet-era survivors were hard at work during nationwide elections to the new state duma in December. And when Gennady Zyuganov, the 49-year-old leader of the Russian Communist party, barnstormed through the provinces to sell a softer, kinder version of Marxism than the now-discredited Soviet edition, the locals turned out in force to greet him. By contrast, Gaidar and other leaders of pro-Yeltsin democrats largely stuck close to Moscow, disdaining to explain to anxious voters exactly why economic

shock therapy and high unemployment were needed to ensure future prosperity.

According to Zyuganov, a former director of Communist party propaganda in the Soviet era, his reformed party no longer seeks the classic dictatorship of the proletariat and, in fact, does not even favor state monopoly of the economy. “Everybody accepts that now, and we even welcome foreign investment,” he says, recapping his successful election platform. “But we do not want to follow drastic recipes that Western countries prescribe but do not carry out themselves.”

At the same time as Zyuganov was orchestrating his party’s revival, ultranationalists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky were railing against Russia’s acquiescence to the West in return for unfulfilled promises of aid. It was a wellpublicized gesture of support by the Group of Seven, the world’s seven leading industrial democracies, to put together an aid package for Russia totalling $55 billion by 1993. But as Yeltsin himself complained recently, the G-7 countries are very slow to implement their pledges. In fact, according to Vladimir Sokolin, a representative of the federal Committee on Statistics, last year Russia actually received less than 10 per cent of the money preferred by the G-7.

In any event, the democrats’ poor showing in the December elections, the surge of electoral support for the Communists and Zhirinovsky’s unexpected success have influenced Yeltsin’s new go-slow approach to economic reform. To that end, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has insisted that the government’s priority will be to prevent mass un-

employment and a further decline in Russians’ living standards—even if that means continuing easy credits and subsidies for state enterprises. But the prime minister’s assertion that the government will only support viable enterprises, and allow foundering factories to go under, is far removed from the industrial shakeout sought by the now-departed radical reformers. Indeed, as the minimal number of bankruptcies indicates, almost all industrial managers clearly believe that their enterprises are capable of surviving with just a little help from friends in government. And they are now well represented in Moscow. “A parliament of lobbyists will be met with open arms by a cabinet of lobbyists,” declared Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who quit as an adviser to the Russian government after the recent cabinet changes.

But the so-called centrists and pragmatists who now form the core of Russia’s government have no more guarantees of attaining success than the market-oriented ministers they replaced. And as the results from December’s elections indicate, Russians are growing tired of living in a chaotic society that appears to be stuck halfway between communism and capitalism. Failure by the Soviet-era holdovers could conceivably produce yet another switch in policy and the return to power of Gaidar and other reformers. But continued muddle and decline are just as likely to bolster Zhirinovsky, who has openly promised to reinstate another fea-

___________ ture of Soviet rule to

Russia: dictatorship.

MALCOLM GRAY in

Moscow