by Michael Hammerschlag

                                Moscow News Jan ‘94



Yeltsin’s moves to consolidate power directly in his hands seem more and more unwise, because his hands won’t always be there.  After Russia’s Choice managed, through arrogance and inexperience, to make such a miserable showing, Yeltsin should have done everything he could to bring all democrats and reformers together; instead he immediately punished Shakrai Party members Sergei Stankevich and Legal Dept. Head Kotenkov, and State TV head Bragin by dismissing them. Admittedly, the Russia’s Choice campaign was miserably managed: whoever approved that poster of already portly Gaidar looking positively massive- half turned and leering over his shoulder (“like a  sheep-stealer”, one woman said), should have been hung out to dry. But ultimately, their failures rest with Yeltsin, who could have banned competing democratic parties inside the government and come out strongly for Russia’s Choice (though. the diaspora of democracy is good in the long and short run, and Yeltsin’s avoiding partisan endorsements may have been wise).


Zhirinovsky did not, however, achieve the predominance that people have assumed: the main opposition will still be communist and neo-communist.  If half of the independents join Russia’s Choice, Yabloko, and PRES, the reformists will have 177 deputies, if the Communists pick up 1/3 of the independents along with the Agrarian and Democratic (Travkin) Parties, they would have 138. Zhirinovsky, forced to choose better people than himself when confronted with his unexpected success (to moderate his extreme image), may not be able to hold them: some may defect to the Communists or Reformers, and few others besides the 65 in his party will probably want to be publicly allied with such an extreme figure.  If the Communist alliance joins up with Zhirinovsky’s (Zyuganov has had alarmingly complementary things to say about him), they will be able to block most reform moves, creating the same stalemate as in the old Congress.


Like Joseph McCarthy, Zhirinovsky is a textbook demagogue, changing his beliefs as others change suits. When the Communists were in power, he supported them; when the ‘91 coup-plotters seized control, he supported them; when Yeltsin was almost impeached by Congress, he supported them, and incredibly, when Yeltsin shut down the Congress, he supported Yeltsin, the only reason he wasn’t muzzled along with the other extremists.


In taking control of newly formed Press Agencies, Yeltsin is showing alarmingly familiar tendencies and a somewhat fuzzy understanding of a free press. “There will be a clearer structure of the mass-media,” he said. “Its subdivisions will be more independent.... and will report directly to the President.” Independent as Vyacheslav Bragin??  About new TV director Yakovlev, he said  “We are sure of him”. Is any leader supposed to be sure of a TV executive?


The reformation and wholesale housecleaning of the KGB is long overdue, but the way it’s being done, turning it into Yeltsin’s private police force, is disquieting. 1/5 of the Security Ministry will be a counterintelligence unit under Golushko, who report directly to Yeltsin; the other 4/5 (presumably to be mostly decommissioned) will be under his Kremlin Guard. It’s a classic problem, if the security services are under the thumb of one man, they can be used to terrorize his enemies; but if they are independent, they become an unstoppable power in themselves, and can terrorize everyone (including the highest leaders), which they did here for so long. The crimes of the KGB are unmatched in human history; even Hitler’s monstrous minions murdered less than half as many people. By contrast, the American FBI, with files on everyone in power and a vindictive neurotic at its head (J. Edgar Hoover), was an independent rogue power for 50 years, cowing even Presidents.


Yeltsin has correctly ascribed much of the right wing vote to a protest by the new poor about their economic devastation, but the incredible military turnout for Zhirinovsky (reportedly 72% in the Strategic Rocket Forces) is a frightening portent of future problems. Combined with Yeltsin’s debt to the Army for pounding the Parliament into submission, it means he must address their problems, or else.


The terrible quandary is that everything Yeltsin does to consolidate power to defend reforms against conservatives or fascists, make the fascist threat more potent and likely. If they come to power, all these tools for abuse will be in their hands. “The key thing Germany did not have (1932) is a President and Constitution standing guard against fascism”, reassured Yeltsin. But the Constitution grants enormous power to the President and Yeltsin can only defend the Presidency as long as he occupies it.  If the shredded economy leads to greater poverty and dislocation in the next 2 years, as is likely, that may be till 1996.


Michael Hammerschlag is a political commentator who has spent 2 years in Russia   HOME: