Russian Reform is Dead

Yuri N Afanasyev. Foreign Affairs. Volume 73, Issue 2. March/April 1994.

The political rearrangement in Russia that began with the attrition of reform forces in mid-1992 has come to an end. The January departure from government of economic and political reformers Yegor Gaidar, Boris Fyodorov and Ella Pamfilova erased all doubts. Until then, despite reactionary successes in the December parliamentary elections, it was possible to believe that the necessary reforms urged by Gaidar, however inadequate the half steps, would continue. Those economic reforms were only monetarist and anti-inflationary, not structural. But now it is clear that there will be no reforms, not even bad ones.

Under the guise of social welfare policies, a planned economy will be reestablished. Its executors will be Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin; his ally, industrialist Oleg Soskovets, who will be the sole first deputy prime minister; Aleksandr Zaveryukha, deputy prime minister of agriculture; and Yuri Skokov, an industrialist and former head of the Russian National Security Council.

President Boris Yeltsin has become merely decorative. His professed understanding of Gaidar's resignation as first deputy prime minister means that he understands there will be no radical economic reforms. While Yeltsin vows that his role as president is to guarantee structural reform, his office will be ornamental. If reform is to come, the work will be done by others.

Meanwhile, Gaidar vows that from his perch in the new parliament he will not become an opponent of Yeltsin; Andrei Kozyrev, holding on as foreign minister, will further learn how to talk tough foreign policy to out-Zhirinovsky the openly fascist parliamentarian, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The West will continue to insist that Yeltsin represents democracy. Russia, instead of moving along the axis of time, will continue spinning in the Western-versus-Slavic circle codified in Russian thought by the early nineteenth century writings of Petr Chaadayev. This tension promises further conflicts like the failed coup of August 1991 and the forced shutdown of the Soviet parliament in October 1993.

An Authoritarian Legacy


Zhirinovsky's victory in the December elections resulted from the failure of Yeltsin's reforms, but the vote also indicated something broader about Russian society and its mentality. It suggested cultural forces that lie beyond the enduring support for communist and fascist blocs, that go to the essential nature of the Russian people. In prerevolutionary Russia, public awareness was primarily traditional and mythological. The irrational predominated, with pagan and Christian concepts, symbols and ideals. People lived and acted, led not by reason but by superstition. Their freedom was confined by these intellectual limitations and habits. After 1917 an additional constraint on freedom was imposed, this time the allegedly rational ideology of Marxism-Leninism The double bondage of these totalitarian heritages is most evident in the spiritual life of contemporary Russia. That legacy is the main reason for the sense of lost—or rather never acquired—Russian identity and the deformed perception of the surrounding world as a threat.

The main reason the Russian people have not escaped totalitarian systems, before or since 1917, has been the lack of a civil society. The state monopolized every activity, and no autonomous society existed apart from its all-pervasive scope. The same vicious trap, guaranteeing self-replication of the system, was first delineated in the mid-nineteenth century by the revolutionary populist Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Surveying the Russian Empire and its prospects, he wrote that "an omnipotent state means subjects deprived of initiative." Reforms, be they Peter the Great's or Nikita Khrushchev's, did not spring open the trap, but merely modernized the system in order to preserve and strengthen the regime.

Zhirinovsky's success cannot yet be seen as the onslaught of a Brown Shirt plague, although such a danger exists. In the short term, he is the latest of many scapegoats for the failures of reform in Russian history. Nothing is left of the latest reform movement but rhetoric. Last ear saw the dwindling of the course set by Gaidar. The result is an increased gap between the authorities and society, a loss of social welfare, a predatory enrichment of the nomenklatura through the conversion of power and connections into wealth, and a shift in power toward Zhirinovsky. The prospect for Russia in the near future will be the strengthening of the military-industrial complex in union with the neo-Soviet nomenklatura, which will result in an authoritarian regime, today headed by Yeltsin, tomorrow perhaps by someone else. But real political power is already under outside control, hidden and duplicitous.

Revenge of the Military


It has become evident that the real winner in the October 1993 showdown between Yeltsin and the Soviet parliament was the military-industrial complex, acting in unison with the bureaucracy. At the time, the events of October were seen as a victory of democracy, a removal of obstacles on the path to reform. It now appears that the military exacted certain concessions before bailing out Yeltsin by storming the parliament. The very day after the resolution of the parliamentary insurrection, Yeltsin convened a Security Council meeting that had only one item on the agenda: a new military doctrine that expanded Russia's security interests throughout the territory of the former U.S.S.R. and rescinded the no-first-use nuclear weapons pledge from the Gorbachev era. This move was initiated before fires were put out and before the dead were buried, as if in all of Russia, in all the world, there were no more important problems.

Recent actions by Yeltsin's government confirm that the military, which had lost some power under Gorbachev, now has even greater influence. No longer repeated are Yeltsin's statements on reducing the armed forces by two-thirds. Instead, as commander in chief, Yeltsin appears in photographs with a machine gun in hand and assures Russians hat there will be no more concessions to the West. The 1994 budget funds military purchases at the same level as a year ago, and more than 2,000 enterprises and 660 scientific institutes throughout Russia are filling those orders. Not a single new conversion program is to be financed in 1994.

In January Russia had yet to create a budget and the new government had not been formed, but the new demands of the military were already under discussion. The Security Council met on January 19 to consider the military and technological—and therefore financial—problems of the new doctrine. Yet Boris Fyodorov, although still finance minister, was barred from the meeting.

A Foxhole Mentality


The military's political victory is tightly interwoven with Russia's foreign policy. As a result, great-power ideology is now openly espoused by some as a part of official state policy. Military pressure has already forced Yeltsin to reverse himself on acquiescing to Central and East European countries seeking NATO membership. The new military doctrine of asserting interests in the "near abroad" is fueling more blatant attempts to subordinate former Soviet republics. The idea, indicative of a foxhole mentality, is to reestablish the countries of the former socialist camp as buffers between Russia and the "far abroad." The policy is placing millions of people in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who thought they were free of Moscow's control, in a difficult situation.

Relations between Russia and nations of the near abroad pose a huge, immediate problem. At gigantic expense to Russia, economic pressure is being used to force former Soviet republics to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But unlike the U.S.S.R., Russia will not accept responsibility for what happens within these countries—neither the bloodbath in Georgia nor the hunger in Armenia.

Under the guise of protecting Russian-speaking populations, Russia is now supporting national liberation' movements in countries that seek independence. Sometimes the direct participation of Russian troops is camouflaged and presented to the world as a peacekeeping mission in an interethnic conflict. In Moldova, Russia has shown an obvious unwillingness to remove its remaining army divisions. In Georgia, Russia quietly supported the Abkhazian separatists, then salvaged President Eduard Shevardnadze's central government only after he paid the price of joining the CIS.

In Central Asia, Russia continues to wage an undeclared war with unstated aims. It is siding with a reactionary regime in Tajikistan that is ruthlessly crushing the smallest shoots of free thought and democracy. Tajiks calling for democratic changes have been forced to flee and live as emigres in Russia, India and other countries. Russian authorities are working with the current Tajik regime to finish off the remnants of the opposition, the remnants of democratic forces. Seeking allies in the conflict so that Russia would not have to fight alone, Kozyrev traveled to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Russia wants to hide behind the flags of several countries, just as the U.S.S.R. did during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The rhetoric is different, but the motives are the same: Russia's interest in a major uranium mine in Tajikistan, an aviation pant in Tbilisi, Georgia, defense plants in the Transdniester region of Moldova, and the Black Sea coast and fleet in Ukraine's Crimea. Russia's multipronged involvement in the near abroad is probably a manifestation of a hope to restore the empire. It is one thing when communists rally to demand restoration of the U.S.S.R., and another when it is the official position of the putatively reformist Russian government. Lately, Russia's foreign policy has been explained only by vague words about strategic aims, but not by thorough official statements from the foreign minister, the president or anyone else. Taken at face value, the actions suggest that the ten-year war in Afghanistan taught the current leadership nothing. Today, people are again dying throughout the CIS, and if things continue, the lives of thousands of Russians at home and abroad will be at risk. Imperial ambitions will bring Russia to total ruin. The Soviet empire collapsed because it could not support so many territories, and all attempts to revive that policy are doomed to fail.

Only the Names Change


The looming prospect of a return to the so-called planned economy is equally disastrous. Russia's age-old penchant for subordinating economic considerations to demands for control by political leaders is again at work. Despite reforms since the time of Peter the Great, the economy remains a premodern, artificial construct completely dependent on the state life-support system and incapable of surviving by market-driven decisions.

Today the gigantic supermonopoly of the state determines the gross national product. Central planning and distribution agencies have changed names but not functions Ministries and institutions now call themselves "holding companies" and "concerns," but they still suppress all market-oriented competition. The Central Bank has taken on many distribution functions. It distributes finances at the federal level, which is essentially the same as distributing resources and planning the volume of production. On the regional level, distribution is controlled by the local nomenklatura. In fact, such distribution is the main work of all government administrations—in oblasts, republics and Moscow.

The 400 or so monopolistic government agencies in various branches of industry all require subsidies. At their initiative new duties are being imposed on agricultural and industrial goods, thus eliminating competition, expanding opportunities for price increases and creating hothouse conditions for incompetent administrators. Pseudo-commercial banks that merely redistribute state finances and do not depend on deposits from people or enterprises now prevail. Among them are banks covering various branches of industry that add to the monopolies' strength. Fear of competition has led to a ban on foreign banks.

Agriculture remains in a terrible state, not because of a lack of equipment, fuel or money, but because of new relations among producers, consumers and the state. A gigantic monopoly, Agroprom, is the main social brake on the development of agricultural production, the introduction of private land ownership and the formation of private farms or voluntary collectives. To this day peasants of the collective farms turn in produce and receive goods in return. A product-money relationship is still lacking.

In an astonishing and unexpected form, the archaic communal system of the Russian village, combined with Agroprom's socialist practices, has become an insurmountable obstacle to reform.

The powerful agricultural lobby in the new parliament and the government will continue to demand incredible subsidies from the state treasury. Unlike Western subsidies (often cited as justification for Russian ones by the agricultural nomenklatura), Russian subsidies go not to farmers but to Agroprom, a system without analogy in any developed country.

The Noise of the Times


A truly democratic government should be thinking of ways to get out of the economy, leaving the state only indirect instruments of regulationtaxes, credits, financing, excises and customs duties. Unfortunately everything suggests that the leaders of the powerful economic structures will remain active and determine the political and economic life of modern Russia. Now is not the first time reforms have been halted not only by the evil intentions of those in power but by three social forces that predominate in Russia. In production, the driving force is the military-industrial complex. Its primary interest is receiving additional payments from the state budget. The second force is the collective peasantry, debased, used to a parasitic lifestyle, thievery and shoddy work, supported by the agrarian nomenklatura. Their only hope is also the state. The third force is the bureaucracy, 20 million almost totally corrupt clerks who seek additional opportunities for bribes and form the black market. All three forces are aligned against the market economy and democracy.

Russia's great poet, Osip Mandelstam, coined a phrase for the events in Russia in October 1917, calling them "the noise of the times"—something not very clear, hard to distinguish, but powerful, agitating and frightening. With the Iron Curtain gone, an entire region that had seemed impregnable, fully formed, stable and balanced has turned into a shifting terrain. Germany has united; Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland are drifting toward the European Community. Everything is being moved and redefined—concepts, foundations, and economic, social and political structures. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia has put borders and the stability of the entire European landmass in doubt.

Russia is not exempt from these changes. But in past times of crisis, its people have been moved by underlying beliefs to return to the traditional road and reject attempts to become a modern society. Today a struggle for power is underway. One order is leaving and another has yet to arrive. Once again "the noise of the times" resounds. What will its echo bring this time? Will life in Russia find a new balance? Russia's economic, social and political conditions again speak of the enormous difficulties of escaping the vicious circle. The state still reigns supreme, and the people of Russia still have not shown the political will to take a more direct road to democracy.