Yeltsin Faces Challenges from Nationalists and Communists

November 22, 1992|By STEVEN MERRITT MINER

During the presidential campaign, American voters seemed united in at least one thing: Foreign affairs were not a central issue. Unfortunately, rapid, destabilizing changes abroad, especially in the successor states of the Soviet empire, do not give us the luxury of adopting "splendid isolation."

As Robert Strauss, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said this month, should democratic governments in Eastern Europe, especially in Russia, fail to sink strong roots, the resulting chaos would soon enough have a drastic domestic impact in the United States.

The economic and political situation in Russia is indeed becoming graver. According to the Russian constitution, President Boris N. Yeltsin has four more years to serve, and, as yet, there is no single individual or group who commands wide enough support among the populace to challenge him directly. Nonetheless, Mr. Yeltsin is increasingly beset by intemperate critics and the intractable problems he has inherited.

Critics say that the Russian president has shown himself to be vindictive, as in his running feud with Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Also, they claim, he has shown a disturbing tendency to rule by decree. Earlier this year, he seemed willing to discuss returning the Kurile Islands to Japan in exchange for economic assistance; in August, he suddenly canceled his plans to visit Japan and announced the disputed islands would remain Russian.

Earlier, he signed agreements with the newly independent Baltic states, scheduling a withdrawal of Russian troops from their soil by August 1993; this month, he reversed himself, suspending the troop removal indefinitely.

And in late October, when a coalition of Russian nationalists formed a "National Salvation Front," with the expressed purpose of toppling him, Mr. Yeltsin ordered the group disbanded, accusing it of planning an unconstitutional seizure of power.

To many Russians, these signs prove that Mr. Yeltsin has succumbed to the ancient Russian authoritarian tradition. Some have even dubbed him "Czar Boris" -- a historical analogy with the Russian ruler of the late 16th Century who came to power through questionable means and whose reign was followed by a disastrous period known as the "Time of Troubles."

Unquestionably, Mr. Yeltsin has drifted rightward, but this is, in large part, an indication of where his most significant opposition is centered. This is shown most starkly in the case of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of former Communist apparatchiks, Orthodox Russian nationalists and anti-Semitic xenophobes. Its enemies have called it a union of black shirts (fascists) and red shirts (Communists). This is no exaggeration.

At first glance, the front seems inherently unstable; indeed, it probably would be should it ever seize power. After all, what could possibly link former atheist Communist internationalists with pious Orthodox nationalists, aging Stalinists with former inmates of the Gulag who believe Russia has a spiritual mission?

The only link is a shared sense of wounded nationalism. For Russian nationalists, the past five years, which the world at large has welcomed as the freeing of Russia, have been disastrous. As one Russian told me as we watched the fireworks celebrating Mr. Yeltsin's victory over the August 1991 coup, "A plague has descended on Russia."

The front is further proof that the one thing linking the extremes of right and left is a shared hostility to liberal democracy and open societies.

Soviet apparatchiks mourn the loss of Soviet power, the East European empire and the respect the Soviet Union used to command through its military might and supposed ideological appeal. This element is numerically weak but well-placed in Russian society, since it supplied the administrative class.

Allied with this group in the front, but in many ways very different, are the non-Communist Russian nationalists. These people see dark forces at work undermining the Russian state and society. They dislike the market economy and the loss of a largely mythical Orthodox Christian spiritual unity among the Russian people. They believe that Mr. Yeltsin has abandoned his "brother Slavs," the Serbs, whom they see as being unjustly vilified by the West. Above all, many of these nationalists decry what they believe to be the malign influence of "international Jewry" in Russia.

Not all Russian nationalists are religious extremists or anti-Semites, but many of those in the front are. The novelist Valetin Rasputin, for instance, has in the past said that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ, as well as for creating the Soviet secret police. Igor Shafarevich, a scientist also associated with the front, has written that Jews, being a "little people," cannot abide the existence of a "great people" such as the Russians, and so work to foster "Russophobia."

Mr. Yeltsin first showed himself to be vulnerable to his nationalist critics when he reversed himself over the Kurile Islands dispute.

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