Russia at a crossroads

Richard Pipes

March 16, 1993|By Richard Pipes

RUSSIA faces three options: It can continue to progress, however haltingly, toward democracy and a free market, relapse into some form of dictatorship or dissolve in anarchy.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the economy has not caused the present crisis: While it is far from satisfactory, nobody is starving and private initiative is beginning to fill the vacuum created by the breakdown of state ownership. There is food in stores, public transport is running, telephones are operating. Life goes on.

Russia's problems have always been first and foremost political and today's predicament is no different. We are witnessing an attempt by the old communist ruling class to recapture power and the privileges that went with it, while using the parlous state of the economy as a pretext.

Led by an ambitious adventurer, Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of the unrepresentative body called the Congress of People's Deputies, it is trying to gain by parliamentary maneuvering what it failed to acquire by military power in August 1991.

It is a clever ploy because it conceals a bid for dictatorial authority behind claims of the defense of parliamentary democracy.

The stratagem has sown confusion among Western leaders, taught by historical experience to side with parliament against individuals aspiring to personal power.

In this case the conflict does not pit a duly elected legislature against a power-greedy chief executive.

It is the president who has been democratically elected while the Congress is a largely self-appointed body dating to the Soviet Union.

It is Boris Yeltsin who represents the nation. The proof is that the Congress has reneged on its pledge to hold a referendum next month in which, among other things, voters would be asked to decide whether they preferred presidential or parliamentary government.

If Mr. Yeltsin's opponents thought they could win, they would have insisted on such a referendum.

In recent months Russia has had, as in 1917, a dual government in which authority has been exercised independently by the executive and legislature. This situation obviously cannot endure and that is why the conflict has come to a head.

In the best of all worlds for the conservatives, who are mostly die-hard communists, they would remove Mr. Yeltsin and vest executive power in a parliamentary cabinet.

If pushed they might acquiesce to a ceremonial head of state.

Presidential rule, they maintain, is alien to Russia (which is true) whose traditional form of government is the democratic collective (which is ludicrous).

They are emulating the tactic used by Lenin and Trotsky in October 1917, who accused Kerensky of dictatorial ambitions and demanded that he yield power to the Congress of Soviets, which they had packed with their own followers. A true dictatorship followed.

Should they succeed, Mr. Yeltsin's conservative opponents are unlikely to restore full-fledged communism: The system has disintegrated too far for this to be a realistic alternative.

They are more likely to follow the Romanian pattern, which retains the substance of communism under different labels. This would entail restricting political and press freedom and introducing the so-called regulated market.

They would probably make use of Russian troops deployed in the independent republics and in the guise of protecting the Russian minorities and maintaining regional "stability" attempt to re-establish the empire. And they would resume the arms race to regain Russia's superpower status.

Could they succeed?

No, for two reasons. Most Russians, judging by opinion polls, even though disappointed by democracy, have no desire for a dictatorship. A counterrevolution would unleash social and ethnic turmoil with which the putschists, even if initially successful, could not cope.

Moreover, Mr. Yeltsin is no vacillating Kerensky but a formidable politician, unwilling to be reduced to a figurehead let alone be displaced from power.

Ill-suited to routine administration, impulsive and feisty, he is at his best when fighting for his political life. To build his political base, Mr. Yeltsin has negotiated with moderately conservative groups and made some inroads into their camp. He has made contact with the military, which holds the key to any decisive power struggle.

He makes no secret that he has been laying the groundwork for the imposition of emergency rule, which would enable him to continue political and economic reforms. His repeated warnings to this effect are no bluff.

It is a welcome sign that after initial hesitation, Washington seems to have realized that the success of democracy in Russia may require resort to methods that in the West would be unacceptable.

It should persist in this course and not allow itself to be misled by the putschists' professions that they are fighting for the cause of representative government against a would-be dictator.

Exactly like the Bolsheviks in 1917, they are exploiting populist slogans to camouflage a bid for authoritarian rule.

Richard Pipes, professor of history at Harvard, is author of "The Russian Revolution."

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