Rutskoi: Moscow's Man in the Wings

March 28, 1993|By S. FREDERICK STARR

Over the past week, an anxious world watched the latest round of Boris Yeltsin's epic confrontation with the Russian parliament and its adroit leader, Ruslan Khasbulatov. Mr. Yeltsin seems to have won this round on points, and now has until the plebiscite on April 25 to train for a knockout. But he was not the only gainer. Less conspicuous -- but possibly of equal importance -- is the way in which the crisis promoted Alexander Rutskoi to leadership of the opposition to Mr. Yeltsin.

Is this the same Alexander Rutskoi whom Mr. Yeltsin himself hand-picked to be his running mate in 1991? Who organized the defense of the Moscow "White House" during the abortive coup? Who stood by Mr. Yelstin's side throughout the successful campaign for a new Federal Treaty which re-established a new )) Russia?

Yes, the very one. But now he leads the opposition and, as vice president, is separated from the big office by only one heartbeat -- or an impeachment, a resignation or a Yeltsin defeat in the plebiscite scheduled for next month.

For a year, Mr. Rutskoi has made no secret of his opposition to his president. He has criticized both the domestic and foreign policies of his boss. Most recently, he came out squarely against Mr. Yeltsin's call for special powers, although he then conceded Mr. Yeltsin's right to hold a plebiscite.

Mr. Yeltsin, with his keen political sense, reciprocated by assigning Mr. Rutskoi two of the most thankless tasks in his administration: to look after agriculture and to lead the fight against crime. Mr. Rutskoi responded by holding meetings with Mr. Yeltsin's most outspoken critics and forming what Moscow insiders call a "shadow cabinet."

All this attention had thrust Mr. Rutskoi to the fore even before last week's crisis. Mr. Yeltsin's duel with the parliament further strengthened the vice president. The parliament's point man, Mr. Khasbulatov, failed in his bid to oust Mr. Yeltsin. Not only that, the parliament speaker has conducted himself with such overweening arrogance that even his supporters have cooled toward him.

Along with these two strikes against him, Mr. Khasbulatov, a Chechin, has the liability of not being an ethnic Russian, no small matter in a land seeking to reclaim its national self-respect and pride. Mr. Rutskoi, by contrast, is Russian -- very Russian.

Who is this Alexander Rutskoi, and what does he stand for? Before 1988 he was an unknown. He was born in 1947 to Russian parents who were then living in the Ukraine. His father was an army man. Like so many Russians in the Red Army who were posted in other republics of the Soviet Union, the elder Rutskoi believed ardently in the Soviet Empire. Alexander followed in his father's footsteps and, instead of attending college, enlisted in the Air Force.

Had it not been for Afghanistan, Mr. Rutskoi might today be training fighter pilots at some remote base in Russia. But during the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, he was shot down twice and then taken hostage by the mujahedeen. When his captors finally freed him, he emerged as one of the few Russian heroes of the Afghan war. The public knew well that many Red Army boys had disgraced themselves in Afghanistan by committing massacres, trading in drugs or going AWOL. Mr. Rutskoi, by contrast, had stood tall, and thus became a symbol of Russia's post-war renewal. He was also promoted to colonel.

As perestroika gained momentum, Mr. Rutskoi tried his hand at politics. He lost in his first run for the parliament but was elected on his second try. This is when Mr. Yeltsin picked him out. A war hero with no inconvenient political views, he was young and sported a handsome mustache.

Mr. Rutskoi seemed to Mr. Yeltsin to be a perfect running mate, and so he was.

Once in office, however, Mr. Rutskoi's economic and political views began to take form. It soon emerged that while he professed to favor privatization of the economy, he insisted that large industries -- nearly three-quarters of the economy -- should remain state-owned. Even though many of these firms are basket cases, he has come out in favor of big state subsidies for them, the very subsidies that fueled hyper-inflation throughout this past year.

Furthermore, at a time when American and Western oil companies are bidding to help develop Russia's vast reserves, Mr. Rutskoi flatly opposes denationalizing Russia's oil industry. And he has strongly criticized Mr. Yeltsin's voucher plan for the sale of state assets.

In short, Mr. Rutskoi has emerged as a go-slow reformer, a champion of a mixed economy that would be mainly Socialist but with a -- of private ownership. This places him squarely with the bloc of big industrialists in the congress who are among Mr. Yeltsin's most bitter foes.

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