Ruslan’s Rise

John Lloyd

  • The Struggle for Russia: Power and Change in the Democratic Revolution by Ruslan Khasbulatov, translated by Richard Sakwa
    Routledge, 256 pp, £19.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 415 09292 2

Mr Ruslan lmranovich Khasbulatov must be taken seriously, though it isn’t always easy to do so: he can be so self-regarding and flatulent, so biased in his handling of the Russian Parliament, of which he is the Speaker, and so contradictory in everything he says. But he has become one of the most important men in Russia; and because of the state of that country, and the great danger it will pose for the rest of the world if its reform movement implodes and sets off a chain of internal and external conflicts, he is a critically important world figure. It is true that he has found himself in this position by a mixture of chance and opportunism. The same may apply to much of the contemporary Russian political establishment, but he, more than most, has exploited a difficult situation with great skill and ruthlessness. It is now clear that the challenge he mounted to the Presidency, and the counter-challenge mounted by Boris Yeltsin to him and the Parliament, are part of a profoundly important struggle which will affect, even set, the future course of Russia. It would be wrong to regard this contest as a clash of personalities, or to see it, as many Russians do, as irrelevant posturing on the part of corrupt politicians whose one concern is to keep their noses in the Moscow trough. The personal issues are more than usually important, since the two men seem to hate each other, but several things are at stake here: the balance of powers in the state they are now attempting to construct; the possibility of reform via the remnants of the Soviet system, as opposed to authoritarian reform from above; the possibility, or lack of it, of maintaining a democracy where a civil society is barely appearing.

It is a happy chance for Khasbulatov that the publication of his book coincides with a renewed upheaval in Moscow – one which, as Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian leader, put it on the day Yeltsin announced Presidential rule, smells like a coming civil war. This will no doubt stimulate sales of a book which might otherwise have joined the ranks of dull memoirs by Russian political leaders. Those who buy it – and it is to be recommended because of the interest of the man, if for no other reason – will find a work consisting of an extended series of interviews conducted by two sympathetic Russian journalists in 1991; a further series of interviews on the attempted putsch of August 1991; and a final group of essays on such themes as ‘Power’, ‘The Separation of Powers’, ‘Federalism and Democracy’– the issues which are now convulsing Russia.

In his position as Speaker of the Russian Parliament (a role far broader than that of our own Speaker, in which Khasbulatov has managed to include the duties of spokesman for Parliament and chief executive), he has shown three main virtues. First, he has consistently argued that a balance of power must be struck between legislative and executive powers in Russia, even if he has not said how this is to be done. Secondly, he has consistently expressed public scepticism about the Government’s economic strategy, which he regarded early on as incompetent and inappropriate for Russia. I do not think he is right here, but it is difficult to know what he wants economically and he was quick to identify the pain involved in the process and in this no doubt caught the popular mood. It is also the case that there must be more open and informed discussion, East and West, on how reform is to be undertaken and how – if it can be – assisted. Finally, he has sharpened to a point the critical question of the moment: can Boris Yeltsin be trusted? He has of course already answered in the negative. Again, I believe he is wrong – or at any rate I hope he is. These, of course, are the major issues facing his country, and much of what he has to say reflects at least a measure of popular opinion. Willy-nilly, his beliefs, ambitions and actions are being inscribed in history.

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