Year One

John Lloyd

  • Boris Yeltsin by John Morrison
    Penguin, 303 pp, £8.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 14 017062 6
  • The August Coup: The Truth and its Lessons by Mikhail Gorbachev
    HarperCollins, 127 pp, £13.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 00 255044 X
  • The future belongs to freedom by Eduard Shevardnadze
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 256 pp, £15.00, September 1991, ISBN 1 85619 105 2
  • Bear-Hunting with the Politburo by A. Craig Copetas
    Simon and Schuster, 271 pp, £15.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 671 70313 7
  • The Accidental Proletariat: Workers, Politics and Crisis in Gorbachev’s Russia by Walter Connor
    Princeton, 374 pp, £25.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 691 07787 8

The Government of Russia has begun the year badly, even ominously. The flailing impotence of Mikhail Gorbachev has been replaced by Boris Yeltsin’s control by stealth. Gorbachev was open about the need for the retention of All-Union institutions: Yeltsin condemned his efforts, helped form the Commonwealth of Independent States – and has since then ensured that Russia controls all of the formerly common mechanisms in its own name. The Central and Foreign Currency Banks (Gosbank and Vnesheconombank) are under the Russian State Bank, which means that it controls how much credit and currency all the republics – including the three Baltic republics – have access to. Russia’s price liberalisation of 2 January forced every other republic to follow suit, or have their shelves stripped by Russian shoppers. Communications and transport, necessarily centrally-controlled, are now under Russian rubrics – which means that Aeroflot in Moscow will not sell a return ticket from another republic, only an outward bound one.

Most dangerously, the military is stuck in an illogical impasse from which the republican politicians cannot, or do not care to, extricate it. Russia supports the upkeep of the military, wherever they are based (again, including the Baltics, as well as East Germany and Poland). On 8 January, Yeltsin signed a decree – which had not been cleared with his fellow leaders of the CIS, though the CIS is supposed to be a military alliance – establishing a new oath, to be taken by all military, pledging allegiance to the Russian Federation. The consequences of this are that nominally independent states have on their territories the weaponry of a foreign power and armies bound by oath to make war on them if the interests of Russia demand it.

The dynamics of inter-state negotiation make a fascinating study. As in the old, Communist days, the leaderships meet, publicly pledge friendship, make bland statements, issue high-sounding declarations – and conduct their real business in private, in a very different spirit. Now, however, there is no Party to determine the shares and the spoils; and the behind-the-scenes moves are made in a multitude of different places and forums by princelings and their courts who – poorly advised, poorly equipped, poorly trained for the jobs they find themselves doing – are constrained only by the thought of retribution or by calculations about what the West, giver of aid, bringer of capital, will approve.

In this world, Boris Yeltsin is of course the dominant politician, but in the end he, too, is governed by his own nationalist imperatives. In the recent controversy over the Black Sea Fleet, he told workers during a meet-the-people stop in Ulyanovsk that ‘the Black Sea Fleet was, is and always will be Russian’: something the crowd wanted to hear, something he was in a position to enforce, but an inflammatory statement when what was needed was a piece of grave mush which would have allowed time for negotiations. Yeltsin’s obvious strengths, his courage during the failed putsch, his early departure from the Communist Party, the links he formed with the democrats and radicals most admired in the West, his willingness to submit himself to the electorate, have all obscured the fact that his period in office has so far been undistinguished. His peacemaking efforts in the Caucasus have had no effect. He permitted himself to be bounced into sending troops into North Ossetia to keep that Russian autonomous republic within the bounds of the constitution, then withdrew them 24 hours later with nothing achieved except that the hand of the new ruler, General Dudaev, had been strengthened. He has been unable to stop relations between the Russian Republic and the Baltic states worsening, nor has he had any discernible effect on the struggle between Russians and Moldovans in the Dniester area of Moldova. He delayed far too long in instigating economic reform: when he finally selected a coherent government, he ensured that it had almost no room for manoeuvre, and that all it could do was to liberate prices – a move which is presently devastating shoppers’ budgets and against which there is no structural remedy, since the state monopoly has not been dismantled. He brought about the overthrow of Gorbachev and the end of the Union long before the central issues of the transfer of power had been broached, let alone settled. He has pledged himself to stand behind his government’s programme of economic reform by making himself prime minister – a move which gives the programme the only solid political backing it has, but which deprives Yeltsin of any flexibility, except at the cost of going back on his word.

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