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.

Khasbulatov would – does still – call himself a reformer, and indeed he has been one. His career has much in common with those of other prominent figures on the contemporary Russian scene, and it is worth rehearsing. Born in 1942 in the Russian Caucasian republic of Chechnya, he was deported as a child with his family to the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan because Stalin wished to punish and isolate a group who he believed had collaborated with the Germans (some had and this was enough to establish national guilt). He was brought up in poverty, he writes, by his mother, working on a state farm near where she worked: yet (he does not explain how) he gained entrance into the law faculty of Alma Ata University, and later transferred to that of the élite Moscow State University. Another lad from a country village, Mikhail Gorbachev, had been in the same faculty before him, but Gorbachev had been the son of a model Communist, not of a suspect Chechen. An acquaintance of mine who knew Khasbulatov when he was a scholar said he was the first Chechen to graduate from the Moscow University faculty, and proud of it – not surprisingly.

As a student, Khasbulatov became a model member of the Party which had exiled and terrorised his people. He became an activist in the Komsomol, and rose to the Central Committee, that preparation ground for future leaders, qualifying for foreign travel and passing into the middle level of the nomenclatura. Switching from law to economics, he was accepted as a lecturer in the Plekhanov Institute of the Economy in Moscow: a less prestigious place than the Central Mathematical Institute or the Institute of the Economy at the Academy of Sciences, but, being in Moscow, prestigious enough and the home of a number of economists who have since made names for themselves – including Konstantin Fyodorov, now the governor of Sakhalin in the Far East.

Khasbulatov did not emerge into the public consciousness until Gorbachevian glasnost made it relatively acceptable to be controversial, whereupon he began to write articles proposing liberalisation, especially of prices. An article on that subject in Pravda in 1986 was, he says, a landmark and still referred to. He says he was criticised at the Plekhanov Institute and in the Party because he was held to have an excessively pro-Western bias. He made a special study of the economy of Canada and in a curious passage in one of his interviews reflects on his first impressions when visiting that country:

It was amazing to observe life in Western cities and towns. They were so clean and neat. In the morning bottles of milk or bags with food would be placed by delivery-boys at the doors of many family homes. People in the street would just pass by and it would never occur to anyone to break or steal anything. This observation made me doubt the fact that the class struggle is an inevitable fact of human society.

He was elected in 1990 as a Russian People’s Deputy representing the Chechen capital of Grozny. The election goes a long way to explain the composition of the present Russian Parliament – most of whose deputies were elected in that year – and shows the tenuousness of Khasbulatov’s own mandate. He had almost no links with his native land: his career was made in Kazakhstan and Moscow, and he came to Grozny as a political parachutist – a Communist, but running against the second secretary of the local Party on a reform ticket. Many of his colleagues in Parliament now, both the majority who are more or less on his side against Yeltsin and the minority who still support the President, have similar political histories.

As he makes clear, he was attractive to the Grozny electorate, who saw him as a Muscovite reformer: ‘I would not have won the election but for the help of the teaching staff and students of Grozny University, professors of various Moscow universities and a group of Moscow journalists. One factor in my favour was that my publications on various socio-economic issues were familiar to the general reader. With an effective campaign organisation, it eased my way to victory.’

His victory meant that he represented a city he hardly knew and which (as he says) he has hardly visited since. It is a safe bet to say that he never visits it now, since Chechnya has been declared (by itself, not by the Russian Government) an independent republic under the eccentric and high-profile President, General Dzhokar Dudayev – himself something of a parachutist, who returned to Grozny to claim the Presidency in 1992 after a successful career in the Soviet Air Force. At one stage, General Dudayev was reported to have put a kind of fatwa out on Khasbulatov, offering money for his assassination: he remains one of the most heavily guarded men in the country. The Chechens are famed for their mafiosi and their feuds: Khasbulatov rarely mentions his ancestry in a city which is very anti-Chechen.

His political breakthrough came when he backed Yeltsin as leader of the Russian Parliament – alone among a conservative-dominated leadership. When Yeltsin secured the majority there, Khasbulatov became Acting Speaker – the ‘acting’ only being removed in the euphoric atmosphere after the August putsch, during which he had played a vigorous role in the defence of the White House through some tense and difficult days. He soon dominated the proceedings by the quickness of his wit and his ability to read and to lead the Deputies’ mood. Others were more popular (criticism of him from within has recently grown) but they were identified with particular factions or groups, which only Khasbulatov seemed able to span; as the Parliament turned against the Government, and then against the President, so, too, did he.

Khasbulatov developed his critique of the Government, the basis of his now complete rift with Yeltsin, on the question of the economy, his own area of expertise. He has not given (to my knowledge) and does not give here a thorough rehearsal of his own views and policies but confines himself to often savage personal criticism of the reform cabinet, first appointed late in 1991 and led for most of last year by Yegor Gaidar, the Acting Prime Minister. He has consistently claimed that the Gaidar group was incompetent and failed to understand the Russian economy it sought to reform. Choosing examples from the rich field of Russian economic chaos, he seems in his statements to be calling for a kind of corporate-state-capitalism with strong government control but a wide range of economic freedoms for enterprise. The following passage is typical:

Parliament needs to think fundamentally about the relationship between the economic and the political domains. One thing is clear: the word ‘prohibit’ serves the interests of those who require a weakening of the power of economic forces at the helm of government. The policies which brought industry to its knees and kept it waiting for the Government to ease its tax burden, or Parliament to force the executive to pay attention to its problems, defy economic common sense. Business stagnates rather than grows, and economic policy has practically cut off the money supply to industry. As for the tax on imported consumer goods, we did not produce them ourselves yet we practically forbade anyone to import them. Meanwhile anyone can export anything they like, including gold and diamonds.

Elsewhere in this book, in the interviews given while the Soviet Union still existed, he sounds more like the radicals he has come to detest, though in his economic thinking at the time he identified the central government as the source of all obstruction, and here subjects it, in much of the section labelled ‘Economic Transformation’, to a series of derisive monologues about its refusal to see ‘common sense’. This is the familiar Khasbulatov style: a mocking, sometimes violent attack which postulates a simple, sound, Russian middle way through problems which other people are making.

He is at least right in this: economic reform, which has staggered through the past year, has run into deep trouble. It is not, as he and others – notably, in these last days, General Alexander Rutskoi, the Vice-President – represent it, a complete disaster: indeed, in some respects it has been a success. Gaidar managed, fairly decisively, to destroy assumptions about subsidised prices, central command and the suppression of initiative while the privatisation programme, corrupt as it is, is certainly shifting assets fairly rapidly out of the hands of the state.

The problem is money. The Government has found no way of convincing the Central Bank – which is answerable to Khasbulatov’s Parliament – to choke off credit to the enterprises, whether or not they are producing anything worth making (or anything at all): Victor Gerashchenko, the Central Bank chairman, believes it is his duty as central banker (he was the Soviet central banker too) to keep production and employment going. Though the Government tends to represent Gerashchenko as a malign fool, he has a point. In his vast and gracious office in the Central Bank’s pre-Revolutionary offices in Dlinaya Street, he has a difficult choice: continuing to debauch the currency or effectively decreeing unemployment. The Government would prefer that the choice be left to him, in part because they think it is the right thing to do, in part because they want him to make it.

So delayed have been the general material benefits of reform (both Yeltsinian and Gorbachevian), so connected have they been with ‘the West’, so skilfully has Khasbulatov demonised the IMF and other Western agencies that there is a real chance that large sections of society will reject the market way in favour of some kind of state control. It is not just the rather demented Communist demonstrators who say this: factory directors, senior bureaucrats and diplomats say it too. They are not sure of their ground: they cannot opt for a return to the old system and many would not wish to. But they want discipline and predictability, a currency which can retain its value and a country which is not the constant object of charity. Khasbulatov has many cards.

‘The heart of the “government and society” problem lies in the underdeveloped nature of our country’s political institutions, the embryonic state of the factions in Parliament, the weakness of the political parties and the absence of structured public opinion,’ he writes in his essay on power. This is a commonplace of Russian political discussion. Khasbulatov knows well enough the soupy nature of Russian politics, the dominance of personality and faction, the tendency to posture, the apparent inability of public officials to insist on, and to win, recognition of the competence and limits of their office. Khasbulatov’s own office is a good example: supposed in the Soviet Constitution, which still serves as the basic law of Russia, to be merely a figure-head appointment, he has used his own gifts as a politician to invest it with power. How can he then argue, as he does, that Parliament should run the country? ‘Whatever the outward form adopted by authority,’ he writes:

the defining symbol of a democratic state is its representative power, the Parliament. It is this which guarantees legislative and control functions in all spheres, and its effectiveness signifies stability within the state. It is only we Russians with our typically autocratic way of thinking, who on the second day after attaining a semi-democracy after the coup, directed our gaze (disapprovingly) towards the Parliament, which incidentally had been democratically and freely elected, thereby preparing the people for the coming of the new Messiah, the dictator ... the relationship between Parliament and the government is a classical theme which, perhaps, would not need further commentary if attempts were not so frequently made to present the government as the one and only body capable of carrying out reforms against opposition from reactionary MPs. This is the main reason given for authoritarian government in Russia during the transitional period. Examples of the premature dissolution of the authority of deputies under the influence of some external force are not so rare in Russian history.

There are two things which should be said about this perfectly liberal reasoning. First, having argued that the Russian Parliament is only in the process of constituting itself as an effective institution, that its powers and authority are still unclear, he then calls for it to play the role of a fully-functioning legislature capable of putting together and controlling a coherent government. The analytical Khasbulatov is at war with the Parliamentary leader. Secondly, though the Speaker claims to hope for the emergence of a rational division of authority between legislative and executive branches, his actions at the critical Seventh Congress of Peoples’ Deputies in December showed him to be interested simply in destroying the Presidency as an effective institution. In particular, resolutions he helped to carry, and in which he rejoiced, made both the decrees and the office of President utterly and immediately dependent on the will of the Parliament. Khasbulatov, in other words, had built an unbearable tension into the political process which Yeltsin has now sought to resolve by authoritarian means.

The obvious consequence of this is that the future of Russian democracy has been entrusted to the office and person of Boris Yeltsin, former Party boss of Sverdlovsk and Moscow, member of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party and slayer of Mikhail Gorbachev. Is he, finally, to be trusted with it?

The only logical view of Yeltsin’s actions in declaring that he now exercises special powers is that he sees himself as a reforming dictator and the sole fount of democratic authority. In this, he is akin to President Fujimori of Peru, acting in the name of a future democratic order beyond the bounds of the one in which he came to power.

A politician operating in such a space is teetering on the brink. His intention to push past the obstacles in his way and that of ‘the people’ in order to reach a terrain where democratic habits and market relations will take over – which I do not now doubt is sincere – can at any time be challenged from below. Such challenges, however, must be suppressed because there are no institutions left other than the Presidency itself through which to mediate protest. If the revolt grows strong, so must the suppression – and Khasbulatov is right to say that Russia has spent a good deal of time in that vicious circle.

My reading of Yeltsin is that he will try hard to remain teetering. His second coming as a liberalising democrat is not, for him, a mere guise to be cast aside. A man of many limitations, he has nonetheless clung to the liberal side. He seems to believe he needs to stay there if he is to keep Russia on some sort of course for membership of the developed world, and away from a return to autarchy.

Khasbulatov does not agree. His old comrade-in-arms in the struggle against the Soviet Union, and in the defence of the White House (which this book vividly, if rather boastfully, evokes), is now seen as a genuine tyrant. In the weeks ahead, he is likely to try to stop him: indeed, Khasbulatov must try to stop him if he is to remain in political business. The poor deportee from Chechnya has come a long way.