The exit — and return — of the Russian government


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — For a brief but dramatic period in mid-April, Russia was without a government. On April 13 first deputy premier Yegor Gaidar and his ministers marched indignantly from the chamber of the Congress of People's Deputies, announcing their intention to resign.

The resolution on economic reform that the congress had adopted, Gaidar and his colleagues declared, would block the administration of President Boris Yeltsin from continuing on its chosen course of "reform". If put into practice, the resolution would create hyperinflation and would bring privatisation to a halt.

By the end of proceedings on April 14, the government was back, in a caretaker capacity. On April 16 Yeltsin announced that the resignation of the cabinet had been revoked. A compromise declaration on economic reform had been worked out.

"On the whole, the declaration voices unconditional support for the course of reform pursued by the government", Yeltsin's economy minister told journalists. Gaidar praised the congress for "giving the government the possibility of working".

The determination of the congress majority to force an end to the Yeltsin regime's hard-line pro-capitalist policies, it turned out, was less than unbending.

It was not as though Yeltsin's ministers had suddenly won the confidence of the masses. In a poll conducted in Moscow on April 9, only 30% of respondents said they considered the government's economic policies correct. Seventy-four per cent reported that they were dissatisfied with their lives.

Logically, Gaidar and his cabinet colleagues should have been cast into the political wilderness long ago. But although overwhelmingly perceived as failures, they were able to stage a comeback and even finish up with their position strengthened.

The reason is that the only obvious alternative centre of power in Russia today — the parliament — strikes the population as even less deserving of confidence.

The Russian parliament consists of two bodies: the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet. The congress has more than 1000 members, and meets for a period of several weeks two or three times a year. From among its deputies, the congress elects the much smaller Supreme Soviet, the day-to-day legislature.

In many ways, the Congress of People's Deputies is a hangover from a past era. It was elected in the spring of 1990, when, in most regions, local organs, including the electoral apparatus, were still under the firm control of the Communist Party.

The people elected at that time were heavily representative of the party and state "nomenklatura". Later analysis indicated that nearly 60% of the deputies stemmed from the upper or middle layers of the ruling apparatus.

Rather than representing the population, the parliament now reflects the new status and striving of the nomenklatura following the collapse of the Communist Party. The parliament is split into a multitude of factions on the basis of competing regional and corporate interests, as well as personal feuds and ambitions.

There is no system of parliamentary parties in the western sense. The congress contains at least 10 loose caucuses, of which the largest has only about 10% of the votes. Within these blocs there is little division of responsibilities, and virtually no caucus discipline. As a result, in parliamentary debates the herd of ill-informed deputies often stampede first in one direction, then the other, under the influence of inflamed rhetoric.

Few of the deputies have any real ideological motivations. Almost the only factor which unites large numbers of them is antagonism to Boris Yeltsin as head of a rival power centre, the presidency and cabinet.

The Congress of People's Deputies has a bad reputation among the public. In a recent poll, only 28% of Moscow residents considered that the congress expressed the interests of the people.

The widespread contempt which Russians feel for their parliament has been one of the main factors aiding Yeltsin in the power struggles of the post-perestroika era. Claiming the need for a "firm hand" in a period of crisis, the president has succeeded in transferring many of the powers of the legislature, at least temporarily, to the executive.

Yeltsin has long enjoyed sweeping powers to legislate by decree. During an earlier session, the congress also granted him the right to name his ministers, without the need to have them confirmed by parliament. The president has further expanded his powers by personally taking on the jobs of prime minister and defence minister.

The turmoil in mid-April erupted because important factions within the congress, sensing that the collapse of the economy had

weakened the executive, judged the time right to attempt to seize back many of the powers they had earlier surrendered.

The opposition deputies also planned an attack on the government's economic policies. Much of the inspiration for this assault came from state farm directors and industrial managers whose enterprises were facing bankruptcy as a result of the government's clamp-down on credits.

After the congress opened on April 6, the deputies launched into discussion of a resolution, "On the Progress of the Economic Reform". The opposition draft condemned the government's economic policies and demanded changes to the memorandum on reforms approved by the International Monetary Fund. Various deputies called for taxes to be lowered, for subsidies to the productive sectors of the economy to be restored or increased, and for spending on social programs to be expanded.

Yeltsin's adversaries also demanded that he introduce a draft "Law on the Government of the Russian Federation", under which he would promptly nominate a candidate for prime minister, and cabinet members would again be subject to confirmation by the Supreme Soviet.

The response by Yeltsin and Gaidar included both enticements and threats. Credit policy, it was announced, would be relaxed to a degree. The president offered to prepare a Law on the Government by September 1, and indicated that a number of "experienced industrialists" would be appointed to the cabinet.

On the "threat" side of the ledger, Yeltsin allowed a draft for a new constitution to be leaked to the press. Government sources hinted that the document might be put to a referendum within a few months. The proposed new constitution, which would almost certainly be approved by voters if it had Yeltsin's backing, provided for a virtual presidential dictatorship.

The culminating episode in the drama, designed to show the deputies' lack of spirit for a real fight, was the government's walkout and collective resignation on April 13. This piece of political theatre was accompanied by an all-out attack in the pro-Yeltsin media on the opposition deputies' ill-assorted economic demands.

In little more than a day, the opposition folded. Gaidar was able to make clear that there was nothing provisional about either the government or its policies. Yeltsin retained his additional powers — if opinion surveys are to be believed, with the backing of more than 60% of the population.

Yeltsin's "opponents" in the congress, it turned out,

were not really opponents at all — just members of the former party-state leadership who were faring less well than Yeltsin's group in the race to turn themselves into a new bureaucratic-monopoly bourgeoisie. When their bluff was called, and they were challenged to mount a real fight against the transition to "savage capitalism", they ran for cover.

In the days since, the liberal Moscow press has not forgotten to claim this outcome as a "victory for democracy". In fact, the cause of democracy in Russia has suffered a dangerous defeat.

With the legislature more discredited than ever, and its will to take issue with the executive largely exhausted, there are now few meaningful checks on Yeltsin's actions. "Presidential dictatorship" is close to being an accomplished fact.

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