By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin moved on August 28 to strip the Moscow City Soviet of most of its authority. Taking advantage of the "democratic" euphoria following the collapse of the August 19-21 coup, Yeltsin used his powers of decree to destroy a key forum of opposition to his pro-capitalist policies.
Pro-Yeltsin forces command a large majority among the almost 500 deputies of the city soviet. Nevertheless, criticisms voiced there, often focussing on official corruption, have been a frequent irritant to the Russian government. Together with duplication of powers in the city soviet executive, this was evidently why Yeltsin moved earlier this year to introduce "presidential style" government in the Moscow municipality.
In elections on June 12, a close Yeltsin ally, former president of the city soviet Gavriil Popov, was elected mayor of Moscow. During the 1980s Popov was a senior Communist Party economist. In 1990 he quit the party and emerged as a leading proponent of the hard-right neo-liberal economic theories now embraced by Yeltsin as well.
With his favoured candidate in the mayor's office, Yeltsin concentrated executive authority in the Moscow municipality in the hands of Popov and of "prefects" appointed to administer various city districts.
So long as the elected deputies retained a say in the budget and other important decisions, this set-up could be claimed as democratic. Indeed, it was no worse in various respects than the presidential systems that operate in many Western countries.
The Moscow City Soviet, however, continued to figure as one of the few sounding-boards for opposition to the Russian government's "reforms". This was largely due to the activity of the soviet's small but well-organised and vocal Socialist Party caucus.
On August 28, however, most of the remaining functions of the deputies were taken from them. With his Decree No. 96, "On the Powers of the Organs of Executive Authority of the City of Moscow", Yeltsin determined that henceforth, the "Mayor of the City of Moscow or organs empowered by him" would "formulate an integrated budget for the city".
Experts indicate that under this provision, the deputies have a say in no more than about 20% of the city administration's spending.
Under the decree, the elected deputies also lose powers they enjoyed to control city property. The mayor and bodies appointed by
him will now "independently exercise direct control over objects of city property, conducting the destatisation and privatisation of property". Similar provisions now govern the disposal of city land to private owners or leaseholders.
Under conditions of rampant corruption, these changes seem especially dangerous. Unelected mayoral appointees will be able to dispose of valuable buildings and tracts of land, without the deals being subject to the scrutiny and approval of the voters' representatives. Plans to sell off whole streets of Moscow to foreign developers, at a fraction of their market value, now seem likely to go ahead unopposed.
Finally, the deputies have lost their power to appoint the Moscow police chief and certain other officials. This looks very much
like direct sabotage of efforts to stamp out the cronyism that has plagued Russian public life.
Decree No. 96 went virtually unreported in the Soviet press, which is now a liberal monopoly. The Moscow soviet deputies were left wondering how to draw attention to the sidelining of their assembly.
In a discussion between the soviet's chairman, Nikolai Gonchar, and Socialist caucus leader Alexander Popov, it was agreed that the Socialist deputies would call for the formal dissolution of the soviet, and would lead a mass resignation of deputies in protest against Yeltsin's actions. A resolution was prepared, stating that, without effective powers, the soviet had no reason to continue to meet.
However, these bold moves ran up against the self-interest and Yeltsinite loyalties of the mass of deputies. Enjoying ample salaries, most deputies were reluctant to resign; the plans for a mass walkout had to be dropped.
The Yeltsin forces, meanwhile, worked strenuously to prevent any initiative that might result in the calling of elections for a new soviet; with Moscow services and infrastructure falling apart, and public anger growing, many of the Yeltsinite deputies could expect to be thrown out.
A bizarre situation has thus arisen. The Moscow City Soviet has in effect ceased to function. But it has not been dissolved, since Yeltsin does not want to risk elections that would be widely interpreted as a referendum on his government's performance. Meanwhile, the deputies continue to be paid, and the perpetrators of the farce continue to parade as "democrats".
This creation of autocratic rule by a new "governor-general of Moscow" is the third in a series of blows which Yeltsin and his supporters have aimed at potential sources of dissidence.
In the so-called "departisation" decree of July, the banishing from workplaces of the widely detested Communist Party committees was a cover for a drastic assault on trade union rights. Russian trade unions now operate in the workplace only with the agreement and on the sufferance of management.
Immediately after the August coup, the Russian Communist Party was forcibly dissolved under provisions allowing the government to ban organisations judged to have "acted against the constitution". This step was taken even though no more than a handful of party leaders had been directly implicated in the coup. They had acted in their capacity as officials of the state rather than as representatives of the party, and the party's leading body, the Central Committee, never adopted a resolution supporting the coup.
The ruthlessness of Yeltsin's assault on democracy has aroused disquiet even among some liberals who have no quarrel with the Russian government's economic program. On August 31 Vitaly Tretyakov, chief editor of Independent Newspaper, published an editorial expressing alarm at the implications which events since the coup held for freedom of the press.
Tretyakov spoke of a "serious threat" that the independent press in Russia could "perish as a result of the victory over the putschists and the liquidation of the CPSU". Under conditions of a "new monopoly on information in the country", he pledged to defend press freedom "even against the democrats".