Split in Yeltsin's coalition

November 27, 1991

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — As Russian President Boris Yeltsin prepares to implement his harsh free-market "reform" program, a major split in his support coalition has cast doubt on the readiness of other "democrats" to pay the political price of an assault on mass living standards.

During the Second Congress of the Democratic Russia movement on November 10, most of the representatives of the Democratic Party of Russia, the Russian Christian Democratic Movement and the Constitutional Democrats (People's Freedom Party) headed for the exits. Leaders of these parties cited a list of reasons for the walkout that included opposition to the idea of the "divisibility" of Russia; opposition to the concept of the movement as an organisation of individuals rather than a coalition of parties; and complaints about the way in which the congress had been called.

Apart from the disputes over procedure, none of these disagreements was particularly new. Observers were left wondering: why the walkout, and why now? What unspoken considerations might have convinced these parties that the time had come to take their leave of the movement which had hoisted Yeltsin to power?

One conclusion that can be drawn is that by the time of its Second Congress, Democratic Russia had outlived its usefulness for large numbers of the people who had built it. Ironically, one of the main blows to the movement has been its success in securing the dissolution and outlawing of the Communist Party. With this development, the main political cement that had held Democratic Russia together — fear and loathing of the Communists — lost a good deal of its strength.

The movement arose as a broad coalition united by its opposition to continued Communist rule. The movement's lack of a program, apart from general sentiments on the need for civil rights and a multiparty political structure, meant that those who participated in it at various stages could include everyone from revolutionary leftists to Thatcherite neo-liberals.

However, the range of participants in Democratic Russia soon began to narrow. The dominant political tendency within the movement became a naive pro-capitalist liberalism — the ideology of the "middle layers" convinced that everything they had been told about the West under Brezhnev was untrue. The non-Communist left pulled out early in order to distinguish its program of economic democracy from the largely formal, vote-on-the-dotted-line "democracy" demanded by the rightists.

Democratic Russia reached the height of its influence in the second half of 1990, at which stage it was able to draw scores of thousands of people to demonstrations in central Moscow. Ironically, this was also the time when the movement was being transformed from a coalition campaigning for democratic rights into a personal support machine for Boris Yeltsin, present-day pov and a number of other populist politicians.

For Yeltsin and Popov, the backing of Democratic Russia represented a major political plus at negligible cost. While delivering the moral authority of the "democratic opposition", Democratic Russia placed no strictures on the candidates it endorsed. And indeed, there was no way the movement, lacking a coherent program or meaningful internal structures, could have bound these candidates to defend a particular set of aims.

Rank and file followers of Democratic Russia found themselves in an unhappy position. They had no channels for influencing the policies which Yeltsin and Popov put into practice. But at the same time, the support these politicians received from Democratic Russia meant that whatever moves they might make — whether centralising the decision-making process in their own hands, or launching attacks on popular interests — could be passed off as being "democratic".

On June 12 Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federation, and Popov mayor of Moscow. Paradoxically, these successes for Democratic Russia consigned the movement to near irrelevancy.

In office, both Yeltsin and Popov moved swiftly to construct tight, hierarchical administrative machines under their personal control. Various blows were aimed at democratic rights — the most striking example was the decision by Yeltsin and Popov to strip the elected deputies of the Moscow City Soviet of most of their power to regulate Popov's actions.

Legislating very often by decree, and exercising power through revived Russian and Moscow bureaucracies, Yeltsin and Popov sought to free themselves as far as possible from dependence on popular support. Their need for a support coalition largely vanished. And given their policies — in Yeltsin's case, a deliberately engineered economic crash that would concentrate wealth quickly in the hands of an emerging capitalist class, and in Popov's, a housing privatisation that would make the new apartment owners pay property taxes and service charges many times their former rents — the effort to continue cultivating popular support would largely have been futile.

Despite their professed commitment to democracy, the key leaders of Democratic Russia have proven psychologically unable to quit the Yeltsin-Popov camp. One of these leaders, people's deputy of the Russian Federation A. Medvedev, summed up the movement's plight to a Pravda>D> reporter during the recent congress:

"The situation is difficult. There's no way we could be called a ruling force, but we're not an opposition either, since we support the president of Russia."

By the time of its Second Congress, the still massive, once powerful Democratic Russia movement had been reduced to a timid pressure group pleading for the attention of the autocrats it had done so much to install. In a November 12 article, Pravda noted that Democratic Russia emerged from its congress "ready to support but not unconditionally, and calling on the Russian leader to heed the movement's views".

For a number of the parties that made up Democratic Russia, it was too much. They had no fundamental quarrel with Yeltsin's neo-liberalism. But as members of a pro-Yeltsin coalition, they lacked the ability to distinguish themselves politically from the Russian government, at a time when that government was implementing policies destined to make it widely unpopular.

The departure from Democratic Russia of a series of parties — including the country's largest, the far right-wing Democratic Party led by Nikolai Travkin — suggests that the initial era of post-Communist politics in Russia, characterised by broad, ill-defined political blocs, is drawing to a close. One can now anticipate a much more familiar contest of political parties with distinct identities and relatively clear-cut programs.

But this does not mean that the promised "transition to democracy" in Russia is going ahead. There is much more reason to believe that the chance of making such a transition has already been let pass.

Over the past year, while much of the "democratic intelligentsia" has remained obsessed with anti-Communism, a faction of former prominent Communist bureaucrats has succeeded in taking over the state administration, securing the loyalty of the repressive forces, and through the use of sweeping powers of rule by decree, in reducing the elected legislatures to little better than ciphers.

Important democratic gains from previous years, such as the ability of political parties to organise and to present their views, remain in place. But the earlier trend toward an expansion of democratic rights has been thrown into reverse.

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