'Tsar Boris' prepares to govern-if he can

June 26, 1991

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Boris Yeltsin will have almost unlimited powers under new government structures recently approved by the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation.

As president, Yeltsin is both head of state and head of government. He will name the prime minister, decide the composition of the government and have the power to dissolve it. In addition, Yeltsin will head the Security Council of the Russian Federation.

There are no checks and countervailing mechanisms like those employed in other presidential systems, such as France and the United States. The increased power of the executive reduces the parliament almost to an irrelevancy.

The ironies of this situation, in which Yeltsin's "Democratic Russia" bloc of deputies supported the creation of a quasi-dictatorship under a new "Tsar Boris", went unremarked both in the liberal newspapers and, for the most part, in the Communist Party press. Alternative draft legislation on the presidency, presented by the "Communists of Russia" bloc and containing a series of checks on presidential power, was withdrawn.

These antidemocratic moves entail definite political risks for Yeltsin, and probably do not represent his preferred strategy. He has been impelled in this direction because his moves to foster private property and market relations have not been followed by a rapid rise of a capitalist class or of capitalist production.

The layer of private entrepreneurs that has arisen has consisted largely of speculators and "mafiosi". Any stimulus to output from privatisation has been nowhere near sufficient to offset the collapse of production as the old "command-administer" links between enterprises disintegrate.

With some exceptions, influential figures in the state apparatus have lacked the skills and inclination to turn themselves into private business operators. Bitter complaints in liberal newspapers leave little doubt that, for the bulk of the old apparatus, the traditional administrative bullying and thieving continue to provide higher and more assured returns than capitalist entrepreneurship.

Loosening central controls has allowed regional bureaucratic clans to consolidate their power and wage economic warfare on one another, with further devastating effects on production.

Yeltsin needs to reverse these fissile tendencies, smashing local bureaucratic "mafias" and freeing up inter-provincial trade. This will not be a gentle process, and so long as Yeltsin intends the benefits to flow to a select group of "civilised" private entrepreneurs, it will not be a popular one. Even though Yeltsin and his supporters flatter themselves with the name of "democrats", democracy will sit poorly with their authoritarian, centralising project.

Secession

Strong presidential powers have not been of great use to Gorbachev, however, and they are unlikely to help Yeltsin much. Local bureaucrats can thwart central initiatives simply by failing to carry out instructions, and some of the worst of the bureaucratic gangs will be able to secede from Yeltsin's empire.

The Russian Federation includes 16 "autonomous republics", many of which have now declared themselves sovereign states; these republics account for around 50% of the federation's territory. Under the promised Union Agreement, they will find secession from Russia a relatively straightforward matter.

The election campaign provided some hints of what is in store. The government of Tatarstan, the Volga River republic which includes the vast Naberezhnye Chelny vehicle complex, declared that Tatarstan would not participate in the election taking place in the "neighbouring state" of Russia.

The actual campaigning was subdued, and public interest not high. None of the candidates roused much enthusiasm. Especially since the massive, ill-compensated price rises of early April, which Soviet and Russian leaders had earlier pledged would not happen, many workers are inclined to view all politicians as thieves and windbags.

Yeltsin's popularity is essentially a negative phenomenon. In a Moscow poll in mid-January, even before the price rises, no more than 17.4% of respondents listed him among their "most respected political figures". However, people tend to prefer Yeltsin to the Communist Party.

Opponents

Of Yeltsin's opponents, four were current members of the Communist Party. None sought official party endorsement, but the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation called for a vote for Nikolai Ryzhkov, who was prime minister of the USSR until his resignation in January following a heart attack. In his campaigning, Ryzhkov urged a relatively slow and cautious transition to market relations, warning that Yeltsin's plans would amount to "shock therapy".

One of the less favoured candidates, Vadim Bakatin, is a former Soviet interior minister who is now a member of Gorbachev's Security Council. More overtly "ideological" than his rivals, Bakatin in a number of interviews has provided revealing insights into the kind of thinking that is now current in the innermost circles of the Gorbachev leadership.

"Perestroika demands ... a free economy acting in accordance with the natural laws of the market", Bakatin told a Newsweek interviewer.

"I do not think there will be a great difference between what has been built in West Germany, Sweden or the United States, and what we need to build in our country.

"The right to private property should be recognised as sacred."

Of all the candidates, only one showed any understanding of the problems that capitalism in the West actually faces, or of the likely impact of a restored capitalism on Soviet working people. That candidate was Colonel-General Albert Makashov, commander of the Soviet military forces in the Volga-Urals region. However, Makashov's denunciations of "cosmopolitanism" (read "Jews"), and his attitude to the Baltic republics ("They're ours!"), made him hardly a choice for progressive voters.

Rather than risk alienating voters by expounding his true platform, Yeltsin relied on his impressive physique and booming voice, delivering incantations about the wonder-working properties of the market and pledging to protect the powerless from the malign forces of the establishment.

This strategy prompted some of the more thoughtful Soviet observers to compare Yeltsin with the Argentinean populist dictator of the 1940s and 1950s, Juan Perón. However, Perón's regime flourished during a period of unusual prosperity, when real concessions to the masses were possible. Yeltsin accedes to the presidency of Russia in circumstances where capitalism can be established and consolidated only through harsh cuts in the living standards of working people, and through the smashing of their organisations.

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