Who's in charge? Maybe no-one

Wednesday, December 11, 1991

By Peter Annear

MOSCOW — Mayor Gavriil Popov did not relish the choice of a new KGB chief for Moscow by the city's elected government, the Moscow Soviet, so he ignored its decision and, without any legal authority, appointed his own nominee, a supporter with no experience for the position. He also appointed his own people to head the capital's militia (police). Following the example set by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Popov has gutted the city Soviet of governmental power.

Former Communist Party Central Committee member Alexander Buzgalin says that just who rules here is a vexed question. The Moscow, the Russian and the Union political systems exist only as chaos. While the politicians vie for supremacy, the development of events is outside anyone's control.

The post-coup collapse of the Soviet Union and of the Communist Party splintered politics into a range of organisations-in-formation. Some sit in the mould of the old CP, from Roy Medvedev's (essentially Social Democratic) Socialist Party of Working People to the neo-Stalinist All Union Communist Party of Nina Andreyeva. Others, on the far right, have emerged from the fractured pro-Yeltsin Democratic Russia movement and from chauvinist organisations like Pamyat.

The independent left too has come into the open. The recently launched Party of Labour, backed by the leadership of the 5-million-strong Moscow Federation of Trade Unions, on October 23 sponsored the first working-class public protest since the coup, attracting up to 20,000 protesters against Yeltsin's economic program. An August poll of union members indicated that 19% (equivalent to a million Moscow unionists) wanted their own workers' party.

Buzgalin says the political recomposition "is a result of the country's social and political development over many decades. The system included elements of real socialism, state capitalism, precapitalist relations, elements of the underground development of the market and even normal capitalism, all of which was organised under the umbrella of the authoritarian bureaucratic system, which is now in ruins. It is a global crisis of the system."

Yeltsin is treading a very thin line, a compromise between rightist liberal-democratic economic reforms and an element of social defence, while preventing any real participation of the mass democratic and social organisations. Thus, Yeltsin recently doubled wages for educational and cultural workers.

His plan, however, will be realised only at the cost of deficit-fed hyperinflation. What explains it? With his popularity plunging and lacking any firm social base, Yeltsin cannot realise his IMF-inspired economic reforms without public support. The only other possibility, says Buzgalin, is the "Pinochet model" — a vicious dictatorship costing millions of lives.

Real power, now as before the coup, belongs to the apparatus. But within the bureaucracy, three main groups shape up in the fight to fill the post-coup economic and political vacuum.

  • Directors of state enterprises have the firmest grip on economic power and decision making. The majority of this group supported the coup, but now support Yeltsin. Their support is given spontaneously, because the essential program of the coup leadership and Yeltsin's program are very similar.

  • Middle level bureaucrats from the economic, scientific and productive ministries waited to see who would emerge the victor from the coup battle before assigning their support, currently, to Yeltsin.

  • The political elite — the party, state, economic and military higher bureaucracy — gave no direct support to the coup, but lost influence as a by-product of it.

Outside the bureaucracy, the private economic sector is not large but has a disproportionate influence through its connections with the state apparatus and former party officials. The most powerful part of this sector is the "bandocracy" — that is, bandits, corrupt former officials who have acquired property.

Finally, there are the new mass democratic movements, including the working collectives, trade unions, consumer collectives and so on, which constitute a massive social force with tremendous potential but little current influence. How successfully this social layer — essentially the organised working class — engages in the struggle will determine the concrete features of the emerging state setup.

Two conflicting social models stand face to face. On one side is "nomenklatura capitalism", which is politically close to the Pinochet model and in economics evokes the slogans of right-liberalism (Friedmanism) while a very specific type of market structure is created, one based on the form of the joint stock company but absolutely dominated by the nomenklatura.

Counterposed to this are the collective demands of the mass democratic and working-class organisations. To achieve these demands, power must reside with the soviets and other elected bodies built on democracy from below while maintaining the dominant role of state and social property ownership in various forms under the control of the working collectives. Under current conditions such a variant is not realisable, but it has great importance as a strategic idea.

The clash of these two social forces could forge a third alternative, an unstable compromise. Such a stand-off between nomenklatura power and the organised working class could be thought of as a sort of dual power.

"It is very difficult to say what the outcome of this struggle will be", says Buzgalin. "So far only the leaders of the mass organisations have come together, and the masses are still uninvolved, a characteristic feature of the process of change in our country. Nonetheless, when the quality of life declines, as it must, there will also be a tremendous growth of activity from below."[Alexander d in Moscow for Green Left Weekly by Renfrey Clarke, Sally Low and Peter Annear.]

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