Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed July 1996
Copyright ©1996 by Sergei Khrushchev

A new old Russian president

Sergei Khrushchev, son and biographer of Nikita Khrushchev, is a senior visiting fellow at Brown University's Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies.

"The good news is that [the winner] is not Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist left bloc.... The bad news is that Boris Yeltsin has become the president of Russia"

The grueling months-long election marathon in Russia has finally come to a close. The country's new president has been chosen in the second round.

The good news is that he is not Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist left bloc. It's not that Zyuganov is a Communist. He's no more a Communist than Boris Yeltsin. They are birds of a feather. Zyuganov, a former deputy propaganda department head in the Communist Party Central Committee, does not have the slightest idea how to reform the Russian economy, and his accession to power could have thrown the country into still greater chaos.

The bad news is that Boris Yeltsin has become the president of Russia. As his previous term demonstrated, he also has a very poor concept of what to do with Russia. That is why he constantly turns the rudder, changing course and pilots. That is why the world is now puzzled about where the Russian government is likely to head: toward a continuation of democratic reforms or toward the authoritarianism to which it is so accustomed. The latter is more likely. That is why Yeltsin managed to win. All the powers of the government were thrown to his support in the election. Television and the press, most of which depend on government subsidies, served only one master. All the country's financial resources went into Yeltsin's election fund: the budget; loans - German, French, and those from international financial institutions, a total of $4.2 billion; domestic borrowing in the form of state Treasury bills; plus more than 12 trillion rubles virtually unsecured by anything and paid out by the Bank of Russia on orders from the president. All these monies were used to give voters populist payments which were not included in the budget: to compensate teachers, doctors, the military and other government employees for their many months without wages; and to increase minimal wages and pensions, as compensation for bank deposits eaten up by inflation (fortunately before the election only to people more than 80 years old), etc., etc., etc.

As a result, the budget fractured and collapsed. During the first half of the year, only 3 percent of budget expenditures not associated with the election campaign were financed. Not even the incorrigible optimist Uegeny Yasin, deputy head of the government and economics minister, makes any mention of the expected growth in the economy. Production again fell by 4 percent during the past half year. Instead of a growth in investments, a further decline of 10 percent is expected. The presidential election campaign has cost the country at least a year's delay in overcoming the crisis.

The good news is that, to solve the problem, Yeltsin preferred democratic elections over force. That is the principal service conferred by his new ally, retired Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Lebed. It was he who forced Yeltsin to sacrifice his closest supporters: Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev; head of the President's Security Service Aleksandr Korzhakov; director of the Federal Security Service Mikhail Barsukov; and First Deputy Head of the Government Oleg Soskovets, who had insistently advised the president not to risk it - not to entrust his fate to the voters. By inspiring the hope that order finally would be established in the country and a real fight against criminal license would begin, undecided voters were prompted to cast their ballots for Yeltsin.

The bad news is that this stormy beginning provokes fears that Lebed might repeat the fate of another general, Aleksandr Rutskoi. They both - Rutskoi in 1991 and Lebed in 1996 - helped Yeltsin come to power with the votes of their followers. However, no sooner had Rutskoi, who had demonstrated his devotion to the president, publicly announced a war against corruption than a criminal case was brought against him, he quarreled with the president and was pushed into the camp of opposition. Rutskoi, moreover, was the legally elected vice president.

Now, Lebed has thrown down the gauntlet before the alliance between mafias and criminal officials, which has become vastly more powerful during the past few years. In a fight with them, he can count only on himself, on his determination, on luck, and somewhat on the president. As for the president, until a new favorite appears or the old one, Korzhakov somehow returns. Moreover, the entire new Russian criminal establishment has taken up arms against Lebed. To deal with Lebed, it's not necessary to change the constitution, as it was with Rutskoi. Yeltsin's signature under a decree would suffice to remove Lebed from the position of security council secretary and presidential assistant. Nevertheless, God grant Lebed success. He may be Russia's last chance to break out of the web of corruption.

And some other news. In his extensive television interview before the election, Yeltsin complained that he was damnably tired and intended to take a good rest after the election. Well, one thing is certain - Yeltsin knows how to rest. So let's wish him good health and a fine vacation ... until the next election in 2000.