BORIS YELTSIN: DICTATOR OR DEMOCRAT?
Anne McElvoy on the contradictions
of the Russian President, and the uncertain world they create
London/Moscow THE DEAN of St Paul's, Boris Yeltsin and several overgrown security men were pro- ceeding down the aisle of the cathedral, viewing our national heritage in the spare 15 minutes allotted such tasks on official visits. 'This,' said the Dean, 'is Holman Hunt's "Light of the World", our most famous religious painting.' Boris was unim- pressed. He tried his luck with Christopher Wren. Again, the implacable features regis- tered no response. 'Here is the spot where Winston Churchill's coffin stood on the day of his burial,' cried the Dean in near despair. There was a long, appreciative growl. 'A wonderful man. One of my heroes,' rumbled the guest. Admiral Nel- son received a similar plaudit when the del- egation reached his tomb. Crushing enemies was clearly much more to the Rus- sian leader's taste than the exploits of a couple of artists.
By the time we reached the visitors' book, he had warmed up considerably, declining the proffered pen and reaching for his own. 'This is the one I use for sign- ing decrees,' he explained, scrawled his sig- nature and was gone in a flurry of retainers. The big man's decree pen has been wielded often during the last year as he has cajoled and bullied his uncertain country into reforms. In the past months, his signature has dissolved one opposition group, the unappealing National Salvation Front, and done away with the private army built up by his rival for power, the hardline parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov. It has toppled faithful aides from the democratic movement, replacing them with technocrats and former func- tionaries. Sometimes, he does not even bother to sign the political death warrants himself. Galina Starovoitova, in charge of ethnic conflicts and once one of his closest aides, was sacked last month in a three- line, computer-printed note dropped casu- ally with the morning's post on her desk. Recently, he has taken to threatening his foes with the biggest decree of all, vowing that he will bypass parliament and govern by direct rule rather than allow his policies to be thwarted. In London, Yeltsin presented the con- vincing figure of a model reformer, spruce in navy suit with his construction-engineer wife Naina much improved by the atten- tions of the Kremlin's fashion advisers. In a Shakespearean speech which did credit to whichever bright young anglophile wrote it for him, he dismissed his enemies as `ghosts of the past giving their final perfor- mance', and, according to his associates, charmed the Queen at lunch with tales of his uphill struggle against the dark forces back home. This was the New Russian, albeit sur- rounded by some distinctly Old Soviet types. I felt rather sorry for Malcolm . Rifkind, who drew the short straw of hav- ing to entertain the thuggish defence minis- ter Pavel Grachev and, according to the anodyne foreign office briefing, 'advise him on ways to make substantial cuts in the mil- itary without social friction'. Marshal Grachev, a Kabul veteran, is not only dead against cuts in his precious armed forces, but does not seem averse to a bit of social friction either. It is worth remembering that such people are still in Yeltsin's coterie.
Then there were the security men. Pro- tecting the President's life is, I grant you, a profession which does not naturally make one good at making friends and meeting people, but their robust approach to jour- nalists — and some invited guests at the Stock Exchange meeting — betrayed their heritage. A little sharp elbowing can hap- pen in the nicest democracies but their bouncy nastiness marked them unmistak- ably as children of the ancien regime. After an unseemly scuffle in the crypt of St Paul's, I angrily asked the padded gentle- man which department he was from. The embassy,' he said unconvincingly. But which department? 'Trade,' he said, turn- ing purple with fury. 'Don't you know what that means, girl?' I ventured that it meant security and got the elbow I deserved in return. Some things don't change at the Russian court.
It is at times like this that one wonders about Boris Yeltsin. He is a walking con- tradiction: a man who risked his life to stand on a tank outside the White House and damn the coup plotters but has since allowed five of the seven command posts in the defence ministry to be filled by hardline Afghansi (hardline veterafis of the Soviet Union's disastrous incursion into that country). He is someone who can dismiss his enemies as ghosts when abroad and then hurry home to stitch up pacts with the undead. A declared democrat whose natu- ral instinct is the decree, he boasted in the House of Lords about the freedoms of speech in today's Russia and a week later
quashed an interjection in his own parlia- ment, with the words, 'Shut up. It isn't polite to interrupt the President.' He has himself regularly photographed on the Sunday tennis court — both the sport and the idea of photographing the President doing it are American imports inspired by his successful trip there earlier this year and then goes on random drinking sprees leaving him missing at awkward moments, such as when the German economics min- ister came to call this autumn to be told that his host had failed to arrive back from a weekend carousing at his dacha.
Talk to people like Yuri Dagow, a feisty history academic who knows him from his days as first secretary in Svedlovsk (now Yekaterinburg again) and one realises that these traits are not simply a product of his turn from authoritarian communist to reformer, but deeply rooted in his political character. 'Boris Nikolaiyevich has only ever been happy playing two fronts at once,' he says. 'He addressed our society for the preservation of old buildings in the late Seventies, and said that it was terrible that our heritage had been so destroyed and that he would impress on Moscow the importance of respecting conservation. But a few months later the bulldozers moved in on a church and the signature on the demolition order was his. It didn't stop him addressing the society with the same promise the following year though.' The problem with Boris, say even his friends, is not that he is a compulsive liar, but a calcu- lating one. He will make pledges and then decide later whether it is useful to keep them or not.
He embodies his society's simultaneous longing for freedom and authoritarianism. In the late 19th century, the quarrel which dominated Russian intellectual life was between Westerners seeking to pull the country towards Europe and pan-Slavists seeking a strong, inward-looking Russia. After communism, the battle has broken out again. The key to understanding Yeltsin is that he is on both sides at once and believes that he alone can combine the two tendencies. Alexander Yakovlev, Mikhail Gorbachev's wily aide, pinpointed this aspect of Yeltsin in his comparison of the two leaders. Gorbachev, he said, grew to be a democrat but always feared the effects of democracy on Russia and never dared unleash it. Yeltsin, by contrast, was not in his heart a democrat, but had the courage to unfold democracy in the service of his own goals.
He came to power believing that it was his role to rebuild a powerful Russia and is convinced that this is his destiny. Market reforms and bourgeois freedoms are for him simply means to this end. This may be a pale imitation of democracy, but you should see what else is out there clamour- ing to build a strong Russia by other means. The devil still haunts the place and while we have reason to be wary of Boris's flamboyant charms, it is worth remember- ing that there are far grimmer figures wait- ing in the wings.
We will have a chance to peruse the assembled forces of reaction when the Congress of People's Deputies convenes on 'The recession? I've made a small fortune giving interviews about how redundancy was the best thing that could have happened to me.' Tuesday. Here, Yeltsin faces a foe more powerful than can be dealt with in a single, authoritarian stroke. There will be bolshe- vists, nationalists and free-floating lunatics galore gathered to pronounce on the gov- ernment's fate in the first major test of his government so far. The outcome of the ses- sion, held within the Kremlin's forbidding walls, will determine nothing less than whether reform continues or is thrust into reverse and thus what becomes of Russia in the years to come.
The extremists, like the parliamentary chairman, Khasbulatov, who dismissed the reformers as 'worms', or the military's Colonel Terekhov, who is loudly and ineffi- ciently planning a coup, have made a lot of noise in the last months. But they remain a side-show. The real threat to progress is the challenge of Civic Union, whose mem- bers are sane and measured and whose aims are frighteningly pragmatic. They want to see the IMF-backed austerity pro- gramme reversed and are calling for a deceleration of reforms. The Union, an alliance of former communists, captains of industry and figures from the military com- plex, has increased its power dramatically since shock treatment began to hurt in the summer. Its leader is Arkady Volsky, head of the industrialists' union and an adviser to both Andropov and Gorbachev.
Volsky is the sort of economic pragmatist whose rise coincided with the demise of Soviet communism. He was happiest with the sort of dithering reforms Gorbachev initiated: those which let industry make its own decisions while protecting its girth and well-being with vast state credits and investments. His campaign against the cur- rent reforms is based on accusations that the sort of streamlining proposed by the acting prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, will shrivel Russia as an industrial power, and he has the support of trade unionists and workers who see their jobs threatened in the process.
The Union's political totem is Alek- sandr Rutskoi, the vice-president whose contribution to inspiring confidence among foreign investors was to describe Russia as 'an economic and political rubbish heap'. Rutskoi is an Afghan veteran, decorated for bravery for having been shot down twice, and he enjoys strong links with the Afgansi men now in control of the armed forces. It is this combination of military and industrial might which has backed the government into a corner from which the only escape now appears to be a compro- mise which will slow down reform to a pace at which real change in Russia would be imperceptibly slow.
Last Monday Yeltsin ducked a direct confrontation with the Union, by reaching in advance an agreement with Civic Union which will secure his own position at the Congress and prevent the backbone of his cabinet from being broken by hardliners. This 'super-parliament' is a particularly aggressive dodo, left over from the Soviet era. Elected before the coup, when the Communist Party still had control of the media and sundry other means of manipu- lation on its side, it is little more than a convocation of hinderers. Much as the Russian leader would have loved to apply his fountain pen to it and back up the con- sequences with the army, support for Civic Union in the military, focused on the figure of Rutskoi, made this too risky a move.
The pact was a classic example of Yeltsin's ability to say one thing while doing another without a shred of embar- rassment. Western politicians have not yet grasped this and have a childlike tendency to believe what the big man tells them. The latest victim was Senator Sam Nunn, head of the US armed services committee, assured in the Kremlin on Monday morn- ing that there was no question of any fun- damental change to the course of reform. So impressed was the Senator that he con- vened a press conference to tell Moscow correspondents that there was no reason at all to be worried about Congress. While we were out listening to his encomium to the Russian leader's firmness of purpose, Tass was chattering out the news of a pact with Civic Union back in our offices.
The terms of the deal are vague but the message must worry anyone concerned for the fate of reform in Russia. The govern- ment agrees to Civic Union's demands that the state should 'play a greater role in reg- ulating the formation of market relations' — a phrase which directly contradicts the Policy of radical liberalisation originally espoused by Yeltsin and backed by the West. It also betrays doubts at the heart of government itself about radical change, stating: `The results of the first year of reforms give no grounds for euphoria.' There can now be little doubt that Rus- sia's reforms will decelerate as the conser- vatives increase their influence on government. Yeltsin will survive next week's trial by Congress, but at the price of a sacrifice of principle to forces whose determination to restore the role of the state in the economy, and in society as a whole, is unshakeable and who now have a powerful lever in their grasp. He clearly believes that he can manipu- late this deal with Civic Union, as so many pledges before, to mean what he wants it to mean. But the stakes are dangerously high for both Yeltsin and Russia, because he is gambling on nothing less than the future of his country's democracy. If he has calculat- ed correctly — and I know of no better player of the political roulette wheel any- where — he can hive off his enemies while keeping the changes on course and go down in history as modern Russia's great and cunning reformer. If he should fail, this week's pact with the military-industrial beezelbubs will destroy his good name at home and abroad for ever.
Anne McElvoy is the bureau chief of the Times in Moscow.