11 JANUARY 1992, Page 10


Stephen Handelman refutes the current

view that President Yeltsin and his people are facing catastrophe

Moscow NINA Klinkova, a clerk at a Moscow state produkti store, looked at the row of empty shelves in her shop one day this week and shrugged her hefty shoulders. 'We are Russians,' she said. 'We can endure a lot.' While the world is daily expecting post- Soviet society's collapse into an orgy of chaos and riot, Mrs Klinkova provides an inspiring antidote. The apparent impa- tience of some Western analysts, and even some Western commentators, to see their apocalyptic predictions fulfilled is one of the stranger consequences of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

It seems almost churlish to note that the past month has seen one of the most peaceful collapses of totalitarianism on record. No tanks rolled in the streets of Russian cities. The loudest explosions were from fireworks over Red Square on New Year's Eve. More to the point, the freeing of state prices on 2 January, widely expected to ignite mass unrest, was greeted with no more seditious grumbling than one would expect to see from an increase in VAT in some quarters of London and, perhaps, considering the damage to the standard of living, even less. The reasons are not hard to deduce. What the prophets of doom at home and abroad have signally overlooked is the spirit of optimism and hope now at large in most quarters of the Commonwealth.

Whether or not such optimism can be sustained is a separate question, but the successors to Mikhail Gorbachev have come into power on a wave of popular goodwill that would be the envy of admin- istrations in the West. That this feeling co- exists with the scepticism of a citizenry which has endured 75 years of social experimentation is even more remarkable. But a Moscow friend explained it to me in terms that make excellent sense. 'For months, we've done nothing but talk about reforms. It was like a lake with no wind, but for the first time people can see some movement. Even if the government reforms don't always make sense, psycho- logically people feel that something is hap- pening to their lives and around them.'

A sceptic might also note that many

middle-class Russians anticipated this month's economic blow by hoarding food, which is why the angriest and most desper- ate reaction to price rises has come from pensioners and others on fixed incomes. Nevertheless, the sense of movement is what seems to be keeping the government of President Yeltsin afloat. As leader of the largest and most important member- state of the Commonwealth, Mr Yeltsin is now crucial to the success of the entire enterprise. Not surprisingly, he has become a target for opposition attacks from all corners of the political spectrum.

The first blow was struck the day after prices on most goods and services were allowed to surge upwards from the arbi- trary controls imposed by the State. An open letter from conservative members of the Russian parliament published in Sovi- etkskaya Rossiya, a paper which formerly lent its platform to members of the party old guard, accused the government of 'car- rying out another experiment on the peo- ples of Russia, [and] pushing them into poverty, chaos and anarchy'. Trying to sep- arate Mr Yeltsin from what they termed 'the radical majority in parliament', the letter-writers called on him to form a new government representing the interests of Russian citizens. Curiously, similar rhetoric was used by Mr Yeltsin's own vice-president, Alexander Rutskoi.

Mr Rutskoi has been warning against the free-market 'experiment', while insist- ing that he continues to support Mr Yeltsin. The people's confidence is waning day by day,' he told a German interviewer, despite the contrary evidence of many public opinion polls. 'Just as the Soviet Union has fallen apart, so will Russia.'

With that sort of talk, it's not hard to understand why international opinion doubts the stability of Mr Yeltsin's govern- ment. But rhetoric, as long Soviet experi- ence bears out, does not make a revolution. There is no serious alternative on offer to Mr Yeltsin. What appears to be deep political division is actually palace intrigue, with politicians of all types scrabbling to win a place close to the Siberian's throne. Mr Yeltsin has stream- lined his administration, shoving to one side many of the former party cronies he brought with him to Moscow in favour of a young, energetic team of economists, head- ed by the capable Yegor Gaidar. Resent- ment, particularly directed at deputy prime minister Gennady Burbulis, considered the real power behind the throne, is widespread.

A genuine multi-party system, oddly enough, is beginning to take shape in the debris left by the ancien regime. There are now three main circles of political action: a free-market entrepreneurial party under Nikolai Travkin, a one-time hero of social- ist labour; Democratic Russia, a moderate- ly left-wing group of reformers generally supportive of Mr Yeltsin, whose principal power base is in the Russian parliament; and lastly, a coalition of centrist former bureaucrats and 'liberal' communists head- ed by the indefatigable Mr Rutskoi. But even with the possible inclusion of Mr Gor- bachev, the opposition is weak. Proof of this is how quickly opinion here united in defence of Russian claims against Ukraine in the argument over division of the Soviet Union's military spoils.

That does not leave Mr Yeltsin free of dangers. The old guard, buttressed by aggrieved military officers, quasi-imperial- ists, anti-Semites and others who are actively trying to revive pre-revolutionary patterns of political behaviour, remains powerful. They have been assisted by a conservative press which has successfully passed the test of transition from ideologi- cal outlet of the Communist Party to the voice of those marginalised by the rush towards capitalism.

The pages of Pravda, in particular, are now filled with letters from 'workers' that bear an uncanny resemblance to the dia- tribes it published during the years of pere- stroika from 'loyal party veterans'. One typical missive, from a 75-year-old pension- er named Nektari Fomin, pointedly writing from Mr Yeltsin's hometown of Yekaterin- burg, complains of being forced to go with- out socks and underwear for lack of them in the shops. 'I propose that old people who have lived past the age of 60 be given painless injections that would send them to the other world,' he writes. Whether Mr Fomin actually invented his Swiftian pro- posal, or whether it was invented for him, it is a signal that there is still plenty of bile left in the Soviet bear, fatally wounded though he may be. But Mr Yeltsin, who learned how to orchestrate such campaigns himself as a party boss, is unlikely to be deflected. 'I believe that the preservation of peace and quiet in Russia is the just desert of our people,' he said in his New Year's address. 'It is the fruit of their wis- dom, patience and courage.' The fact that the long-suffering Russian masses are so far living up to their billing should excite as much quiet congratulation as wonder.

Stephen Handelman is Moscow Bureau Chief of the Toronto Star