It’s a Power Vaccum

1998 > Russia

There is a serious power vaccum in Russia

Johnson Russia List, Tuesday, 06 Oct 1998

The Throne is Empty. Who’s Next in Line?

By Elena Sokova

My daughter goes to a private Moscow school. We chose this school because
of the reasonable tuition and the classical Russian educational standards.
Another factor, which was very important to us, was the social status of
students’ parents.

of them belong to the new Russian middle class: professors and teachers at
the best Moscow colleges and universities, Russian managers at foreign firms
based in Moscow, mid-level government employees, owners of small-to medium-size
businesses. In general, they are part of the most hard-working, well-educated
professional class in Moscow, and are concerned about the quality of their
kids’ education.

A new leader!

Every day, when parents wait for the end of classes, they chat. Of course,
after their children’s progress at school, the most important topics are
politics and the current crisis. During the peak of the crisis, everybody
was concerned about the fall of the ruble and possible scenarios of conflict
between the President and the Duma. When Primakov was appointed prime minister,
they began guessing which way his government will go. After several weeks,
such speculation is still popular and remains just that, speculation, since
no one knows what the economic program of Primakov’s cabinet is.

It seems that the crisis hasn’t seriously changed the financial and social
status of these parents. Most of them still have their jobs and a stable
income. It is also clear that the stability of the country is indispensable
for their own stability and prosperity. But recent events have made stability
almost an obsession.

You might be surprised to hear nostalgic reminiscences from this group. What
do you think these representatives of the new middle class pick as their
favorite period of the past? You won’t believe itùthe Brezhnev era.
They do not like everything that happened during that time, of course, but
they miss the predictability of the government and the existence of ways
to solve their daily problems. Not all these ways were completely legitimate,
but at least the rules were clear, as were the occasionally necessary routes
around these rules.

One parent recalled how an old lady sent a letter to Brezhnev complaining
that she, a World War II veteran, lived with her kids and grandchildren in
a small apartment. After that letter, her family’s housing problem was solved.

Another parent told a story about her neighbor who had seven kids and was
smart enough to complain to the Central Committee that her family could not
live without hot water for months. (It was and still is a common practice
in Russia to shut off the hot water for at least a month and usually more
during the summer for some sort of routine maintenance). From that moment
until 1991, the whole apartment complex enjoyed the privilege of a special
one-week shutdown instead of a month or longer.

There were other stories with the same focus: despite the lack of democracy
and political rights, there was a government that controlled the country.
An effective government is precisely what is lacking today and what the vast
majority of Russians now miss. It is very Russian to blame the government
for difficulties and failures, on one hand, and at the same time believe
that the masses are unable to move forward without leadership from a “strong

There are always hopes that some day we will get a “good” government (or
a “good” czar), who will solve all our problems. One of the parents exclaimed,
“Why are Russians so unlucky with their governments?” Why, indeed? After
all, they are the very people who chose Yeltsin over Gorbachev eight years
ago. Smart peopleùincluding smart proponents of reformsùcould
see Yeltsin’s worth even then.

I have my own ideas on this topic, which I’ll save for another essay. What
I want to note at this point is that the latest crisis has shown that the
current government, including the President, the Duma, and the Cabinet, control
neither political nor economic developments in the country. All three of
them lack the support of the population. The President is in the worst shape
of all of them. His approval rating is close to zero. This is not because
he stubbornly kept nominating Chernomyrdin for prime minister, but because
he avoided any communication with the people of the country. No public or
pre-recorded speeches, nor any attempts to ease the situation. This led to
the wide-spread belief that he is no longer in charge.

The Duma and the deck of ministers that has been reshuffled who knows how
many times since 1991 do not enjoy popular trust either. Stories about personal
businesses and bribes of Duma deputies and government officials do not shock
anybody anymore. After all, newspapers periodically publish accounts of how
much a vote in the Duma costs; the opposition, including the Communist
opposition, is certainly no exception. Corrupt government is a reality in
Russia, and only the government itself might try to argue otherwise.

Primakov’s appointment got a positive response because he doesn’t have any
known ties with the Russian oligarchs or any easily identifiable personal
financial interest in the business of government. People would rather see
a Communist or a Soviet-era apparatchik in the government than individuals
like Chubais and members of his group, who are thought to be the most corrupt
and dishonest politicians among the current political elite. Nostalgia for
the past social and political stability helps bring Soviet-era politicians

It is important to avoid oversimplification here. Russia has lived with corrupt
governments for centuries, and people do not necessarily resent that too
much; they can tolerate it if the government is efficient. It is the combination
of corruption and inefficiency that makes people mad. In the late 1980s,
as the Soviet-type economy was crumbling but the elite was perceived to be
living well and getting all kinds of perks, the gap between efficiency and
corruption brought the Soviet regime down. Now the gap has broadened. The
same middle class that complains about corruption today was rather permissive
just half a year ago when it lived well; the current crisis simply caused
them to join the rest of the population, which has not seen anything good
come from reforms.

A curious coalition is emerging. The new middle class, which does not resent
the wealth of the rich as long as it has a piece of the pie (less, but enough
to live comfortably) aligns itself with those who demand that everyone be
equal, whether equally rich or equally poor. This is a dangerous type of

Worse still, people like Gaidar and Chubais have managed to discredit not
just themselves, but the very notion of reforms. Ordinary people do not go
into the finer details of what was wrong with the reforms and what was right
about them. They probably do not know what monetarism is. But they know that
the authors of the reforms and the small group that benefited from privatization,
foreign financial aid, and access to the country’s resources live in luxury
while the majority of the population lives in poverty and has fewer rights
than before the reforms. And they know that these things were called reforms.
People would probably support the principle “live and let live,” but they
greatly resent the situation in which the new rich live, but do not create
conditions for others to live. From 1996 to early 1998, the proceeds of reforms
had begun to trickle down to what became the new middle class, but now that
trickle has virtually dried up.

In the civilized world, people make money first and turn to politics second.
In Russia, the opposite was, and unfortunately still is, trueùa government
position gives you the key to the treasure chest. Only a few have been able
to resist the temptation. I do not think I need to spend time to prove this.
Anyone who followed Russian periodicals for the last month can find ample
proof in almost any issue of any newspaper or magazine, regardless of its
financial sponsor.

The Russian mass media is a separate topic for analysis, but I can’t avoid
a brief mention of its role in accelerating the last financial crisis. It
was the newspapers and television programs that were behind the panic. Of
course, it was not completely their fault: there was no official information
on what was going on. They used the information vacuum to exaggerate the
problems and quite often they created, or at least aggravated, some of these
problems. If you hear on the TV that we are all facing hunger because the
country has only a one-month supply of food and that everybody should buy
salt, flour, and matches to live through the winter, you would probably follow
that advice, even if you are not generally a panicky person. If a news
commentator says that he has just gotten a call that someone noticed suspicious
military activity close to Moscow, you would most likely believe it and prepare
for a coup, especially if you already lived through 1991 and 1993.

Primakov’s cabinet is following the unfortunate tradition of avoiding
communication with the mass media. The absence of information about the real
situation in the country and the planned economic measures causes newspapers
to guess and speculate. Different papers list different amounts of rubles
that the government has released into circulation, although there has been
no word from the government itself about whether or not they have already
printed rubles. Primakov was known for keeping the press outside the tightly
shut doors of the Foreign Ministry; the same practice might be an even worse
liability now that he is the prime minister of a country deep in crisis.

Primakov and his cabinet have a unique chance to take the control over the
political and economic situation in the country. All they need is to take
responsibility, to show determination and willingness to overcome the crisis.
If they act slowly and inconsistently, they are doomed. The country yearns
for a strong government that can provide tight discipline and the rule of
law along with reasonable political and economic freedoms. The longer the
country waits for such a government, the greater the chances we will get
a dictatorship instead of simply a strong government oriented toward the
market and democracy.

Yesterday, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov announced officially for the first time
that he might run for president. I personally would like to see him in charge
right now. But he is not the only candidate for presidency at this point,
although he was gotten broad support from the central and left wings of the
political spectrum, including the Communist party. Nor are any elections
expected next month.

It is clear that the current power vacuum should be filled as soon as possible.
The question is who will fill it and when? And what price will the country
pay for it?

Elena Sokova is a Senior Research Associate and former librarian of the
Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies
at the Monterey Institute, recently returned to her native Russia. She prepared
these notes on the current situation there on October 1, 1998

Johnson’s Russia List, Monday, 12 Oct 1998

Waiting for the Man

By Will Harte

It is just after eight in the evening and already another bright fall day
in Russia has slipped into darkness, lying down to await the lover she knows
will come. Winter. What will he bring her? Roses? Sweet Promises? A frigid
kiss that sears the heart?

The manner in which Russia has dropped the charade of post-Soviet prosperity
over these first few weeks of autumn is stunning, both for its speed and
because it all seems so final. Like that first cold front coming in and erasing
any hope of a return to summer, the August 17 devaluation of the rouble and
almost instantaneous collapse of the country’s house-of-cards economy ran
a chill through Russia overnight, laying bare the ephemeral nature of President
Boris Yeltsin’s reforms and leaving everyone wondering out loud about trouble

Two weeks later, after Yeltsin had dismissed Sergei Vladlenovich Kirienko
as Prime Minister and recalled the ôheavyweightö Viktor Stepanovich
Chernomyrdin, President Clinton was in Moscow trying to talk up support for
his friend Boris. While Clinton ended up looking like someone who had walked
in on a heated argument, he at least had the sense to leave quietly. As a
result, Russiansùwho cannot understand what in the world all the fuss
over Monica Lewinsky is aboutùhardly took note of the president amid
the start of a new school year and the growing crisis in the Kremlin.

If no one here stopped to ask just how much responsibility Clinton and his
foreign policy team bore for this latest trauma to Russian society, it was
only because people were too busy keeping an eye on the rouble-dollar exchange
rate. Arcing, curving, swooping, spiraling, the rouble underwent an unnerving
evolution beginning in late August, mirroring various sordid events occurring
on Russia’s political arena. Of course, it did not help things that the country’s
financial system had collapsed, or that people’s savings in all major private
institutions had been frozen by the Russian Central Bank. Four years of
increasing consumer confidence were dashed. Panic hit the streets.

Against this background, Yeltsin in early September attempted to force the
unsavory morsel of a resurrected Chernomyrdin down the nation’s throat. Deposed
as prime minister in the spring and now, almost unbelievably, called on by
a president clearly losing his marbles, the dull but dangerous Viktor Stepanovich
was soundly rejected in two votes by a parliament quickly losing its patience.
Politicians and pundits began predicting civil warùan old but potent
threat around hereùand after several tense days as the world watched,
word came from Yeltsin’s dacha that Chernomyrdin was being passed over for
the compromise candidate, Minister of Foreign Affairs Evgeny Maximovich Primakov.
Boris could not have made a better choice, and for the time being Russia
was back from the brink.

Primakov whose real name is Finkelstein but has earned the moniker “the sphinx”
comes to the Russian White House with the most impeccable of credentials.
Cold war spy master, Gorbachev confidante, savior of the KGB after the fall
of the Soviet Union, and the man who has brought about a renaissance in Russian
foreign affairs, Primakov is wily and well-spoken. A smooth, no nonsense
foreign minister for the last two years, Primakov was the debonair Elephant
Walk maitre d’ to Madeline Albright’s gum chewing diner doll, delivering
up diplomacy on platters palatable to all from Saddam Hussein to William

Unfortunately, the appointment of Primakov as Prime Minister promises to
do little in the short run to make the lives of his countrymen any better.
Russia is in a rut, and while Evgeny Maximovich is perhaps the only man who
can hold Russia together until the next election in June, 2000, the direction
this country is heading is dictatorship, not democracy; Pinochet, not
privatization. Primakov is known for the strength of his convictions, and
respected for his ability to lead. However, whether he can lead Russia out
of its current mess with at least a remnant of the country’s former free
market system intact will depend to a large degree on the Russian people
themselves. How much more of Yeltsin can they take? As last Wednesday’s muted
national day of protest showed, Russians may be calling for Boris’ head on
a platter, but they are not yet ready to put it there.

A guy I know here, Anatoly, tells the following story about a friend who
recently emigrated from Russia: Settling in Germany, his friend buys a bicycle
and begins using it to go to the grocery store around the corner, taking
daily trips and enjoying his new found freedom. Pretty soon, though, a policeman
stops the Russian and orders him to dismount, pointing to a no-bicycles-allowed
symbol. The friend reluctantly goes the rest of the way to the store by foot.
A couple of days later, though, he is back on his bike, and blows by the
sign only to be confronted once again by the vigilant officer. The Russian
pleads forgetfulness in broken German and is glad to escape without a fine.
The next day he flaunts the odds and ventures out again on his bicycle, only
to be stopped for a third time by the now familiar keeper of the peace. He
dismounts immediately and is sheepishly offering an apology when the policeman,
looking around for a second, takes out his baton and starts whacking away.
“Russische schwein!” Now Anatoly’s friend understands. Now he walks to the
store for his groceries.

It is hard to come to terms with this apparent need Russia has for an ôiron
fist,ö as it is equally difficult to explain. Alas, as the past six
years prove, democracy is unlikely to take root here any time soon. The great
freedoms enjoyed by Russia today are more than offset by grotesque levels
of thievery, exploitation, and violence born of these very freedoms. Russians
talk constantly about the “oligarchy,” a small clique of fabulously wealthy
Jewish men, led by the Rasputin-like Boris Berezovsky, who supposedly run
both the Kremlin and the country. While reality is obviously much more complex,
Russians are want to look for simple answers and a strong leader to correct
the economic injustices prevalent today. Is it their history, their genes,
or the exuberance with which the west fostered its ideas and values on an
unsuspecting nation? It does not really matter. Russians are now waiting
for the man. Whoever he is, he will carry a big stick. And use it.

Be this as it may, the overriding concern in Vologda this fall was with the
rain and whether people were going to have any potatoes to put away for the
winter. Contrary to scenes of long lines of frantic Muscovites at ATMs and
the blustery rhetoric of politicians, most Vologodians were initially unaffected
by the rouble’s collapse, mainly because they had nothing in the bank to
begin with. Also, people in Vologda had better things to do with their time
than watch Yeltsin mumble his way Brezhnevesque through a nationwide television
interview or to listen as parliament ranted on about who was to blame for
Russia’s mess. People here knew the score. The country may be broke, but
the Russian Central Bank just put the finishing touches on a gleaming regional
headquarters in Vologda. Standing out on the bank of the Vologda River before
half-submerged fishing boats, rotting log houses, and the crumbling carcass
of an unfinished hotel begun years ago, the glass and stone palace is a fitting
symbol for Russia in 1998.

Anyway, as I said, people had better things to do than play chorus to the
cynical farce being acted out in Moscow. After all, mother nature offered
up one of the warmest, sunniest autumns in memory, and what with all the
rain northern Russia had got this summer, it was a banner year for mushrooms
and berries here. Vologda’s forests and bogs were awash in edible gifts and
the bounty to be found was truly amazing. Blueberries, cloudberries, bilberries,
cranberries, white mushrooms, brown mushrooms, ôlittle foxesö.à
Russians were out and about en masse this fall, pushed by the prospect of
“golod i kholod,” hunger and cold, this winter, but pulled by the soft morning
light and the thought of a warm bonfire at day’s end. “Za gribami,” looking
for mushrooms. No phrase quite conjures up the potent images these two words
do. Try, if you can, to imagine the smell of pine trees and rotting leaves
and sour cigarettes and sunlight. This is Russia’s essence. This is why it
will survive the latest crude joke called devaluation and all that lies ahead.

Six weeks into the crisis, though, even those who spent autumn in the woods
have sat up and started to pay attention. Prices are higher everywhere in
Vologda and store shelves have regained only a fraction of the luster they
had before everything began to come apart at the seams. Locally made items
such as bread, sausage, and dairy products remain roughly what they were,
but even these are beginning to inch their way upward. In Moscow, the Primakov
cabinet remains mired in the mud of personality conflicts and unclear goals.
Just recently, someone promoted the notion of forbidding the free exchange
of U.S. dollars in Russia. The instant hysteria this created in early morning
Moscow reached Vologda around noon. When banks here reopened for business
after their hour lunch break, people trying to unload their greenbacks quickly
depleted the rouble supply in town. Yeltsin had no other choice than to appear
on television later in the day and dismiss the idea publicly. Perhaps recalling
that it was Yeltsin who on August 15 had told reporters that there would
be no, repeat no, devaluation of the rouble, Primakov went on air in the
evening, too, assuring everyone that dollars could still be exchanged in
banks. Do Russians trust Primakov’s word? Time will tell.

Regardless, people go about their lives today much in the same way they did
before August 17. While bankers wonder whether this will be their last day
on the job, pretty girls in long coats and dress hats stroll by, smiling
in the midday sun. Young men in crew cuts and creased pants strut their stuff
on Cathedral Hill, the still waters of the Vologda River below reflecting
bright yellow birches and red maples against a pale blue sky. Elderly couples
just back from the dacha stand sentry at bus stops with knapsacks full of
carrots and cabbages for the months to come. Men just off the job sit together
on park benches, enjoying a smoke and a bottle of beer in the growing twilight.
Another day in Russia turns into night. Winter is on its way. Life is good.
Life is hard. Life goes on.