Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia: A Year into Yeltsin's Second Term

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia: A Year into Yeltsin's Second Term

Article excerpt

According to official Washington, with President Yeltsin reelected in July 1996 for a second term, Russia finally has been set steady on the path of democracy. The elections have been officially accepted as free and fair. Scandals and cabinet reshuffles have been dismissed as routine changes in government, and a slow pace of reform has been explained away as specifically Russian difficulties. What has been the course of Russian government one year into Yeltsin's second term? Can trends be identified that would give us a clue to the possible course in the future?

It should be recalled that in spring 1996 it was far from certain that Yeltsin would be elected for a second term. His popularity rating was low, social tensions were high, and the unpaid wages crisis was getting worse. Faced with a Communist danger, a group of influential bankers, through Anatolii Chubais, offered help to the beleaguered and ailing president. Yeltsin campaigned vigorously as a reborn democrat and a reformer. The key figure in that transformation was Chubais, appointed election campaign chief in March 1996, whose strategy was to polarize the electorate, create a red scare, and resurrect the image of Yeltsin of 1991, as a populist, a democrat, and a reformer.

By far the most important element in this strategy was to help a candidate who would split the Communist constituency in the first round and let Yeltsin win the second. Retired General Aleksandr Lebed, lacking a national organization to run a successful campaign on his own, fit this role perfectly. A deal was struck between the Yeltsin campaign and General Lebed before the first round, whereby Lebed would join Yeltsin's team as a reward for not backing Zyuganov. In July 1996, it appeared that Chubais's strategy had worked: Yeltsin won in the role of a democrat, the Communists lost, and Lebed co-opted.

As a new Security Council secretary, Lebed tackled the two pressing problems, the war in Chechnya and corruption. Because security could be defined broadly, this pitted him against the prerogatives of the prime minister and against the new chief of staff, the grand intriguer Chubais. As in the past, Yeltsin relied on the ill-defined authority of his appointed subordinates. One day he would back Lebed's peace policy in Chechnya and another day distance himself from it. In this manner, a Defense Council was created in July as a counterweight to Lebed's Security Council. With the firing of General Lebed, the combination of bureaucrats plus democrats plus Lebed's nationalists split up in October. Lebed was ostracized again, deprived of access to mass media or financial resources. Yet he has remained a rallying point for all the discontented, and he cannot be cast as a Communist.

The long weeks and months of Yeltsin's illness have been marked by rumors of conspiracies, accusations of preparing a coup d'etat, ferment in the armed forces, shaky peace in Chechnya, wage arrears, tax evasion, and uncertainty over the president's health. The first six months after the elections could not possibly be called a period of reform or stability by any measure. The government was losing credibility as the economic situation deteriorated further during the winter.

In January 1997, President Yeltsin recovered enough to return to the business of government. The signals emanating from the Kremlin were positive. The image that the president wanted to project was that of a dynamic reformer. A new cabinet was formed. These were well-known people: Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, who has been at the helm since 1992; Anatolii Chubais, the former privatization tsar, campaign manager, and presidential adviser, was now a vice prime minister and a de facto maker or breaker of policy. The addition of Nizhnii Novgorod's governor Nemtsov to Yeltsin's government was supposed to be yet another demonstration that a cabinet of reformers was in place. This government of democrats and reformers was supposed to accomplish three major tasks: In the short term, to pay the unpaid pensions and wages, collect uncollectible taxes, fight crime and corruption, and, above all, get the economy growing again after a six-year recession. …

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