Article excerpt

Is Russia headed toward a new era of authoritarian rule at home and expansionist designs abroad?

To Yuri Afanasyev, the historian who helped Boris Yeltsin engineer the peaceful collapse of the old Soviet Union, the question misses the point.

"These kind of people," he says, "have power already."

Yeltsin's government has imposed its will, militarily or economically, in almost every former Soviet republic, Afanasyev notes, from Moldova in the far southwest through the Caucasus to Central Asia. Russia has blocked eastern European countries from membership in NATO.

At home, Russia has pursued sham economic reforms, erecting a facade of privatization and free prices. Real power remains, as always, in the hands of Moscow bureaucrats, army generals and the "red directors" of the big state enterprises.

The only mystery, to Afanasyev, is why U.S. officials and most of western Europe don't understand what has happened. "The West is trying to describe the situation they would like, not the real situation as it is," he said.

Afanasyev, a stocky, square-jawed specialist in French historiography, is president of the Russian State University for the Humanities. Five years ago he was one of three leaders of the pro-democracy faction in the First Congress of People's Deputies that pressed Mikhail S. Gorbachev to speed political reforms. His co-chairs: Boris Yeltsin and Nobel Laureate Andrei Sakharov.

Only Yeltsin is left.

Sakharov died in December 1989, too soon to witness the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin's ascension to the presidency of Russia.

Afanasyev abandoned politics and returned to the university - unwilling, he says, "to participate in this nightmare of what Yeltsin and the so-called democrats have done."

By "nightmare," Afanasyev means, first, the charade of economic reform.

Despite some steps toward privatization in 1992, the big enterprises still depend on Russia's central bank for operating credits. Monopolists with close government ties control most of the kiosks and private shops that have sprung up in Moscow and other big cities, he said.

"On the whole, it's the same planned economy as before . . . Its essence is the same because it remains an operation in the hands of the state."

The second point in Afanasyev's indictment is that, in many ways, the old legal system persists.

He cites the ongoing trial of Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist accused of revealing state secrets in an article he wrote alleging that Russia was testing chemical weapons. …


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