CONTEMPORARY POLITICS IN RUSSIA

Introduced by H J White, Dept.of Modern Languages and International Studies, University of Bath., on 15 May 1998

The speaker first provided an overview of his account. While the presidency is central to Russian politics, it confronts groups rather than institutions, but although democracy is fragile it is still stable. After 1990 various factors brought disaffections - some anti-West intellectuals, failure to reform, contacts with Western peoples and practices which fostered popular discontent with corruption, loss of support for leaders by middle managers, and nationalist agitations. .Each group is divided by class and objectives, however, and the sole unifier now is Yeltsin, whose appeal to many stems from his peasant origins, his confessed fallibility and roughness, and his support for Russia itself. His success as a middle manager secured the support of that vital sector also. After various humble jobs and extensive travel over the Soviet Union he noted that intellectuals saw the need for a market-based economy on Western lines, but he came to the presidency after rescuing a failed Gorbachev. He faced enormous problems - when the Communist Party was made illegal large administrative gaps appeared; since there were no parties electors could support only unknown individuals; there were no voluntary organisations as in the West; voters traditionally condemned minorities and compromises; respect was for power rather than law; ‘democracy’ was seen as licence.
Yeltsin took emergency powers distributed through provincial governors, struck deals with neighbours through the Commonwealth of Independent States and appointed a young reformist government. However, neighbours neither pooled sovereignty nor co-operated, the 1997 economy was a half of the 1990 economy (taxation evasion is universal) and after a l992 inflation rate of 2300% a majority of the population lived in poverty.Yeltsin literally fought the Parliament with the army and popular support, brought in traditionalists in place of reformers, yielded state properties mainly to middle managers and gave privileges to regional interests. Although middle managers remain politically important, the new l993 constitution brought a parliamentary majority of nationalists and communists.
Restricted reform kept inflation high, crime and Yeltsin’s personal conduct also reduced popular support for Yeltsin. Industrialists feared the communists more, however, and funded a successful campaign for him. By l998 Yeltsin had replaced Chernomyrdin with a young reformer, but institutional development remains weak, taxes stay uncollected, workers unpaid, authorities uncontrolled and power struggles endemic. Nevertheless, parties are forming, some constitutional rights are supported by some courts and the economy slowly improves.
The future remains uncertain - Yeltsin’s health and policies are unclear and reforms depend on volatile factors.Yeltsin’s successor could be Chernomyrdin again; the popular Mayor of Moscow; a nationalist or communist leader or even General Lebed. Mutual dislike currently infests Parliament, allowing Yeltsin and an élite to decide policy.The speaker guesses the future will be similar, unless economic growth changes the situation greatly.
Geoff Catchpole