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Yelstin's Hold on Power Grows More Tenuous by Day : Russia: The president is increasingly vulnerable on two fronts: the economy and on "abandoning" Serbia. Was life better under Brezhnev?

March 07, 1993|Steven Merritt Miner | Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of history at Ohio University, recently returned from Moscow, where he did research in the Russian archives

ATHENS, OHIO — In the 1930s, Crane Brinton, a political scientist, observed that revolutions tend to follow a certain course, much like illnesses. A great many revolutions have occurred since Brinton's book, but they have generally followed the pattern he discerned: The old regime is discredited, its replacement is ruled by moderates, who, in turn, are replaced by a more violent vein of radicals, and, in the end, the old regime is partly restored.

It now looks as though the Russian Revolution of 1991 is in danger of following Brinton's blueprint. The moderate government of President Boris N. Yeltsin is besieged by constantly escalating challenges it is finding increasingly difficult to manage. And during the past few months, opposition forces have begun to coalesce around the Congress of People's Deputies.

Not all the Russian government's problems are domestic: Some of the most volatile are to be found in foreign relations. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, Yeltsin's opponents have fastened onto the cause of the Serbs. To be sure, there are ties between Serbia and Russia that run back well before the beginning of the last century. But the anti-Yeltsin forces are now busy arguing that, because of the president's close ties with the West, and with the United States in particular, Russia has "abandoned" Serbia. One can see graffiti scrawled in Moscow subways declaring "Long Live Serbia," and Serb recruiters are offering a bounty of $1,500 (a considerable sum in a country where the average monthly wage is $30) to any Russian male wanting to fight for his brother Slavs. The commander of Russian volunteers in Serbia claimed in a recent interview that a full-blown war is now being waged by the Western powers against "Slavdom."

Yeltsin is vulnerable to the charge of having abandoned Slavic, and especially Russian, interests. A recent best-seller in Russia was the memoirs of Yegor K. Ligachev, a conservative who was prominent in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's Politburo. Ligachev devotes a large portion of his book to unrestrained vituperation against Yeltsin, blaming both him and Gorbachev for bringing about the collapse of the old Soviet Union. The secession of non-Russian republics, Ligachev and others lament, has not only stripped Moscow of its strategic territory and economic assets; it has also left about 25 million ethnic Russians "abroad"--living in former Soviet territories now independent of Russian control.

Yeltsin might be able to answer such attacks if he could point to success in the Russian economy. But he cannot. Inflation is now ripping along at more than 25% a month, and the U.S. dollar has become the almost universal currency. Young street traders walk about with huge wads of dollar bills, refusing to accept anything else in payment for goods or services. Inevitably, the weaker members of society are hurt the most as the deterioration of the former Soviet economy becomes more evident daily.

The political backlash against Yeltsin began to gather strength early last fall, about six months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The managers of large-scale, old-style military and metal-bashing industries struck first. In any genuine market economy, most of their industries would be closed down at once, since they supply virtually nothing that anybody wants--mountains of fifth-rate consumer goods, outmoded machine tools and military hardware outclassed by the latest Western fare. Managers of such factories know they cannot compete in a market system, and so they pressure the Congress of People's Deputies to apply the brakes to privatization and modernization. They talk a great deal about adaptation and retooling, but, in fact, they want subsidies so they can continue to operate as they always have.

This managerial class, which used to be the most privileged stratum in the old Soviet Union, found ready allies in the Congress. And the political challenge to Yeltsin is made more dangerous by the fluidity of constitutional arrangements in post-Soviet Russia. It is unclear where the balance of power lies--with the president or with the people's deputies--and since December, 1992, the Congress has been working steadily to erode Yeltsin's power. They have done this in a variety of ways, most obviously by removing from Yeltsin's Cabinet those individuals, such as Yegor Gaidar, most closely identified with market reforms.

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