When the mob opposed to Boris N. Yeltsin seized the Ostankino television center in Moscow on Saturday night, the Russian president had no option but to reply to force with force. Not everyone in the Parliament building following the dissolution of the legislature was an unreconstructed communist or a fascist, but a high proportion of them were. If they had been victorious, it would have been a disaster for Russia and the world.
Yeltsin once again demonstrated his strength in a crisis. He has been less effective, however, in between crises--in preventing matters from reaching the danger point. The parliamentary leadership was the more culpable in the breakdown of political relations that preceded Yeltsin’s closing down of the legislature, but Yeltsin and his advisers were not blameless.
The outcome of Sunday’s shootout was much to be preferred to victory for forces led by two of the most vicious of Russian generals, Vladislav Achalov and Albert Makashov, with whom Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi had associated himself, to the detriment of any democratic credentials he might have wished to retain. But the crushing by force of an armed opposition was a lesser evil, not a great victory for freedom and democracy. Indeed, the fact that both sides failed to settle their differences by political means has set a sad precedent whereby political violence becomes more, not less, likely in the future.
The worry of some thoughtful Russians with whom I spoke in Moscow on Monday, while government tanks were still pounding the Russian White House, was not with the immediate outcome of the violent confrontation. That was scarcely in doubt. Their concern was with the unintended consequences of “total victory” by Yeltsin and the damage that could be done by the winner-takes-all attitude that is second nature to most Russian politicians. Those in Russia who see themselves as radical democrats are far from exempt from this. In psychology, as distinct from ideology, they include many neo-Bolsheviks whose fundamental outlook is akin to Lenin’s kto kogo (who will crush whom).
Skill is required on the part of Russia’s leaders today to marginalize by political, rather than repressive, means the impact of backward-looking communists and ultranationalists within the society. That should not be beyond the competence of democratic politicians, for most Russians are not extremists but sensible people who want to live peaceful and orderly lives, preferably in freedom and eventually with a higher standard of living than they have enjoyed hitherto.
The prospects for freedom and democracy would have been still slimmer in Russia had the motley band led by Rutskoi and Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, and the generals Achalov and Makashov, succeeded in winning over the army at the weekend. The very fact, however, that Yeltsin had to use Ministry of Defense troops to defeat them is in itself a setback for reform. If the putschists of August, 1991, lost their nerve in the face of “people power,” it was not in the past few days the democratic stance of thousands of Muscovites but the weaponry of the Russian army that kept Yeltsin and his government in power.
This sets a new precedent. The army has been an important instrument of power in Russia for many decades. But throughout the Soviet period, it was kept under strict political control. It was never allowed to become the arbiter of the fate of one group of politicians as against another. That is the status it has now gained.
There is no question but that the army has become a more important actor on the political stage than it was a week ago. For some time, Russia has had two foreign policies, one emanating from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the other from the Ministry of Defense. From now on, Yeltsin will have to pay still more attention to the views of Pavel Grachev and the military Establishment generally.
This has implications even for Russia’s economic reform. It will be harder now to make the necessary reductions in the size of the military-industrial complex and the transfer of investment to the non-military sector that Russian economic reform requires. State industry, especially when it is defense-related, will be in a stronger position to resist the designs of marketizing reformers on the subsidies that keep it going.
In the political sphere, it will be difficult to have a fair election campaign when radio and television are under strict government censorship and a number of opposition newspapers have been banned. The more genuine democrats on President Yeltsin’s team must try to prevent repression from going too far. It would be a tragic setback for Russian democracy if censorship should be extended to the dwindling number of publications that maintain their independence from politicians of all stripes and feel free to criticize actions of the president and the government when they deserve it.
In the West, too, politicians and observers should not abandon their critical faculties just because there is no immediately obvious alternative to Yeltsin. Conditional support should be accompanied by constructive criticism. At the same time, Western influence on Russian developments must not be exaggerated. If the army had made a different choice on Saturday and Sunday, all the vocal support of President Clinton and a dozen prime ministers would not have kept President Yeltsin in office.