Red starry eyes

March 8, 1996

After bitterly rejecting communism just a short time ago, Russia and eastern Europe are falling back into its secure and familiar embrace. Harry Shukman explains an unlikely reconciliation.

The pluralist politics and market economies for which the peoples of the former communist bloc seemed to yearn in the closing years of the Soviet era are now established facts. Yet, paradoxically, new and old communists have almost everywhere recently gained electoral strength. In Poland, where in the heyday of Solidarity 90 per cent of the population was claimed as Roman Catholic, a communist has been elected president in place of the former man of the people, Lech Walesa. In Lithuania the former first secretary of the Communist party has replaced the democrat who led the country's independence movement. In Russia itself, once the communist centre of gravity and scene of the most dramatic rejection of the omnipotent party-state, an avowed communist looks set to use the ballot box to topple the champion of anti-communism, Boris Yeltsin. Why?

In 1989 it was a powerful wave of anti-communism that swept across Eastern Europe and overwhelmed the "people's democracies". In 1991 the Soviet Union was dismantled by the twin forces of anti-Russian separatism and anti-communism. Throughout the region, these forces were reinforced by discontent generated by socialist abuse and economic mismanagement.

The regimes, established on the wreck of the socialist order, were expected to sweep away the Communist parties and create market economies, as if overnight, and as if all problems would be solved instantly. In eastern Europe the euphoria of the anti-communist revolution eventually gave way to hard-headed pragmatism, as the new leaders showed poor results and reform-minded former communists offered more palatable and, seemingly, more realistic solutions.

In Russia, the damage inflicted on much of the population by the economic reforms has aroused nostalgic memories of the social security of an earlier era. Under the communists there were inequalities, and only those with the right connections enjoyed the limited goodies available, but the strong hand of authority ensured that any expressions of disgruntlement stayed firmly under wraps. Ordinary people shrugged at the privileges enjoyed by the powerful and struggled along with a pittance, but a pittance that bought basic food and poor clothing and paid the minimal bills for housing and other services.

Even before 1991, but blatantly so since then, those in positions of power and influence have been the first to get their snouts into the trough of market wealth. In a country the size of Russia, the uneven distribution of resources has always been apparent, both before and since the revolution of 1917. But the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, between town and village, metropolis and province, has widened still further. The fat cats of Moscow and St Petersburg flaunt their wealth. State hospitals that used to be underfunded are now simply impoverished, while the best have been privatised; the same can be said of schools; state employees are grossly underpaid, and often not paid at all for months, as the government's revenues fail to take off and it resists the temptation to print money; meanwhile anyone associated with a western firm is getting much more than a living wage.

Another important source of disaffection is the army. It was never well paid, but in the old days it was well looked after, though the decline in its living standards antedate even Gorbachev. But its honour and glory were highly valued assets for the regime's self-presentation. It is now thoroughly demoralised - by the loss of its imperialist role in eastern Europe, its failure in Afghanistan and its ignominy in Chechnia. Once lauded as the equal of the United States army and Nato, it now controls a diminished arsenal, a rusting fleet and undernourished and unwilling conscripts. If recently reported improvements in military technology are true, they have yet to have any effect on the military's image in the population and in the army itself. This loss of military standing has aroused strong nationalist feeling that virtually any presidential candidate will exploit.

It seems incredible, but the people who now pine for the "security" of the communist era must have forgotten just how disorganised it was, how inefficient and chaotic, irrational and unproductive, and, of course, for many decades pitilessly cruel. Now that the support structure of their lives has been knocked away, and the future seems unpredictable, they look for alternatives that promise a degree of certainty. If capitalism is here to stay, people think, perhaps it can be made more acceptable by tough leadership in the Kremlin? The "firm hand" has always been an attractive alternative to the uncertainties of liberal politics in Russia.

Liberals and democrats in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union suffer from at least two disabilities. First, they are, on the whole, unwilling to use duplicity to promote themselves or to resort to intimidation to stifle criticism, as their pre-Gorbachev predecessors would have done. Second, the reform programme they espoused is inherently slower to execute than any authoritarian alternative. The development of genuine market conditions and the accumulation of capital, in other than the primitive and criminal way it is now being pursued, require more than one generation.

But market capitalism has developed with amazing rapidity in the region. Privatisation, even in Russia where it has been dogged by bad government practice and anything but fair competition, has virtually taken over and become the norm. Stock markets and commodity exchanges thrive. People have learned that real prices have to be paid for real goods and services. What has embittered so many is that the injustice of the communist system has been replaced by the blatant unfairness of the market system.

Russian Communist party chief, Gennadi Zyuganov, has the politician's gift of trimming his sails to the local wind. To ordinary Russians he promises tough action against the corruption that characterises the Yeltsin administration, while to western bankers he presents the level-headed image of the social democrat determined to harness Russia's burgeoning wealth to the needs of the nation. He strikes a popular note by promising to renationalise state assets sold off in blatantly crooked auctions, but does not declare himself in favour of global renationalisation. Since 80 per cent of the country's enterprises are now in private hands, that shows good sense. It also offers some confidence to western businessmen who might be wondering if they have plunged into Russia too hastily. Among these are the big oil and mining companies, whose large-scale investments make long-term commitment a necessity, but also major banking firms, which are committing substantial funds to train Russians.

But Zyuganov also follows the familiar path of Russian nationalism by protesting that "capitalism cannot be an organic part of the flesh and blood, the life, the customs and psychology of Russian society". He reassures his followers that capitalism is not taking root in Russia and tells them that western consumerism is not a model for development.

The anti-communist Boris Yeltsin, whose democratic credentials have emphatically not survived his conflicts with the Duma and still less his disastrous Chechen policy, is trying to edge his way towards the warmth of these revived communist embers. Reverting to old-style rhetoric and comfortable with it, he has threatened dire action against criminal businessmen, playing shamelessly to the gallery by condemning officials and managers who can afford expensive foreign holidays. "Foreign holidays" implies foreign bank accounts and bribes to stash away in them.

Yeltsin's lurch towards reaction is a desperate attempt, only four months before he stands for re-election, to recover ground from the nationalists and communists. The elections to the Duma of December 1995 showed that the government is thoroughly mistrusted. The parties most associated with reform did badly, including the government's own party. But, while the communists who have been returned to power in Eastern Europe are not tarred with the brush of the ancien regime, in Russia they certainly are. Still holding on to their old jobs in the provinces, Russia's communists are unreconstructed and angry.

It may seem paradoxical that people are voting for the men who still hold office locally and who should therefore be regarded as the cause of the misery. In fact, it is the local communists who have been most effective in moderating the worst effects of the reforms, and hence hampering their implementation. While they may not be seen exactly as local heroes, they are seen as the lesser evil.

It seems unlikely that Zyuganov's mixed-up pragmatism will remain unaffected by the more zealous views of his constituents. For how long would the Russian Communist party tolerate social democratic policies in their communist president? The question now must be, how close to his communist origins will Yeltsin return in order to recover lost ground before June?

Unlike Zyuganov, Yeltsin is lumbered, in Russian eyes, by western hopes for his victory. Western support was a two-edged sword to Gorbachev: when the West, and especially the Germans, showed compassion and sent food aid to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in the winter of 1990, Russians felt ashamed and blamed Gorbachev for their humiliation; but when the G7 meeting of June 1991 sent Gorbachev home empty-handed, it made his coming isolation in his own country the more likely. Western governmental financial support can readily become a factor in electoral politics, especially in nationalist claims that it does not serve Russia's "true interests". It could be equally significant in a positive way, however, if it were sufficiently large and focused to make a tangible difference to the standard of living. But as western support has been equivocal since the beginning of the reform era, and is unlikely to become more engaged in the near future, given the uncertainties of the situation, the Russian communists and their nationalist running-mates will have to concentrate their attention on the domestic degradation, of which there is enough to keep them occupied for some time to come.

Harry Shukman is lecturer in modern Russian history, St Antony's College, Oxford.

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