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Post Soviet Prospects, vol III, #11, November 1995
by Dmitri Glinski

In post-Soviet Russia, the absence of true reforms, the plight of the middle class, and Yeltsin's drift toward a Byzantine autocracy have led to the extinction of the mass-based democratic movement. This December, the electoral slate of Grigory Yavlinsky is likely to be the only democratic and pro-reform group to pass the 5 percent threshold of the national vote needed to win slots for its party list in the next legislature. Its crucial electoral advantage is its identification with the civic, participa tory, anti-oligarchic aspirations of the late 1980s_and Yavlinsky's untainted reputation. An abortive attempt by the Central Electoral Commission to keep his slate out of the race on technical grounds has, if anything, only boosted its electoral appeal. In the foreseeable future, Yavlinsky will play a prominent and, one hopes, consolidating role in that part of the political and intellectual spectrum that, since 1991, has been identified as the democratic alternative to Yeltsinism. A strong performance by this democratic opposition in the December elections may, under certain conditions, be a good start for a second broad-based movement for modernization and reform. Yet, the shrinking of the intelligentsia and the widening social gap threaten to reduce the electoral base of the democratic alternative.

The Democratic Reformers as an Endangered Species

In Russia, five years after Boris Yeltsin rode to power on the crest of a democratic wave with a promise of radical reforms, any mention of "democrats" and "reformers" sounds like a bitter joke. Since 1991, in the process of maneuvering amid old Soviet el ites, the regime has discarded several layers of its democratic associates with thousands of rank-and-file supporters as assets that have lost their political value. Yegor Gaidar's 1992 shock therapy, in retrospect, undermined precisely those social grou ps that constituted the core of the once powerful nationwide democratic movement; later, the assault on the parliament in 1993 and the bloodshed in Chechnya destroyed Yeltsin's political alliance with the remnants of his democratic support coalition at th e time of his struggle for power. Russia's Choice, which campaigned in the disastrous 1993 parliamentary elections as a "presidential party," fell out of favor with Yeltsin after making timid reproaches to him on the Chechnya issue. In a year and a half, membership in its parliamentary faction decreased by one-third. Some defected because the rift with Yeltsin threatened their positions in the executive; others found the faction's attempts to cling to its presidential status humiliating and fraught with e lectoral danger. As a result, Russia's Choice and other smaller groups of mainstream "democrats" have lost the charisma of powerholders, yet are burdened with the lion's share of responsibility for the abuses and failures of the "reforms." It remains to b e seen whether any of them will manage to pass the 5 percent threshold in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Largely unprepared for opposition status, the mainstream democrats are incapacitated by their routine squabbles, beneath which looms a far-reaching identity crisis. Their growing disarray has exposed the vague and fundamentally contradictory character of their core beliefs, and the lack of firm principles appropriate as guidelines for action has given rise to perplexing shifts by leading democrats, some of whom have jumped on the bandwagon of statist nationalism.

For many Russians, all this amounts to the collapse of those values and ideas, inherited from the '60s generation, that in the last two decades mobilized the resources of civil society around several reform programs. This evidence feeds the old belief of the Russian ruling class that power, coercion, and an instinct for survival are the driving forces of society and history. For those who share this mindset, the political space is split into segments controlled by the voracious bureaucracy, the post-soci alist managerial lobby, criminal and semicriminal business networks, and paramilitary brigades of power-hungry warlords. To survive in this Hobbesian state of nature, one is compelled to swear allegiance to one of these corporations and accept the existin g distribution of power.

Yavlinsky Sparks Hopes for a Democratic Renewal

In a bold challenge to this worldview, Grigory Yavlinsky has built his electoral campaign around the civic, participatory, idealistic values of the democratic "first wave." In the elections of December 1995, he will be in a unique position to offer a viab le non-Communist and non-nationalist alternative to the status quo.

Yavlinsky, age 43 and with a graduate degree in economics, leads the 27-member "Yabloko" ("Apple") faction in the lower house of the parliament. He appeared in the USSR government in 1989 as a member of the Economic Reform Commission, which was headed by Academician Leonid Abalkin; later, he joined the Russian government, where he became widely known as a coauthor of the Shatalin-Yavlinsky "500 Days" reform plan. After the plan was turned down by the Kremlin as too radical, Yavlinsky resigned from his of fice as deputy prime minister. Soon, he became founder and chief of a Moscow political-economic think tank, EPItsentr, to which he attracted some of his bright associates from the government. As the Soviet economy and inter-republican relations rapidly de teriorated, Mikhail Gorbachev changed his mind and recruited Yavlinsky to help in his bargaining with the G-7 for massive economic aid. Backed by Gorbachev, Yavlinsky coauthored a new plan for market reforms with Harvard scholars. He was assigned to lead the negotiations on the inter-republican economic treaty, but this time his attempts to preserve an integrated economic space were countered by the rising elites from the republics, including Yeltsin and his associates.

After the country's demise, Yavlinsky implemented some of his ideas about the alternative path of economic reform, serving as adviser to the governor of Nizhnii Novgorod oblast (one of the key industrial regions of Russia) and to the president of Kazakhs tan. In his public pronouncements and academic works, Yavlinsky questioned some of the core assumptions of the Yeltsin-Gaidar "revolution from above" in the economy and advocated a more participatory approach "from the bottom up," which, he argued, would sharply reduce the social costs of the transition. During the constitutional conflict of 1993, Yavlinsky's attempts to build a bridge between the presidential and the parliamentary camps and his clear independence from both of them boosted his standing, even though, in an unexpected turn, he ultimately approved Yeltsin's use of force against the parliament. In the following two months, he managed to build his own electoral slate from scratch, despite obstacles and restrictions imposed by authoritarian presidential rule. His electoral campaign often so unded as a challenge to the mainstream democrats and to Yeltsin's constitutional draft, which allocated inordinate powers to the presidency. On December 12, 1993, Yavlinsky's slate won 7.86 percent of the vote.

Over the past two years, Yavlinsky has come in first or second in virtually every opinion poll. The operational value of this remains uncertain, because of the lack of clarity about the timing and fairness of the next presidential elections. Without eng aging in the unrewarding business of prophecy, we take for granted Yavlinsky's ongoing prominence in the Russian political and intellectual debate. In this debate, Yavlinsky and his electoral prospects must be evaluated in the context of a much broader t rend, known as the democratic alternative to Yeltsinism.

The Democratic Alternative to Yeltsinism: The Present and the Past

As an established term of Russian political discourse, the democratic alternative embraces an array of political and intellectual initiatives. These have been developed since late 1991 within_but also as a challenge to_the mainstream democratic movement. At that time, the dissenters directed their critique against Yeltsin's secretive and exclusionary management style, as well as against abuses and fraud in the course of privatization. Soon, however, the democratic opposition started questioning the basic underlying assumptions of the emerging political regime, as well as of the strategy of shock therapy.

Leading reformers and intellectuals of the 1988-1991 period, such as Yury Afanasiev, Leonid Batkin, and their followers, pointed to the corporatist, authoritarian, and nationalist trends in the evolution of the Yeltsin regime_two years before his military assault on the parliament and three years before the Chechnya massacre.1 They warned that Yeltsin's arrogant neglect of the civic movement that had supported him, as well as his excessive responsiveness to "under-the-carpet" pressures from old and new e conomic elites, was eroding his popular base and bringing Russian politics back to the old-fashioned power game, in which military and security forces were best positioned to prevail. As to shock therapy, the democratic opposition was troubled by the fac t that the social base of reform, the middle class, was the first to suffer from the Gaidar-initiated "liberalization" of prices by the old Soviet monopolies. Meanwhile, the latter were able to enrich themselves and strengthen their control over the econo my and society through quasi-criminal, quasi-bureaucratic networks.

For some time, the "democratic alternative" remained at the stage of disparate initiatives and projects. At different moments, some of its leaders were intellectually consolidated around the Moscow weekly Grazhdanskaya mysl (Civic Thought), edited by Yury Burtin, while others merged in the New Russia Alliance, uniting six, later nine political parties, some of them led by Soviet-era dissidents and political prisoners. New Russia was ultimately torn apart by the cleavages that divided and polarized the entire Russian elite at the time of Yeltsin's military assault on the parliament in October 1993. That month, the congress of the League of Independents brought together intellectuals, organizers, and civic activists of the democratic alternative from many regions of Russia and featured Grigory Yavlinsky among its key speakers.2 The democratic alterna tive provided Yavlinsky with a new, persuasive formula in his attempts to dissociate himself from the strategic failures of Yeltsinism yet remain within a democratic framework. The unfolding of the campaign and the behind-the-scenes bargaining, however, k ept some forces of the democratic alternative off Yavlinsky's electoral slate, while some of the additions to his list of candidates had originated in entirely different camps. As a result, Yavlinsky's parliamentary faction turned out to be a peculiar mi xture of several distinct groups, with their specific political baggage, interests, and goals. This diversity of bedfellows partly accounted for the slate's results, which were not as good as Yavlinsky's personal popularity rating. Much time and the skill s of Yavlinsky's leadership were used to make the message of the alliance reasonably coherent for the general public.

Yavlinsky's Bloc from the Inside: In Search of Consistency

One can identify the following cohesive groups within the present Yabloko parliamentary faction: The first and most prominent group is Yavlinsky's political-economic crew from his think tank, EPItsentr, most of whom had worked with him in the government in 1990-1991. It includes, among others, Mikhail Zadornov (who chairs the Duma's Committee on Budg et, Taxes, Banking, and Finance), Tatyana Yarygina (deputy chair, Committee on Labor and Welfare), Aleksei Mikhailov (chair, Subcommittee on Foreign Trade and Investment), and Sergei Ivanenko (deputy chair, Committee on Property and Privatization). All of them are professional economists and usually follow Yavlinsky's political lead in the Duma (although Zadornov, sitting on the key budget committee, was downgraded in the list of candidates for the upcoming elections, reportedly for his proclivity for co mpromising with the executive).

The associates of Yabloko's No. 2, Vladimir Lukin, who chairs the Duma's Committee on Foreign Affairs, constitute a group of establishment figures from Soviet-era foreign policy institutions. Lukin, former ambassador to the United States, repeatedly was a mong the top candidates to chair both the old and the current Russian parliaments, and he has been a perennial shadow foreign minister for multiple centrist coalitions. His appointees in the Yabloko list include Vladimir Averchev, Lukin's former assistant in the Russian embassy in Washington; Viktor Sheinis, former Communist Party pundit on Third World countries; Aleksei Arbatov, the son of the top official Americanist of the Brezhnev era; Lukin's own son, recently added to the list of candidates for the next elections; and two ex-deputies, who abandoned their seats after becoming ambassadors to Britain and Mexico. This group's strong ties to the old elite, as well as recent hints that Lukin could become Yeltsin's foreign minister, obscure the image of Y abloko as a democratic opposition.

The third group combines leaders and members of several small political parties, which in the hectic weeks of October 1993 were ready to provide the required legal status for Yavlinsky's electoral alliance. Most of these bedfellows turned out to be worris ome and prone to flirtations on the side. Some were later expelled by Yavlinsky himself; others quit without much noise. In trying to get rid of them, Yavlinsky's staff has registered a separate association, designed to become Yavlinsky's personal party. Yet the departure of these parties/allies, which had some well-entrenched regional networks, is fraught with additional difficulties, namely, in collecting signatures for the pre-electoral registration.

Last, but not the least in its influence in the coalition, is a peculiar center of political intelligence and analysis led by Vyacheslav Igrunov. Igrunov is a dissident of the Soviet era, a talented strategist, and an incisive critic of the democratic mai nstream. In the list of candidates for the coming elections, this group has raised its standing significantly.