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10-08-2015, 22:11

The New Russia: From Empire to Nation

In Russia, by far the largest of the former Soviet republics, a new power struggle soon ensued. Yeltsin, a onetime engineer who had been dismissed from the Politburo in 1987 for his radicalism, was committed to introducing a free market economy as quickly as possible. In December 1991, the Congress of People’s Deputies granted Yeltsin temporary power to rule by decree. But former Communist Party members and their allies in the Congress were opposed to many of Yeltsin’s economic reforms and tried to place new limits on his powers. Yeltsin fought back. After winning a vote of confidence on April 25, 1993, Yeltsin pushed ahead with plans for a new Russian constitution that would abolish the Congress of People’s Deputies, create a two-chamber parliament, and establish a strong presidency. A hard-line parliamentary minority resisted and in early October took the offensive, urging supporters to take over government offices and the central television station. Yeltsin responded by ordering military forces to storm the parliament building and arrest hardline opponents. Yeltsin used his victory to consolidate his power in parliamentary elections held in December. During the mid-1990s, Yeltsin was able to maintain a precarious grip on power while seeking to implement reforms that would place Russia on a firm course toward a pluralistic political system and a market economy. But the new post-Communist Russia remained as fragile as ever. Burgeoning economic inequality and rampant corruption aroused widespread criticism and shook the confidence of the Russian people in the superiority of the capitalist system over the one that existed under Communist rule. A nagging war in the Caucasus—where the Muslim people of Chechnya sought national independence from Russia—drained the government budget and exposed the decrepit state of the once vaunted Red Army. In presidential elections held in 1996, Yeltsin was reelected, but the rising popularity of a revived Communist Party and the growing strength of nationalist elements, combined with Yeltsin’s precarious health, raised serious questions about the future of the country. At the end of 1999, Yeltsin suddenly resigned his office and was replaced by Vladimir Putin (b. 1952), a former member of the KGB. Putin vowed to bring an end to the rampant corruption and inexperience that permeated Russian political culture and to strengthen the role of the central government in managing the affairs of state. During succeeding months, his proposal to centralize power in the hands of the federal government in Moscow was given approval by the parliament; in early 2001, he presented a new plan to regulate political parties, which had risen in number to more than fifty. Parties at both extremes of the political spectrum, the Yabloko (apple) faction representing Western-style liberal policies and Gennadi Zyuganov’s revived Communist Party, opposed the legislation, without success. Putin has not used his enhanced powers, however, to introduce market reforms and rein in the powerful forces that have impeded Russia’s transition to an advanced capitalist society. Putin also vowed to bring the breakaway state of Chechnya back under Russian authority and to adopt a more assertive role in international affairs. The new president took advantage of growing public anger at Western plans to expand the NATO alliance into Eastern Europe, as well as aggressive actions by NATO countries against Serbia in the Balkans (see Chapter 10) to restore Russia’s position as an influential force in the world. To undercut U.S. dominance on the political scene, Moscow has improved relations with neighboring China and simultaneously sought to cooperate with European nations on issues of common concern. To assuage national pride, Putin has entered negotiations with such former republics of the old Soviet Union as Belarus and Ukraine to tighten forms of mutual political economic cooperation. What had happened to derail Yeltsin’s plan to transform Soviet society? To some critics, Yeltsin and his advisers tried to achieve too much too fast. Between 1991 and 1995, state firms that had previously provided about 80 percent of all industrial production and employment had been privatized, and the price of goods (previously subject to government regulation) was opened up to market forces. Only agriculture—where the decision to privatize collective farms had little impact in rural areas— was left substantially untouched. The immediate results were disastrous: industrial output dropped by more than one-third, and unemployment levels and prices rose dramatically. Many Russian workers and soldiers were not paid their salaries for months on end, and many social services came to an abrupt halt. With the harsh official and ideological constraints of the Soviet system suddenly removed, corruption—labeled by one observer “criminal gang capitalism”—became rampant, and the government often appeared inept in coping with complexities of a market economy. Few Russians appeared to grasp the realities of modern capitalism and understandably reacted to the inevitable transition pains from the old system by heaping all the blame on the new one. The fact is that Yeltsin had attempted to change the structure of the Soviet system without due regard to the necessity of changing the mentality of the people as well. The result was a high level of disenchantment. A new joke circulated among the Russian people: “We know now that everything they told us about communism was false. And everything they told us about capitalism was true.”