Russia is entering its most unstable period since the end of the Soviet Union. Will there be violence? Who is running the country? Why is the economy still depressed? Six Russia watchers review the country's mood and come to tentative judgements about Yeltsin and the role of the westby John Lloyd / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
John Lloyd: This is one of the most dangerous periods for Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, arguably even before then. We all know the components of the crisis: an ailing and possibly dying president; a scramble for power which seems to be getting more acute; the concentration of power in the hands of a financial ruling class, few of whom were elected, most of whom are unpopular; an economy in which many people are paid only intermittently and in which production and investment remain sluggish; a country in which organised crime and corruption are endemic, and where the military appears to be crumbling. Can this crisis be resolved peacefully, or is it now approaching some kind of violent eruption?
Rodric Braithwaite: I have always been sceptical about the wolf of violence and civil war, so often predicted when people talk about Russia. But I do think this is a more dangerous time than the period which led up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, because at that time there was a certain logic at work: it was a process of dismantling the past with a leader who was somewhat aware of what he was doing and where he was going. For a lot of reasons, including the character of Boris Yeltsin, that sense of direction is not there at the moment. Yet for all the instability and corruption, there is a continuing democratic process, elections do keep taking place.
Peter Frank: I think that there could be localised trouble over specific issues, but widespread violence is unlikely. The Russian people have had a bellyful of violence and the terrible consequences of it are deeply ingrained. There is also a sociological reason why violence is unlikely-the worst forms of violence in Russian history, the anarchic, spontaneous bunt, have always been associated with the peasantry, and since the 1930s there has not really been a peasantry. Having said that I think we’re in for a quite prolonged period of political instability.
Geoffrey Hosking: The Russian political system is really on a razor edge; things could go either way. It’s very strange, in a way, that we should be so pessimistic just a few months after the first democratic election for the country’s leader in Russian history. But Russia’s constitution is really only as strong as Yeltsin is, which is a pretty fragile condition for a democracy to be in. And, of course, Russia isn’t really a democracy; it’s in that historically very dangerous condition of transition to democracy, one which can easily be derailed. Russia is beginning to look again, as it has done many times in past centuries, like a country which is being fought over by boyar clans. Yeltsin at the moment is in the situation of the weak tsar who is just about able to hold the clans in some kind of equilibrium.