Who rules Russia?

A US diplomat caused an uproar when his analysis of Russia's political clans was published in a Moscow newspaper
January 20, 1996

On November 23rd, a 5,000 word article appeared in the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta which caused a diplomatic scandal between Russia and the US. Written by Thomas Graham, first secretary at the US embassy, the article is an intriguing account of Russia's political brutalities which reads as if written by one of President Yeltsin's sharpest critics. The political class, including foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, was outraged: the US embassy, clearly embarrassed, pointed to the standard disclaimer at the end of the article, saying that the writer's views were his own. The fact that it had been passed for publication at all may be an indicator of how little the US cares about Russian opinion-this, at any rate, is the Moscow view. The article (in edited form) is reproduced here for the first time in the west. It argues that Russian reforms are close to an end, and have left in their wake a corrupt and potentially authoritarian social order. This is a view recognisable by anyone who observes the Russian scene after the Duma elections. The enclosed nature of the political system, the often deadly struggle for control of property, the opaque nature of most decisions, the powerlessness and irresponsibility of many politicians-all of these are reflected in Graham's trenchant analysis. This view, however, fails to provide any account of the groups benefiting from the reforms, and dismisses the "New Russians"-the new rich-as a crudely avaricious pimple on society's backside. Graham even comes close to dismissing the reforms after four years: an impatiently short time. JOHN LLOYD

The new elite perceives its power based not on popular support, but on control of the political and economic institutions of the state. And for the first time since the Soviet Union began to crack up, this elite is certain that it has the right to rule.

It is too soon to call the new elite monolithic, but its fissures are quite different from those which divided the factions between 1991 and 1993. The big difference is that the struggle in Moscow is no longer between the legislature and the executive: the confrontation of October 1993 and the December 1993 constitution have severely limited the ability of the legislature to function as a power centre; the struggle is now within the executive itself.

Though there are often sharp expressions of tension between the executive organs, and between the apparatus of president and prime minister, the main rivalry is between the various political groups, interest groups, lobbies or "clans." These clans differ from one another in a variety of ways but they all have certain features in common: each is grouped around a powerful political figure and has links with leading financial and industrial organisations; they have guaranteed access to the mass media and the security apparatus; they control armed groups in the state or the private sector.

All the clans have links with deputies in the Duma, but the factions-be they communist, nationalist, centrist or democratic-are of no great importance to any of them.

At the moment, the most powerful and influential clans are:

l The oil and gas clan headed by Chernomyrdin. It is based on the vast gas monopoly, Gasprom, together with several oil companies.

l The "Moscow clan" headed by Luzhkov. It has access to the financial and industrial potential of Moscow.

l The clan centred on Korzhakov (head of the presidential bodyguard), Barsukov (head of the security services) and Soskovets (first deputy prime minister). It is based on some of the big enterprises in the military-industrial sector, the gem industry and the strategic metals sector.

l The agrarian clan, which has the support of many within the old agro-industrial complex of the Soviet Union.

l The clan of "westernisers," grouped around Filatov, head of the presidential administration, and Chubais, first deputy prime minister. Its power derives from its control of the state property committee and its links with international financial organisations.

There are plenty of other less powerful clans at different stages of formation. Yeltsin cannot be directly linked to any of them. On the contrary, he tries to appear above the struggle, becoming involved only when required to restore the balance or to weaken the position of his opponents, real, potential or imagined. Thus he has succeeded in giving the impression that he is vital to the system.

The clan system is important for Russian politics in at least two ways: it provides stability, and it limits the possibilities of political manoeuvring. But that does not mean the present clan system can avoid crises. There have been several in the past year, including "Black Tuesday" (the rouble crisis of October 1994), the Chechen crisis, the hostage-taking in Budennovsk in June 1995, and the recent banking crisis.These crises did not threaten the clan system, even if they strengthened one or other of the competing clans.

For example, the Korzhakov-Barsukov-Soskovets clan used Black Tuesday to launch an attack on Chernomyrdin and Luzhkov, pinning the blame for the crisis on them. After a vote of no confidence in the Chernomyrdin government, Yeltsin began to make changes in the cabinet-taking little account of Chernomyrdin's advice.

When the Korzhakov clan demonstrated its incompetence in the Chechnya affair in the winter of 1994-95, the Chernomyrdin clan re-grouped. Chubais was able to increase his grip on the macro-economy: he fired Polevanov, a prot?g? of Korzhakov, from his post as chairman of the state property committee, and took control of an important committee on debt. Chernomyrdin used the crisis caused by the capture of hostages at Budennovsk to convince Yeltsin to fire some of the more odious (in the premier's opinion) ministers, and to replace them with his own people. After some months on the defensive, Luzhkov also used the Buddenovsk crisis to restore relations with Yeltsin.

On the eve of the Duma elections the power of these three clans was roughly equal. Despite mounting competition, they have a common interest in not allowing outsiders into their sphere of influence (especially not the communists and ultra-nationalists). Thus Chernomyrdin, Soskovets and Luzhkov (as well as many regional leaders) pooled their strengths in one electoral alliance: "Our Home is Russia."

So far as internal policy is concerned there are very few committed supporters of democracy in any of the clans. Democratic procedures, including elections, are mostly seen as weapons in the struggle for power. The clans all speak of the necessity to introduce "order" and achieve stability; in present Russian conditions, this would inevitably lead to a limiting of democratic freedoms.

In economic policy, no clan wants to return to the command-administrative system of the Soviet period, but all would like to strengthen their control over property. The fault line runs not between the supporters and opponents of economic reform, but between the free traders and the protectionists-those who want to integrate Russia into the world economy now and those who believe it can only be done after a period behind protective walls.

In foreign policy the differences are more a matter of form than content. A steadily hardening line in pursuing Russian national interests has everyone's support. This applies to European security and the extension of Nato, as well as over the war in former Yugoslavia.

What threatens clans is elections: an opportunity for those forces on the fringes of the clan system, such as the communists and the ultranationalists, to re-order the existing division of property and political power. At the same time, the regime must hold elections if it wishes to maintain its relations with the west. (The elite recognises that these relations would deteriorate badly if it was thought that authoritarianism had again come to dominate politics.)

The elections are a danger to the elite, exposing them as detached from an increasingly opaque public opinion. New instruments of control and mobilisation have not emerged to replace the old ones. Most public opinion polls are unreliable. Not one of the most prominent centres for the study of public opinion could forecast in any detail the results of the 1993 parliamentary elections. National political parties with their roots in the regions have failed to emerge.

The problem of control and management is made worse by the amorphous nature of Russian society. It may be less fragmented than in Soviet times but, paradoxically, it is less structured. The classes lack any clear expression or knowledge of themselves. Workers, having to take several jobs in order to make ends meet, tend to see each other less as colleagues than as competitors in the struggle for the limited quantities of goods available. The interests of the peasants rarely go further than the borders of their villages. The artistic intelligentsia has been impoverished by the economic reforms, and has lost its influence.

Besides, a stable new class of property owners has not yet emerged. The so-called "New Russians" can hardly fill the vacuum, because their "grab it quick" attitude is not suited to the formation of a middle class mentality as it is understood in the west. The growing participation of criminal groups in business activities also hinders the consolidation of a stable middle class.

And what of the voters? People are said to be tired of uncertainty and the wrenching changes of the past decade; to feel nostalgia for the Soviet period; and to blame all their problems on Moscow. Still, nobody can predict how they will vote.

The election results do not really threaten the elite, though they could be disruptive for the leading clans if "Our Home is Russia" does badly. The constitutional weakness of the Duma is likely to remain. Even if the opposition wins a two-thirds-plus majority, it cannot mount a serious challenge to the president.

Next year's presidential elections are a different matter. The elites need to contrive the election of a figure who suits their collective interests and can regulate competition between them. Not surprisingly, the new Russian regime has been formed around the most dynamic groups in society-those who could best exploit the many opportunities presented by the reforms. In spite of internal struggles between the clans, they all recognise that competition must be carried on within certain limits, and that further observance of the tranquillity of the past two years is an important means of strengthening their power.

The re-entry of the masses into politics (through elections), added to an under-developed party system, makes for volatility. But if the elite is able to survive the current cycle of elections without significant setbacks, it will have consolidated. There will be other crises and the clans will have to prove themselves able to absorb new claimants to elite membership, but in all essentials the revolution which began with the Gorbachev reforms will be over. n

Thomas Graham