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Russia - An Odyssey of Change

March 1994


Editors Note:

Nine years after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the former Soviet Union (March 1985) and released the genies of glasnost and perestroika, his successor, Boris Yeltsin, finds himself struggling to contain other forces he himself released (some from prison), and is facing another spectre in the form of an extreme nationalist. These events do indeed form material of a classic "odyssey", telescoped into nine tumultuous years as Russia attempts to find stability.

As the author points out, the search is far from over, as a broad, domestic consensus on the future of the Russian State has yet to form. This is the first in a series on this topic by Mr. Conrad Namiesniowski, a Strategic Analyst in the Analysis and Production Branch of CSIS.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.

Historical Context

When the 35-nation Conference on Security and Confidence Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe opened in Stockholm on 17 January 1984, no one imagined that 10 years later, the Cold War would be over, the USSR would be history, and in its stead, 15 new states, some of which had never existed before, would be added to the international register.

On 17-18 January 1984, the delegates present listened attentively to the two superpower spokesmen: the American Secretary of State, George Shultz, condemned the "heartless barrier" through Europe; and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko warned about the deteriorating security situation in Europe and the world, and the growing nuclear danger.

The situation was serious. By the end of 1983 almost all arms control contacts between the East and the West had been severed; the Soviets had walked out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces talks after NATO started deploying its Pershing II missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet SS-20 missiles; the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks had been suspended; and no date had been agreed for the next session of the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks. The only political game in town that offered a venue for maintaining and possibly improving East-West security relations in Europe was the Stockholm Conference.

When the Conference opened, some in the West, particularly the Neutral and non-Aligned States, feared it would quickly become polemical theatre and a dialogue of the deaf. Moreover, some believed that failure might lead to increased deterioration in East-West relations and could easily nudge the situation even closer to a final Armageddon. In the end, the Conference concluded successfully within the allotted period of three years. It was unique insofar as a militarily significant agreement had, for the first time, provided for intrusive on-site verification inspections of Soviet territory.

Although neither Western negotiators nor Sovietologists realized it at the time, a change was underway in the USSR which by end of 1991 would jettison the "Leninist tenet of control from above to produce social change below" (Brzezinski) and would result in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By the end of the Conference in 1986, Gorbachev had introduced the policies of glasnost (openness) perestroika (restructuring) and later demokratizatsiia (democratization) which were meant to modernize what by then was seen in the Kremlin as an increasingly moribund and economically bankrupt state. These changes from the top forced the Soviet military staff, albeit without enthusiasm, to accede to more openness and to accept the concept of verification hitherto considered synonymous with spy missions.

Politically and socially, however, glasnost, perestroika and demokratizatsiia laid the foundation for the demise of the USSR and the aftermath of muddled transition that continues in the former Soviet Union today. A correlative benefit of this demise was the formal termination of the Cold War, which in turn prompted the West to look for the elusive "peace dividend" and a new security architecture. As in the past, however, a real or perceived power vacuum or a collapsed economy in Eurasia that leads to chaos is not conducive to stability.

Transition - The Gorbachev Phase

Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 with a mandate to rejuvenate the Soviet system: a mechanic who was going to make the engine run again. He took over a powerful empire with a global reach. In the eyes of Western and other observers, the USSR was seen to be the keeper and exporter of communist ideology; a nuclear superpower with the largest standing conventional force of 3.5 million men deployed for offensive operations, militarily unmatched in Europe; protected by vassal states controlled through the Warsaw Pact Organization; pursuing important global interests in the Middle East and in some key Third World countries; and enjoying successes in the pursuit of independent foreign and security policies in various international institutions where due attention was being paid to Soviet positions.

But Gorbachev also inherited a Soviet Union gradually sinking into social, economic and political decay. In economic performance it was nowhere near the Western countries' qualitative performance, and there was a "potential threat of eventually being surpassed in some critical areas by the more ambitiously innovative of the developing countries" (Brzezinski). Moreover, the Soviet military perceived itself threatened by a robust West, where the balance of power appeared to be tipping in the Western favour.

Domestically, the USSR was burdened by an economy and defence structure that had been under stagnating leadership since the 1970s, moribund, inefficient, corrupt, supporting a six-year-long Afghanistan war that was increasingly becoming a cancerous socio-economic sore, and overall defence expenditures exceeding the growth of the national income and apparently not providing the necessary defence for the country.

Challenged by proposals for advanced Western, and particularly American, technologies like the Strategic Defence Initiative, by the arms race and by increasing political unrest in the empire and vassal states, it was evident to Gorbachev and his supporters that new thinking was needed if the empire was to survive. If orthodox methods were not working, what, then, would? To find out, glasnost was necessary. Openness could also be the way to remove the geriatric deadwood and to stop the corruption that was stymieing progress everywhere. This method of change was a drastic departure from the norm; hitherto, changes in the USSR were the consequence of purges.

It was easier, and potentially less challenging for the unity of the Soviet Union, to engage in arms control initiatives such as on-site verification, where mutual security benefits could be attained, than to seek glasnost in domestic affairs. Openness at home ran the risk of disclosing social abuses and economic mismanagement of the communist system. Such findings could in turn, call into question the very raison d'être of Leninism itself and might require major political and social change. They also could liberate centrifugal nationalistic forces already evident in the USSR. However, Gorbachev's Communist Party training to work by consensus—a consensus of the governing, not the governed—probably prompted him to believe that an inquiry into existing contradictions and the imposition of solutions from the top was manageable and would in the end strengthen the system. Concern over the details of glasnost and perestroika was apparently considered of sufficient domestic importance to elicit a report to the 27th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by the Central Committee on the 25 February 1986.

Few Committee members could have imagined, however, that the acceptance of the report would help to liberate an uncontrollable genie of nationalism among the restless non-Russian nationalities—repressed by Moscow for centuries—that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the USSR. Gorbachev, by challenging totalitarianism in economics, invoking a "new political culture" and resorting to "revisionism" (a sacred Leninist taboo that threatened the concept of political monopoly), set in motion a sequence of events that in the end he could not stop and never fully comprehended.

How Gorbachev managed to survive in office as long as he did is not yet fully known. He had to deal with a powerful coalition of party ideologues, state bureaucrats, heavy industrialists, much of the senior military officer corps and the KGB. There is no evidence that he had a firm plan when he started, apart from a desire to improve the political and economic structures of the USSR.

Initially, Gorbachev was apparently astute enough to proceed with care and to build his support so as not to alienate the existing institutions of power or arouse the hostility of the population. However, he began losing support when the economy deteriorated and the heavy industrialists realized they would be the net losers to change. As Gorbachev's policies become more obfuscated, he increasingly had to deal with Soviet leaders who opposed his methods, such as Yegor Ligachev, the number-two man in the Politburo and party secretary. Ligachev was not against reform, but preferred it be undertaken in accordance with Leninist tenets. However, strengthened by successes in the international arena, and with open encouragement for reform from Eastern Europe, Gorbachev replaced his opposition with supporters in places of power (e.g., Ligachev by Yakovlev; further, KGB chief Chebrikov and Foreign Minister Gromyko were made to retire).

For a time Gorbachev was able to occupy the middle ground between conservative and liberal forces and to play one off against the other. However, the conservatives soon became nervous as their core values and privileges were threatened and as the liberals embraced nationalism to advance their cause. Gorbachev's room to manoeuvre progressively evaporated. He tried to save the situation by instituting a stronger presidency, a move challenged by popularly elected Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), who opposed an all-union presidency with extraordinary powers, supporting instead a concept of strong republics.

The resignation of Foreign Minister Shevardnadze in December 1990, and the use of military force in Lithuania in January 1991 to suppress independence activity, moved Gorbachev closer to the conservatives whom he still hoped to manipulate to support a Union Treaty. He offered concessions by suggesting textual changes to the Treaty, but by then it was too late. The real struggle was between the Soviet republics led by Yeltsin and the nomenklatura of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The latter saw that they had no place in the new union arrangement and decided to act, in the only manner they knew how.

On 19 August 1991, an eight-man "State Committee for the State Emergency" announced that Gorbachev had fallen "ill" and that Vice-President Gennady Yanaev was acting president and would supervise a six-month state of emergency. Somewhat surprised by lack of warning, the outside world realized a coup had taken place in the Soviet Union.

For practical purposes, Gorbachev's contribution to change in the USSR ended with the coup, and he ceased to be a major player in the transition process he had started. Increasingly he was challenged and overshadowed by his rival Yeltsin. In November he tried again, unsuccessfully, to create a new Confederal Treaty, but Russia, Byelorussia and the Central Asian republics refused to sign. On 8 December 1991, Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia declared that the USSR had ceased to exist, and established a Commonwealth of Independent States. Having ceded control of nuclear weapons to Russia, Gorbachev resigned as president on Christmas Day, 1991.

Achievements and Failures

Gorbachev's legacy is impressive. From a Western point of view, his six-year tenure achieved dramatic results in foreign and security policy. They included the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the re-emergence of free Central and Eastern European states; a rapid and sweeping breakthrough in conventional and nuclear disarmament; withdrawal from Afghanistan; the unification of Germany; the abolition of the Warsaw Pact Organization; the end of the Cold War and a more collaborative relationship with the West; withdrawal from radical activism in the Third World; rapprochement with China; the abandonment of a communist leadership role in the world; and the acceptance of human rights over "class interests". These changes have prompted Western spokesmen to claim victory in the Cold War; Western fears of Soviet geopolitical expansionism and threats to European security seemed to have been laid to rest.

From the former Soviet Union's, and now Russia's point of view, for the first time in history there is no direct threat from the West. Instead there is an offer of "partnership for peace" (a program meant to establish military links with NATO). Russia, by its size, population, resources and industrial potential remains a principal regional power possessing the largest nuclear force in Europe, matched only by the USA. Costs associated with global commitments that had been an enormous drain on resources have been cut back. Russia, no longer considered a pariah state, is now seen as having joined the main-stream of normal competing countries where it will need help to adapt.

But the perceived price of security, previously provided by Soviet nuclear and conventional might, now seems exorbitant. Many Russians feel acute discomfort at the loss of global superpower status. They are acutely aware of a geo-political power vacuum that has formed in the "near abroad" areas where ethnic wars threaten native Russians and risk spreading to Russia proper. Foreign policies are seen as subservient to those of the West and not necessarily in the Russian national interest. An example of Soviet foreign policy irrelevance during Gorbachev's time was the Soviet peace initiative in the Gulf Conflict which was foiled by the USA's 24-hour non-negotiable ultimatum to Iraq preceding the ground invasion.

Since the introduction of openness and restructuring, the armed forces of the former Soviet Union have struggled with a succession of devastating changes: cuts in equipment and manpower under the various arms agreements; withdrawal from Eastern Europe and redeployments; fragmentation caused by the breakup of the former Soviet Union into 15 sovereign republics; rapidly disappearing budgets and in some instances no pay for the soldiers; an increasing inability to administer conscription; and an identity crisis due to loss of ideology that in the past provided an ethos and a raison d'être for the forces. Not surprisingly, the operational capabilities of military forces in all former republics have been grievously reduced.

Gorbachev's inability to improve management of the state economy through perestroika also contributed to his downfall. He attempted to solve the problems of waste, poor planning, alcoholism, absenteeism and quality control by management from the top. He was unable to resolve the dilemma of consumerism and support priorities for heavy industry (thought to be an essential ingredient for socialist progress). His attempts at partial decentralization created confusion to the extent that the rate of growth of the economy actually slowed down and then declined.

There was no quick solution in sight. Opposition from the bureaucrats and the Party apparatchiks, and potential unemployment due to a self-regulative market-mechanism for which no social safety net yet existed, foreclosed much chance for progress. Gorbachev's 500-day economic plan, a compromise between market-oriented policies of reformers and central-control conservatives, tabled in November 1990, failed to stop the progressive deterioration of the economy.

Increasingly, from all sides, Gorbachev was blamed for the crisis that continued to grip the country. One of his most vocal critics was the Russian Federation President, Boris Yeltsin, a one-time protégé, who was removed in 1987 from his post as the CPSU's First Secretary in Moscow.

Transition: the Yeltsin Phase

Yeltsin is grappling in Russia with the same sorts of problems that bedevilled Gorbachev: disintegrating economy, divisive ethnic tensions, demoralized military forces seeking a new identity to replace "the Soviet man", crime, corruption, government infighting, and as yet fragile new instruments of legislative and executive powers of government.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin is determined to succeed. He has applied a mixture of strong-arm and conciliatory tactics and has been more successful than Gorbachev in co-opting the power ministries—defence, internal affairs, security, and foreign affairs—by replacing leaders and offering concessions.

Yeltsin has achieved several important domestic firsts: he bounced back after being turfed out from the leadership nomenklatura; led a successful counter-coup in August; contrary to the existing constitution he used military force against parliamentary opposition in October; he introduced a new model constitution whereby the president is chosen by a voting majority; and he held democratically run elections for a new Federal Assembly composed of two chambers. The election results gave no party a majority, and the parliament is clearly deeply divided between supporters and opponents of free-market reforms and is likely to continue to oppose Yeltsin. The election results have forced him to draw back from accelerated reform policies, and allowed Prime Minister Chernomyrdin to revamp his cabinet into a more conservative body without key radical reformers.

The constitution is probably the most important achievement, as it concerns federalism and the structural asymmetry of the Russian Federation. While ambiguous, it attempts to define Moscow's relations with Russia's provinces. Viewed in the context of a political environment that boasts of no traditions or established links of political co-operation, self-restraint, existing legislative, executive nor rule of law instruments to make it work, Yeltsin's achievements have been remarkable.

Initially Yeltsin was able to accelerate reform in Russia, blaming the obduracy of the USSR and later the conservatives in the Russian parliament for lack of success in economic initiatives and lowered living standards in Russia. But the first unfettered elections ever held in Russia, on 12 December 1993, provided a sobering outcome: economic shock therapy, ineffective foreign policy, compliance with the West, lack of military reform and conversion are apparently unacceptable to the electorate. Moreover, the parliamentary amnesty and release from jail of the 1991 and 1993 coup plotters has provided a strong potential challenge to Yeltsin's leadership. The Yeltsin phase may well be nearing its nadir prior to final exit. There is now no one else to blame and there are alternative leaders, such as Rutskoi, who want to be president and who can be identified with basic Russian sentiments.

The jury is still out as to whether the West will be able to judge the Yeltsin era as a transition to duality (pairing, coupling, democracy and the rule of law) or the beginning of a return to duplicity (two-facedness, double-think, hypocrisy and despotism). What can be said now is that Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, an engineer from Sverdlovsk, a former high-ranking Communist Party official, a one-time protégé, friend, enemy, and August 1991 coup saviour of Gorbachev, contributed more to the break-up of the USSR than did any one else. At the same time Yeltsin has tried to work for a national rebirth that encompasses Russian geo-political and security interests in the "near abroad". Russian "peacekeeping" involvement in Moldova, Georgia, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan is an example of such interests.

Achievements and Failures

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin has had foreign and domestic policy successes. His mistakes have been tactical rather than substantive.

Democratic instincts of many new Russian political elites, including the president, are fragile and only skin deep. But Yeltsin has laid the foundations for geo-political, economic and social structures in Russia that will either be reinforced or destroyed in the next phase of transition. Like other Russian and Soviet rulers before him, Yeltsin has underlined the importance of support from the ministries of defence, foreign affairs, internal affairs and security, the so-called power ministries. Without their support Yeltsin would not have been able to remove his opposition last October or to finesse the adoption of the new Russian constitution.

The West, which was comfortable with Gorbachev ("a man we can deal with") was initially less sanguine when Yeltsin replaced him. Uppermost among Western concerns was an impression of apparent instability in the new leader and a worry about the meaning of the change for the East-West security relationship. Yeltsin moved quickly to assuage Western security concerns by announcing in January 1992 that Russia would honour all USSR arms control agreements.

The following month, at a meeting with the American President at Camp David, Yeltsin further signalled his readiness to remain engaged in the East-West security relationship and proposed cuts to the USA and former USSR nuclear weapons to 2,500. While the Americans rejected this proposal, the meeting served to deepen an ongoing relationship between the USA and Russia on nuclear weapons issues which, inter alia, has resulted in the signing of the START II agreement that calls for both sides to reduce long-range nuclear weapons to between 3,000 and 3,500 by the year 2003 and to eliminate multi-warhead ICBMs. In Western capitals, Yeltsin has become the keystone for relations with the West. His efforts have been rewarded by grants and loans from individual Western countries and international financial institutions.

The August 1991 coup, however, foreclosed any chance of an orderly transfer of power from Soviet agencies to new sovereign governments of the former Soviet republics. Russia took the lead, and after a few false starts—including a statement from Yeltsin that the "republics seceding from the union might have to face territorial claims from Russia" (IISS Strategic Survey 1991-92) that was immediately rescinded—a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was created in December 1992 loosely linking 11 of the former USSR republics.

Although ill-defined and viewed with suspicion, especially by Ukraine, the CIS proved to be a necessary instrument to manage the transfer of command and control of the former Soviet Union's nuclear and conventional forces. The CIS military command was abolished last June when Russia unilaterally assumed exclusive control over the former Soviet nuclear weapons based outside the Russian Federation, and efforts to form Joint Armed forces collapsed. The military command was replaced temporarily by a Joint Staff for Coordinating Military Cooperation among CIS states. It provides a fig leaf under which "peacekeeping" operations are conducted in the "near abroad".

Attempts to make the CIS a viable economic and monetary union "CIS version of the Rome Treaty" (reported in the Russian Commersant, June 1993) for now remain on paper. The economic disparity between Russia and CIS partners is too great, as is the mutual distrust. However, the economic needs of the former Soviet republics have few choices and nothing to replace the established commercial links that have served them for three decades.

While the distribution of conventional military assets among the sovereign republics (except for the Black Sea Fleet) has been finalized, the agreement between the USA, Russia and Ukraine concerning transfer to Russia of nuclear weapons based in Ukraine and the signing of the NPT by Kiev remains to be put into effect (Belarus and Kazakhstan have already ratified START I and have signed the NPT).

In the Russian Federated Republic Yeltsin inherited a federal administrative structure which is a complex relic of former communist rule meant to pit ethnic Russians against non-Russians. Thirty-two entities are based on ethnicity—21 republics, 10 okrugs (districts) and one autonomous oblast (region); 57 are based on geography populated mainly by ethnic Russians—6 krays (territories), 49 oblasts and 2 federal cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg). To acquire their support, Yeltsin initially courted the federal ethnic republics rather than the regions and offered economic and decision concessions to local leaders. These efforts largely failed, however, and in the March 1993 referendum more than half the republics expressed no confidence in the president (RFE/RL 3 December 1993 Research Report).

Yeltsin's focus on the republics of the Russian Federation to the exclusion of the regions was a tactical mistake. The regions, which are the main producers of raw materials, demanded the same rights as the republics. The new Russian constitution, which explicitly excludes the right of separation, may not solve all the questions of the federal structure, as it is vague on the division of powers between the centre and the provinces. The struggle among the republics, regions and the centre is not over yet and has the potential for civil war if it is not carefully managed.

A constant challenge to Yeltsin on the domestic front has been and continues to be the resolution of conflict between the legislative and executive branches of government. Yeltsin's unique status as the first democratically elected president of Russia and his apparent inborn political savvy helped him to arrive at a number of compromises with the hardliner Russian parliament in 1992, but the relationship quickly soured to political gridlock last year. It eventually exploded on 21 September 1993 when parliament was dissolved by presidential decree. Earlier, in April 1993, against a background of a deteriorating economy and obduracy of parliament, Yeltsin had nevertheless managed to win a confidence vote by public referendum on the president and his policies.

The events of 21 September and 4 October (the military assault on the White House that may have been provoked by careful manipulation of the president's forces, (cf. "Yeltsin: Shadow of a Doubt", National Interest, Winter 1993/94) were meant to solve the problem of dual power. In the end they did not. The democratically run elections on 12 December returned no clear majority to any party, and the coup perpetrators were released. More important than the party elections, however, was the precedent of using military force to overcome political opposition, a move which could influence future events.

Politically the vote on the constitution which established a presidential republic is also important. The constitution accepted by a slim majority of voters creates a powerful presidency with few legislative checks. It has the potential to be used to build consensus or to create a constitutional dictatorship. The price for this success has been that the power ministries play key roles in the decision-making process. Although no single ministry is capable of assuming power by itself. Their collective support is necessary for those who are seeking power.

Transition: The Next Phase

Various Western analysts have painted both doomsday and optimistic scenarios for the future of Russia since the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991, although available evidence is insufficient to support either thesis. What can be said, however, is that Russia remains a mixture of both faulty images and breath-taking achievements, and that change will be done the "Russian way", which is unlikely to meet Western agendas.

Some Russians are not sanguine about the future. Last November at a Carleton University seminar, academician Georgi Arbatov, a long-time Soviet bureaucrat and director of the Russian (formerly Soviet) Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada, said it will take 100 years for Russia to achieve the optimistic scenario. More important is what will happen in the next 10 months.

Arbatov predicted that after elections, the parliament (Duma) would play a very small role, and that there would be a potential for a return to authoritarianism. This would not be a preferred Yeltsin position, but there is a "group" (not identified) which may force him to their way of thinking. In advancing what may be a solution, he proposed a strong industrial policy with support for high technology, a four-month financial credit for farmers and, as soon as possible, a viable policy for foreign investors.

A comparison of Arbatov's musings with events in Russia since the dissolution of parliament on 21 September indicates that the next transition stage has already started. The areas most visible and of major interest to Western observers are the increasing nationalistic positions in Russian foreign policy that have again come to the fore after months of hiatus, security ("peacekeeping") policies pursued in the "near abroad", and the increased influence of the non-reformers and extremists in the Russian government who represent potential alternatives to Yeltsin.

Western interests in Russian domestic policies and the democratic progress stem from the assumption that democracies never start wars and are, therefore, a preferred form of government. The 30% vote for Zhirinovsky raised fears in the West that continued breakdown of social structures could result in an autocratic, revisionist government in Russia likely hostile to Western interests. While the West would prefer to deal with a known quantity like Yeltsin, the rational approach, adopted during the Cold War years, is that a modus vivendi may have to be worked out with whoever will rule Moscow in the future. Russia, barring the unlikely prospect of a return to its Muscovy borders, will remain an important European and Asiatic power player that will not be able to be ignored.

One of the most difficult problems facing any Russian leadership is that it must deal with nationalism in a multi-ethnic society lacking experience in democracy and replete with uncertainty about ideological values. The situation is further complicated by the absence of social care services hitherto provided within the structure of the closed industrial towns (before factories began to go bankrupt), and workers who have not been paid. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet network of subsidies and state assistance has exacerbated regional inequality and political division.

On 12 December 1993, Russian voters indicated they wanted a change and said no to reform that had failed to take sufficient account of Russian social reality. This tough economic situation may yet need an authoritarian regime to solve the problem.

The next step is up to the Russians themselves to translate the recent vote (bearing in mind that most young Russians did not vote) into change that satisfies their expectations. It is by no means clear that President Yeltsin will preside over this change. There have been persistent rumours of Yeltsin's continuing poor health and absences from public view that have sometimes caused the postponement of major scheduled events.

Even if health does not soon remove Yeltsin, the presidential elections planned for 1996 could. Moreover, early economic failure of the resource industry (e.g. the Hanti-Mansi region, accounting for 60% of Russia's oil production, is said to be approaching a financial catastrophe), the predicted bankruptcies of 8,000 Russian factories in 1994 (numerous factories in the Nizhny Novgorod, Omsk and Voronezh regions have been classified as insolvent), could lead to an even earlier demise of Yeltsin. His involuntary removal from office, however, would require a change in allegiance to the president on the part of the power ministries; as yet, there is no such indication, including at the military leadership level.

Not counting individual unit mutinies, there is no tradition for Russian or Soviet military to take independent action outside the framework of a recognized government structure. Clearly under conditions of complete breakdown of civil authority, the military, as the better organized, could attempt to act as the saviour of the country. However, under such conditions it would likely itself be subject to internal divisions.

In a normal progression, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin might be considered a natural successor to Yeltsin. But he is most likely to be made the scapegoat for future economic failures, and without the power ministries' support, his options to manoeuvre are few. Any attempt by Chernomyrdin to take power by force would likely result in civil war. A wild card, if Chernomyrdin were to be removed due to failure, could be the return of Yegor Gaidar, the former economics minister responsible for economic reform in Russia. Gaidar's return would probably mean an autocratic government ruled behind the scenes by Yeltsin (Gaidar has no political base) in order to enforce reform.

In the short term, however, the struggle for power is likely to be between Yeltsin and the amnestied 1993 coup plotters. The recently elected buffoon, ultra-nationalist Zhirinovsky, has served as a temporary anchorage for the non-reformers. With the release of popular jailed leaders, such as Alexander Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the non-reformers will now swing behind Rutskoi and increasingly challenge Yeltsin. The change may come in a democratic way with presidential elections due in 1996, but economic imperatives could well dictate a leadership power confrontation before that time that could easily end in some form of internal conflict.

No amount of Western money is likely to solve the Russian economic problem. Russia will have to solve it by itself, in its own way. In its present state of economic development, Russia is not able successfully to compete against the West. While Russia has enormous human and natural resources, its economy has been burdened by decades of centralized planning and military spending. Thus in the short term, only certain Russian resource industries, in particular gas which provides about 15% of its hard currency earnings, and possibly certain elements of the space industry, are marketable in the West. Military production sales to Third World countries are also marketable and can help the Russian economy. If the West wishes to ease Moscow's economic pain in the short term, it may have to accept Russian arms sales to such countries as China, India and other, smaller Third World countries.


For now, a cautiously reformist Russian government is making concessions to nationalist forces. This includes a more assertive and independent Russian foreign policy directed at the former Soviet republics, Central and Eastern Europe and the West, and conflicting signals over the direction of economic policy. None of these changes directly threatens Western security, but the easy period of consensual foreign policy shared by Moscow with the West seems to be over. Continuing economic uncertainty could also translate into inflationary policies that are apt to limit foreign investment.

Russia's diplomatic success in Yugoslavia will certainly add stature to President Yeltsin's policies and take the heat off Foreign Minister Kozyrev. Overnight, Russia has again become an important player in the Balkans. Provision of Russian peacekeeping forces to Sarajevo was sufficient guarantee for the Serbs to withdraw heavy weapons from the city's parameter. Moscow's action and its direct support of Serbian and Greek objections against NATO's air strikes has probably permanently foreclosed that option (and helped to take NATO out of what was increasingly being seen as a politically and militarily flawed policy decision of frustration). Any peace arrangement for the Balkan crisis will now have to include direct Russian political involvement.

Russia's normal economic links still remain tied to the former Soviet republics. Centuries of Russian colonial and later Soviet rule have created highly diverse and complex sets of interrelationships that still exist in all these states as they struggle with nation and institution-building. These interrelationships have prompted the Central Asian republics in particular, to work within the context of the CIS primarily in the economic dimension, as a means of managing transition to more diversified economies. In practice, however, despite an economic union reached in September, intergovernmental trade agreements remain under fulfilled. Economic desperation of the CIS republics (except for the Baltics) is likely to force them into a more integrationist mode.

The CIS now embraces all the former Soviet republics except the Baltics. Moldova has joined the CIS Economic Union and the Committee of Foreign Ministers; however, full membership in the CIS remains to be ratified by the new parliament. Russian interest in the CIS arrangement has much to do with perceived and real instability on Russian frontiers which have been pushed back to those of 1654. Many of the former Union republics are experiencing internal instability, are open to influence from outside and are in conflict with each other. There is also a perceived security dimension, borders of the former Soviet Union were shorter and therefore easier and more economic to defend.

Russia is already heavily involved in Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan and in the Armenian-Azerbaijanian conflicts and is increasingly using economic and military pressure (Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan). Moscow has sought CSCE approval and limited involvement by other Europeans for these "peacekeeping" operations. It is doubtful, however, that such interest is meant to reconstitute the former empire, even within the CIS, as the costs would be too high. Being in Moscow's "backyard", however, the former Soviet republics will remain a primary focus of Russian political, economic and military policies for the future. There is no likelihood of serious Western opposition to this policy provided the Baltics are excluded and the situation does not escalate out of control in Ukraine.

Russian objection to any expansion of NATO that would include Central and Eastern Europe signalled Moscow's geostrategic security concerns in Europe where Russia is not a member in the overall security architecture. The Russians have recently signalled an interest in joining NATO's Partnership for Peace program. It remains to be seen, however, whether any real co-operation with NATO ensues. Russia is also taking steps to ameliorate its relations with China. The issue of the Kuril Islands, however, remains a stumbling block for improvement of relations with Japan. Being tied to Russian strategic security requirements, the Kurils are not a candidate for an early solution. Moscow, however, will continue to try and mend its fences with Japan to avoid being left out of policy issues which affect its security interests in the Pacific Rim and that are perceived to be controlled in Washington.

It is difficult to say what impact the slower-paced reform will have on domestic economics. Unless the large industrial centres are able to cope with real downsizing, and adequate social safety nets are put in place, the possibility of social disorder in Russia will remain. For now Western relations with Russia will likely be the same but major financial aid is unlikely.

Russian domestic and foreign policies share the same uncertainty of the transitional period. Both are responding to the same groups that reflect the make-up of the present Duma: the reformers, the non-reformers (communists, Agrarians, Zhirinovskiyites) and the independents (the swing group). There is increasing pressure from these groups to be more assertive regarding Russia's interests and priorities (Arbatov), as a broad social consensus begins to form on the identity of the Russian state. Should such a consensus continue to develop, Russian national interests will become more focused and could be contrary to Western objectives and interests. There is already a national consensus on policies for the "near abroad".

Russia is too big to be ignored; it remains the "Pivotal" area but it is not strong enough to rule the "Heartland"; it will therefore never command Europe, much less the world. As in the days of the Cold War, except for its nuclear capability, Russia is not a direct threat to North America.

The Russian Odyssey seems barely to have begun. Russian domestic, foreign and security policies are still being pulled in different directions adding to economic uncertainty and potential chaos. In the past the Russians have been patient and even long-suffering. The transition state is not yet finished and may not be for a long time, but as a Turkmenistan proverb says, "When a caravan turns around, the last camel becomes the first". The twenty-first century could well include a Russian caravan led by the last camel that has definitely left the Potemkin-like villages of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires and whose journey cannot be reversed.

The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :

P.O.Box 9732
Postal Station T 
Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G4 
FAX: (613) 842-1312

ISSN 1192-277X
Catalogue JS73-1/41

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