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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Congress of the People?

"How dare he? What's the guy think he's doing? " A group of Western journalists was muttering long and hard in the press room of Congress last Thursday soon after Boris Yeltsin had launched his attack on the deputies.


Many in the West have never felt comfortable with Yeltsin, describing him variously as boorish, an intellectual lightweight and a potential dictator. They see the Congress of People's Deputies and the Supreme Soviet as venerable democratic institutions, providing the necessary checks and balances against his autocratic instincts.


They see the "debate" of the past two weeks as a healthy means of determining which economic path Russia should follow. They see Yeltsin's insistence on retaining Yegor Gaidar as disrespectful to Congress and to the people. Gaidar, they say, should have resigned months ago, given the mess he has made of the economy.


They are wrong. Underlying these views are several misguided assumptions. Congress has little to do with democracy. Which civilized country allows 1, 000 mainly parttime politicians to discuss the finer points of the constitution? The Soviet and the Russian Congresses were inventions of Mikhail Gorbachev that conformed to his vision of limited liberty. The elections of 1989 and 1990 were hailed as path-breaking. For their time they were.


But there is now no justification for preserving an institution whose members were partially elected, partially selected by Communist Party organizations. By no means all the deputies are dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries. Some are prominent figures in other fields. A handful were courageous dissidents. Some, especially those in the Supreme Soviet, are becoming skillful orators, negotiators and committee members.


But any legislature whose largest faction avows views that combine much communist thinking with the rightist nationalism that is sweeping Eastern Europe has already lost any claim to a democratic tag. The political composition of Congress does not reflect the views of the electorate, especially of those under 50. The people may be tired of the political wrangling, they may complain bitterly about the decline in their standard of living, they might have little good to say about Gaidar or Yeltsin, but does that mean they would support the likes of Baburin? Or Travkin or Rutskoi for that matter?


Do they really blame one year of reforms for making their lives miserable? Their memories tend to be less short than those of some Westerners, many of whom never witnessed the oppression and stagnation of the old system. There are some who did and still hold the view that the reforms now underway are robbing the people. But then there always were foreign apologists for communism.


In an ideal world, parliament should be strong. It should keep a close eye on government, calling it to account for its decisions. But parliaments do not spring up overnight, they have to be nurtured over decades during which a certain amount of humility is called for.


The fight over the past two weeks has not been about the American or Swedish economic variants, as Ruslan Khasbulatov claimed. As Gaidar retorted, Russia is a long way from either. The monetarist versus interventionist argument has dogged administrations in Washington, London and Bonn through the 1980s and into the 1990s. But its import to Russia is ephemeral. As politicians here never tire of saying, Russia has its own spetsifika.


Gaidar may have made a host of mistakes, concentrating on building a semblance of financial order and paying too little attention to sustaining those parts of industry and agriculture that could, become viable. Even if certain enterprises are given a few year's grace, they will never thrive until they begin to produce goods and services that the people need at low cost. With almost every office and factory overmanned, unemployment is inevitable.


Few Russians doubt that the resistance of the director's lobby has far less to do with the interests of their workforce than with keeping their own positions and privileges. The revolution of the mind that is essential to drag Russia out of the quagmire has yet to effect most of them.


Where does that leave Yeltsin? The fight has been about power, pure and simple. Tactically, Yeltsin and his advisers have done just about everything wrong during the Congress. They underestimated the extent of the hardliner's organization and of their lust for revenge.


Yeltsin's miscalculation began soon after the coup of August 1991. Instead of disappearing on holiday, he should have consolidated his power. Economic reform was never going to be easy without political reform. He could have forced through a dissolution of Congress and paved the way for a new constitution.


Instead he stumbled along the nonexistent path of "consolidation" (a misnomer created by the nomenklatura that actually means retrenchment of the old guard. ) He claimed to speak for all Russia. There is no such Russia, no such unity.


The biggest gulf of all separates the generations. Few young people believe there is any alternative to rapid, although coordinated, reform. It was Yeltsin, the man who saved the fledgling democracy last year, who allowed "the creeping coup" to begin.


His speech on Thursday was that of a wounded animal; his concessions in Saturday's deal were the best he could get out of a terrible situation. His position considerably weakened, he reneged Monday on his promise to rediscover the radicalism that brought him to power by nominating Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister. Gaidar was never given a chance to press ahead without having to look over his shoulder at the forces of reaction. By abandoning him, Yeltsin has made one compromise too many.


John Kampfner is Moscow bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph.