Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unaccustomed Calm Settles Over Russia


Russia's third summer since the Soviet Union's collapse offers an unaccustomed atmosphere of relative political and economic stability.

Legislators are debating laws, not seeking to impeach the president, who is holding news conferences rather than bombarding parliament. The political spectrum is rich and fluctuating, not simply riven between good-guy reformers and bad-guy communists. Siberia and other regions no longer talk of seceding from Mother Russia.

And although the government seems to have practically no economic-reform policy, annual inflation has slowed if only to 100 percent, consumption is up and investor interest is rising.

President Boris Yeltsin, who said in a recent book that his chief remaining goal is Russia's "tranquility," has contended lately that Russia has indeed entered a new era of normalcy. The most massive privatization in history has created a new class of owners and entrepreneurs, providing a foundation for stable development, Yeltsin and his supporters declare.

Others are not so sure. Many fear that as Russia's brief summer gives way to a long autumn, the nation could explode in frustrations over crime, corruption and widening inequalities. Dozens of ultranationalist, fascist and communist parties are waiting to take advantage of people's anger.

Sergei Stankevich, a reformist member of parliament, agreed with Yeltsin that Russia has entered a new era, but said it was fraught with danger.

"We've exhausted the potential of quick, revolutionary reforms, and now we face more painful, difficult tasks," he said. "There are no more quick and easy answers."

In particular, he said, almost nothing has been done to revise Russia's collective farms or the state factories that will never succeed in a free market -- fully half of all industry. Attempts at change could dislodge millions of people from their jobs and communities.

Stankevich said he does not foresee turmoil bringing down the government or forcing early elections. The army, while in a sullen mood, is fractured and absorbed in its own problems, he said, and no party is organized broadly enough. But, he said, autumn could bring localized labor or political unrest.

Of course, what passes for relative stability is far from a happy situation. Many Russians feel worse off than under Communism. The number who remain at work but receive virtually no pay is rising. Birth rates continue to fall and death rates to rise, with the average Russian man now dying at 59.

According to polls, a plurality of Russians believes the country is run by gangsters, not by Yeltsin or any other legitimate force.

The parliament elected in December, while less confrontational than its predecessor, has done little to win the public's respect. It has approved few laws, and some of its votes seem nonsensical. Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalists voted for the budget on first reading but against it the second time around. Few legislators expect the adopted budget to be followed anyway. Zhirinovsky has found himself in a bind trying to portray himself as an outsider while now being perceived as part of the power structure.

Yeltsin, after several months of inaction, came back to life in late spring, but mostly to issue ineffective decrees.

In a recent interview in Literaturnaya Gazeta, the head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service -- part of the former KGB -- said that internal threats outweigh external threats to Russia's security. They include "unbridled banditry," "the criminalization of the political system" and economic problems that could "push people into the streets," Sergei Stepashin said.

"A simple match could ignite an uncontrollable fire," he said. He also warned of the attraction of nationalist extremists to Russia's youth, "both in and outside the army." Other commentators find solace in the fact that Russian politics has become more give-and-take and less of a blood sport.

"I'd say the struggle now is much more pragmatic than it was," said Nikolai Svanidze, a political reporter for Russian television. "At the center is power and money, and not ideology. ... Mostly it's grabbing for power and property."

National politics have evolved in large measure into a competition among lobbies: the oil and gas industry, the agrarian sector and the military-industrial complex.

While some leaders of the Agrarian and Communist parties have moved toward a social-democratic position, their rank and file remain little changed. The kind of "post-Communist" leftist parties -- which rule in Lithuania, Hungary and Poland without challenging basic market and democratic changes -- hardly exist here. Already, some here are calling for privatized property to be grabbed back from the "new rich" and given to worker and farm collectives.