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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

August: Coup Time Again?

August is here, and with it, coup fever. It is as though the turning of the calendar page set off a little warning light in the minds of politicians and observers alike.


Despite all evidence to the contrary, the media are full of warnings about coming political struggles. Leading politicians speculate on the impending crisis in government and society. Prophetic bons mots are being churned out daily.


"One more month until the autumn of revolts and upheavals," cried the radical opposition newspaper Zavtra. The shrill retort from the reformist Rossiiskiye Vesti: "The redskins have not buried their hatchets yet."


Not long ago, State Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin was asked about the possibility of civil disorder in Russia this autumn. Rybkin laughed it off, saying that in each of the past five years somebody has warned him of August upheavals.


By our count, that somebody has been right three years running: The August 1991 putsch; August 1992, the foreboding of a fall confrontation with parliament that led to the downfall of Yegor Gaidar's government; August 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin announced that he would deal with the Supreme Soviet by fall. The climax to that was the bloody street battles of October.


Of course, this August is different. There are almost no demonstrations, there is no National Salvation Front, and unless you count Alexander Rutskoi or Vladimir Zhirinovsky, there is no opposition leadership. And even these two are not plotting the overthrow of the state, merely campaigning for president.


In fact, the big debate in the capital is not over a power struggle between president and parliament, but whether both should agree to prolong their mandates.


When a fringe opposition group became really incensed this week, they burned an effigy of the figure they find most odious in Russia today: Not Yeltsin, Gaidar, or any gray-suited minister in Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's government, but Lyonya Golubkov, the fictional get-rich-quick character of MMM advertisement fame.


Then again, what conflicts can there be when Deputy Speaker Valentin Kovalyov, a leading Communist in the Duma, says that he sees one of the "priorities of economic policy in forming a middle class?"


Next thing you know, someone will spot Marx, Lenin and Engels loitering around Varshavskoye Shosse, hoping to buy into the MMM action.


But before anyone proclaims the end of Russian history, let us note the sources of tensions that could develop into major headaches for the authorities.


? Chechnya: A conflict between the self-declared independent republic's President Dzhokhar Dudayev and Moscow-backed rebels could ignite Russia's tinderbox in the North Caucasus. Moscow is clearly tired of putting up with a man who has tweaked its nose for three years, but it does not want to send in the Russian Army and risk reprisals against civilians by Chechen terrorist groups in Russia, nor can it allow a local dispute to spread throughout the region. Many believe Dudayev can be toppled peacefully using economic levers, but that ignores the fact that much of Dudayev's power comes from mafia-like businessmen who operate outside the economic rules.


? Revolt in the legislature: Nearly half those present at a recent closed hearing of the Federation Council supported holding a no-confidence vote in Chernomyrdin's government. The arguments in favor were familiar: The sorry condition of the majority of Russians, the landslide slump in production, the collapse of the military industrial complex, the embezzlement of property under the guise of privatization. The deputies also asked the Duma to consider a no-confidence vote when it convenes in October. Many in the Duma agree with this, as the world will see when the lower house finally passes its own privatization law and a package of emergency economic anti-crisis measures.


? Mass bankruptcies: Several major unions want a general strike this fall. They want more if the government carries out plans to allow the bankruptcies of thousands of firms employing over 5,000 workers, many of whom have been on half pay and half schedule for a year.


An even more frightening scenario in the longer term is that the government will back off from its promises to let ineffective enterprises go belly up, allowing Russia's director "sheiks," as Yeltsin called them last month, to go on making money despite the Russian economy, rather than for it. The government's unwillingness to confront MMM president Sergei Mavrodi does not bode well for its showdown with the sheiks.