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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Yeltsin Woos the Generals




This week President Boris Yeltsin left town for a summer recess and the political life in Moscow has slowed down in the simmering heat. July and August in Russia, as in many other countries, is traditionally a time when the nation's decision-makers go to a country dacha or to the sea, and journalists do not know where to find stories to write about.


Of course, in recent years the old Soviet tradition of doing no serious business in the July-August heat has often been abused. In August 1991, the old Soviet nomenklatura tried to stage a coup to restore full party rule. The coup failed and the Soviet Union subsequently collapsed.


Seven years later, last August, the pro-Western liberal economic reforms collapsed together with the Russian financial system, leaving the country high and dry, stranded helplessly between two worlds. Russia first failed in Communism and then - even more dramatically - in capitalism.


In August 1991, Yeltsin won the fray not because he had the courage to climb on a tank to declare that he would defy the coup and its plotters. Yeltsin and his supporters won because there was a tank easy to climb on: Its crew, and the crews of other tanks that were sent to Moscow to crush resistance to the coup, were not ready to shoot or arrest or do anything to stop Yeltsin, his supporters and armed guards from prancing on their armor.


In August 1991, the Russian military, including high-ranking generals, was not ready to fight in the streets of Moscow to maintain Communist rule. Quiet insubordination engulfed unit after unit as soon as they moved into Moscow. In three days it was all over: The generals had to move the troops back into the barracks, since keeping them in Moscow would have meant having to cope with open disloyalty and even armed insurrection in the ranks.


Two years later, in August 1993, when Yeltsin was planning an armed coup of his own - to use force to dislodge the Supreme Soviet, the Russian parliament - he did his best to befriend the military in advance. The Russian military got hefty pay raises that year. Yeltsin traveled to military units dressed in uniform and freely handed out decorations and promotions.


The same is happening today. Last April the Russian government substantially increased military pay. Last week Yeltsin met Russia's most important military leaders in the Kremlin and promised them more money, presidential support and understanding of their needs. Yeltsin heaped praise on the military and announced that rumors of the Russian army's collapse were "utter nonsense." The president also handed out more decorations and promised more promotions for the faithful.


Handing out decorations and promotions is, of course, the cheapest way to keep a military man happy. Finding money for meaningful military reform or simply keeping officers pay at a subsistence level for long periods of time is much harder. But Yeltsin has been a public politician for more than 10 years. Yeltsin knows that to win elections you need to combine small handouts with great promises. Afterward the promises can be forgotten.


Today Yeltsin behaves in public as if the presidential election campaign were in full swing, as if he, Yeltsin, were running, and as if the only people eligible to vote for president were oligarchs, regional governors and military officers. Yeltsin is desperately fighting to win the hearts and minds of Russia's military. During last week's meeting with the generals, and during a Kremlin reception for graduating military cadets,Russia's old and unsteady president, who never served in the army, pathetically tried to goose step, as a way of being accepted by the troops as one of their own.


The possibility of unconstitutional actions, for which Yeltsin will need military support, is growing. Free and fair elections are not an option for Yeltsin and the oligarchs that control the Kremlin. Pro-liberal, pro-market forces will surely lose any genuinely free election in the coming years in Russia. Mikhail Prusak, the pro-reform governor of the Novgorod region, said in an interview last week that Yeltsin, "as father of the nation," should disband both houses of parliament and call a non-elected assembly, a zemskoi sobor, to rewrite the Constitution and "mend the economy."


Yeltsin and the people he represents know that if they lose the Kremlin, there will come a time of reckoning in Russia. The "young reformers," "democrats" and oligarchs who have stolen Russia will go to prison and then be put on show trials, together with Yeltsin. It is highly probable that the future of Russia will be decided by the gun, not the ballot box.