Bravissimo Boris! Yeltsin Does The Right Thing; Here’s How The West Can Do It, Too

Already, within hours of President Boris Yeltsin’s dramatic announcement that the Russian people — and not the warmed-over communists in Parliament — would determine their nation’s future, the battle-lines are being drawn. Unfortunately, Yeltsin’s ability to energize the population and key elements of the government have eroded substantially because of his ill-fated decision to establish a conciliatory modus vivendi with parliamentary factions (like the military-industrial complex’s political arm, Civic Union) that are bent on derailing real political and economic reform.(1)

Herewith the Center for Security Policy’s predictions as to what will happen now and its recommendations as to what the United States and other friends of a democratic, free market transformation in Russia can do to help advance such an outcome:

The Moment of Truth for Reform in Russia

  • The effect — if not the stated purpose — of Yeltsin’s decision to proceed with the popular referendum on a new constitution and a vote of confidence in his leadership is to throw down the gauntlet to the Soviet-era Congress of People’s Deputies and its apparatchik leadership. It must be expected, therefore, that tomorrow’s emergency session of the Congress’ working body, the Supreme Soviet, will produce no less dramatic a response.

    In all likelihood, the Supreme Soviet will move to: impeach President Yeltsin; prohibit implementation of his orders for the 25 April referendum and other decrees issued today; and possibly direct his "detention" and that of key associates (e.g., Deputy Prime Ministers Fyodorov and Chubais, Foreign Minister Kozyrev and former Prime Minister and presidential advisor Gaidar). After all, in the absence of such measures, the Parliament stands to lose whatever dubious claim to legitimacy it still retains.


  • At the very least, if the Old Guard calculates that such bold steps would produce draconian cuts in foreign assistance, debt relief, technology flows, etc, less dramatic — but no less portentous — steps are to be expected. These might include interference with Yeltsin’s efforts to communicate with the Russian people and otherwise rendering the referendum inconclusive by garbling the questions it puts to the nation and/or by discouraging voter turnout.


  • Key elements of the Russian military, internal security forces and Parliamentary guard will probably be prepared to implement such directions. Whether the remainder of the military remains passive (in which case the communists probably can pull off a Bolshevik-style coup) or moves to defend Yeltsin and the reform program which he must now reembrace and reinvigorate (in which case the Old Guard probably cannot) may turn on perceptions about the degree of popular support the reformers enjoy.


  • Vice President Alexander Rutskoi will probably emerge as the ringleader of the Old Guard opponents of structural reform. His refusal to support today’s announcement by President Yeltsin marks the final rupture between the two and Rutskoi — or his designee — will seek to establish a new government with the military-industrial complex’s Volsky, the parliament’s Khasbulatov and the KGB’s Primakov playing key, but likely subordinate, roles.


The West’s Pivotal Role

The Clinton Administration’s immediate response to the Yeltsin announcement was largely the appropriate one. White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos(2) conveyed strong support for Yeltsin and all those committed to reform in Russia.

Unfortunately, Stephanopoulos subsequently chose to emphasize certain elements in the Yeltsin approach that allowed the United States to endorse it, i.e., his decision not to disband the Parliament and not to govern by "presidential rule." This statement lends itself to the interpretation that Washington regards the Brezhnev-era Congress of People’s Deputies and the constitution under which it operates as legitimate and democratic. This is a view already enunciated by the increasingly pro-hardline chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court; it will certainly be the centerpiece of the parliament’s legal justification for moving against Yeltsin in the next few days.(3)

The White House spokesman also indicated that the April 3-4 meeting between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin was still on. By implication, so are the myriad multi-billion dollar initiatives intended by the United States and other G-7 nations to "help" Yeltsin.

Clearly, under present circumstances, it would be the height of folly to proceed reflexively with the Vancouver summit and various aid initiatives — as though nothing has happened in Moscow. The Center for Security Policy believes that the following steps are now in order:

  • The United States and its Western allies should proceed to finalize a program of aid and assistance that will be available to Russia provided that a 25 April referendum takes place and the outcome is a clear mandate for accelerated democratic and free market reform. It should be made clear that the West has neither any interest in nor any intention de facto of bankrolling the opponents of such systemic reforms.

  • The Vancouver summit and the 18 April meeting of the G-7 foreign and finance ministers which were intended to convey a sense of international solidarity with Yeltsin should, accordingly, be put on hold until after the results of the referendum are in. The West can adequately — in fact, more effectively — convey its support for the Russian president now without making concessions that will be difficult to retract if, through one device or another, malevolent forces succeed in returning Russia to an anti-Western, reactionary track.

    Such a message can be adequately transmitted by: assisting in the distribution of medical supplies and foodstuffs to the truly needy; intensified technical assistance and exchanges; cooperating in applying appropriate military assets to privatized agricultural efforts, etc.


    By contrast, the sorts of initiatives now in train could communicate an equal willingness to work with the Old Guard as with genuine reformers. These include unconditioned assistance like: generous, multi-year debt relief; a $2-5 billion U.S. Export-Import Bank loan-guarantee program for the strategic Russian energy sector; a $1 billion agricultural grant (which may have the effect of further retarding desperately needed privatization efforts); a "social safety net" aimed at easing the plight of dislocated workers, pensioners and others associated with obsolete state-owned heavy industries.


  • The U.S. intelligence community should be tasked to provide Yeltsin discretely with at least as much information about the possibility of a coup as was shared with Mikhail Gorbachev in the summer of 1991. The difference, of course, is that such information — for example, concerning: the status of Russian military forces and their movements; the KGB’s activities; large, secret money transfers; etc. — this time could be used to help protect and perpetuate a reformist regime, instead of preventing one from coming to power.(4)

  • An urgent public signal should be sent concerning American support for the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, the Baltic states and other reformist ex-Soviet republics who might be threatened by a Kremlin that reverts to form. Clearly, the question of U.S. insistence that nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory be transferred to Russia will have to be revisited in the event the reformers in Moscow are ousted or otherwise rendered ineffective.



The Bottom Line

The Center for Security Policy believes now more firmly than ever that discipline, conditionality, transparency, consistency and collateral must be the watchwords in American and Western dealings with the former Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin has now taken the courageous and principled step the Center has long felt was essential to break the death grip communist/nationalist forces in Russia continue to have on many instruments of power. Neither President Yeltsin, the reformist cause he has embraced anew, the people of Russia nor American interests will be served, however, by committing U.S. tax dollars — or other Western resources — in a manner that deviates from these five principles.

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1. Indeed, it was Yeltsin’s established determination to work within a thoroughly corrupt system that led the Center to conclude that he would probably be more willing to accept "survival" as a politically emasculated figurehead than break with the past as he did today. (See in this connection, "Prediction on Russia’s Constitutional Crisis: Yeltsin Will ‘Survive’ — But Hold The Champagne" (No. 93-D 19, 11 March 1993.)) The prospects for genuine reform in Russia have already suffered greatly from this debilitating, year-long modus vivendi; its cost may well be higher still in the days ahead.

2. The Center agrees with former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski who on CNN today expressed incredulity that his successor, Anthony Lake, (or perhaps the Secretary of State) was not assigned responsibility for expressing the Administration’s views on the Yeltsin statement and responding to reporters’ questions about this extraordinarily sensitive topic.

3. Regrettably, this view is also being prominently featured in commentaries by American television pundits and "experts" (like Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton) who are now compounding a previous record of astounding errors of judgment and analysis (e.g., fatuous backing of Gorbachev) by trying to obscure the unmistakable and indefensible character of the communist-dominated Russian parliament.

4. An object lesson in how not to handle such matters can be found in recent revelations about the Bush Administration’s behavior in June 1991. When asked by the then-Mayor of Moscow Gavril Popov to inform Yeltsin during a U.S. visit that a hardline coup was in the offing, the White House decided instead to divulge this information to President Gorbachev, for whom the plotters worked. Doing so served to postpone, but did not prevent, the coup that Gorbachev at an earlier moment had accepted as a necessary contingency.

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