Jan 1 1994

Are All Yeltsin Critics ‘Hard-Line’ — Or Is That Just the U.S. Media’s Party Line?

When the Russian crisis began, CBS anchor Dan Rather suggested (9/21/93) that Boris Yeltsin “didn’t go far enough” in getting rid of the “hard-liners.” But how does a president legally get rid of elected members of parliament?

President Yeltsin did it by simply dissolving parliament on Sept. 21, a blatantly unconstitutional move that won immediate support from the Clinton administration — and immediate excuses from most U.S. media. A New York Times editorial (9/22/93) referred to Yeltsin’s dissolution of parliament as “a Democrat’s Coup.”

With the Clinton White House backing Yeltsin’s every move, including ultimately the assault on Russia‘s “White House,” U.S. reporters abandoned even the pretense of objectivity. “Hard-liners” became the universal description for the leaders of parliament, who were rarely quoted explaining their reasons for opposing Yeltsin. As the Russian parliament burned, the Christian Science Monitor declared, in a front-page news article (10/5/93), that “it was clear that the government of President Boris Yeltsin had little choice but to respond with overwhelming force.”

Were Yeltsin’s opponents really merely “an unruly band of malcontents –ranging from anti-Semitic fascists and nationalists to fervent monarchists and hard-line Stalinists,” as USA Today (10/4/93) reported? In fact, the leaders of the opposition were Yeltsin’s men. Yeltsin hand-picked Ruslan Khasbulatov to be his successor as parliament speaker when he ran for president, and chose Aleksandr Rutskoi as his vice presidential running-mate. Both Khasbulatov and Rutskoi were Communists for most of their lives — but so was Yeltsin, who served for years as the Communist mayor of Moscow.

Elected in fairly free elections in 1990 near the end of the Gorbachev era, the “hard-line” leaders of parliament defied Gorbachev and the Communist Party by selecting Yeltsin as the chair of parliament. During the 1991 coup by Communist apparatchiks against Gorbachev, the parliament provided sanctuary to Yeltsin, helping to stave off the coup. A few months later, the parliament ratified Yeltsin’s decision to abolish the Soviet Union, and then gave Yeltsin decree-making power for a year to implement his severe economic program. In a real sense, this had been Yeltsin’s parliament.

What drove Yeltsin and the parliament apart was the economic “shock treatment” prescribed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Under Yeltsin, state possessions — including oil and other natural resources — are being rapidly privatized, mainly by being sold off to Western companies. Hailed as “free-market economic reforms” by U.S. and Western European media, this process has also spurred corruption, unemployment and economic chaos.

The economic dislocation caused by these kinds of “reforms” has caused many of Yeltsin’s former allies to turn against him. One of the main groups opposing Yeltsin is the Civic Union, an organization that was formed around the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (The Nation, 10/11/93).

From watching U.S. television — where Russian critics of Yeltsinomics are routinely categorized as “hard-liners” — you might not know that many Russian democrats oppose Yeltsin’s “free-market reforms.” On the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (9/21/93), co-anchor Margaret Warner anxiously asked a Russia expert whether he was sure that, in future elections, “democrats and free marketeers would necessarily win.”

To many journalists, capitalism and democracy are one and the same. This attitude reached absurdity in a heavy-handed Associated Press report(10/4/93) that glorified shopping as a political act:

Many Muscovites ignored the political drama at the center of the city and crowded the city’s outdoor bazaars, buying and selling in a capitalist frenzy that the hard-liners seeking to roll back reforms would deplore…. Protesters marching past the park toward the center of Moscow urged passersby to join their demonstration, but most ignored the call and just watched the malcontents.

Although “democrat” and “free marketeer” are often equated, events since the dissolution of parliament — particularly the postponement of presidential elections until 1996 — have borne out the fact that Yeltsin is more committed to privatization than democratization. And most U.S. mass media seem to share that preference. As a New York Timesnews analysis (10/6/93) gloated: “Now that Mr. Yeltsin has complete control, he is widely seen as having an unprecedented and probably unrepeatable chance to stabilize and reform Russia’s economy.”