Coup Rumors in Moscow

But this year popular discontent, not a secret cabal, threatens Yeltsin

By , Vladimir Shlapentokh is a professor in the Community Health Science Department at Michigan State University.

PARADOXICALLY, in August 1992 the signs of an impending coup are much more visible than they were exactly one year ago, although this does not mean that a coup is inevitable. This time, unlike August 1991, the major threat to the regime stems not from the nomenklatura but from the mass discontent that conservatives hope to transform into big riots under their guidance.

After taking control in August 1991, the regime's theorists initiated a program designed to maintain the sympathy of the people through three means - privatization of property, the independence of Russia, and the establishment of a new government based on democratic principles.

By privatizing state property - from residential apartments to large industrial facilities - the regime hoped to create a large middle class that would align itself with the new government as the benefactor and guarantor of their new social status.

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President Boris Yeltsin's privatization, however, has antagonized the masses rather than earn their support. Only a tiny minority of the population has noticed any significant benefit. The authorities also failed to enable Russians to own even their state-controlled apartments, not to mention production assets. Consequently, Russians have little faith left in the plan to transform Russia into a nation of property owners. Part of the problem is that Mr. Yeltsin's government lost control over privatization

to old and new bureaucrats (as well as to criminals), who took advantage of their positions as insiders to purchase a significant part of the means of production.

Consequently, the privatization program has left most Russians without modification in their property status, while hyperinflation has drained savings accounts in the past two years. Most Russians are actually worse off financially than they were in the past, and are extremely angry about the wealthy life of the new bourgeoisie.

Yeltsin's attempt to use Russian independence to gain legitimization for his regime failed even more conspicuously than did his privatization program. The new administration established June 12 as "The Day of Independence," but most Russians did not take this idea seriously. Moreover, these polls demonstrate that a growing majority of Russians (63 percent in April and 68 percent in June) feel a strong nostalgia for the Soviet Union. The public has also changed its views regarding the organizers of the co up last August; only a minority (24 percent) still regards them as criminals. Many Russians regard these people as heroes who were attempting to save the Soviet Union.

Even Yeltsin's most ardent adversaries cannot deny that his regime significantly expanded political freedoms and strengthened fledgling democratic institutions in the country after the failed coup. However, recent developments, including the atmosphere of anarchy in the country, the bickering between various branches of local government, the mass corruption of the bureaucracy and its complete impunity, and the huge increase in criminal activity are all associated with democracy in the minds of many citiz ens. As a result, many Russians are yearning for the good old days when the authorities kept order in the country.

Of course, if the regime had managed the economy more successfully, people would have been less cognizant of these problems. But most Russians are suffering the most difficult living conditions since the end of World War II. A recent poll found that six times as many Muscovites preferred living conditions in Brezhnev's era as preferred current conditions.

A decline in legitimacy always hinders leaders. The Yeltsin regime has become hesitant and uncertain in the application of force for the protection of public order and the Constitution. For example, in June, the government vacillated for one week before authorities ended a siege by a boisterous crowd on the Ostankino TV headquarters.

Even more indicative of the government's loss of legitimacy is its inability to deal effectively with rebellious leaders from many regions of Russia. Regional leaders have begun to ignore Moscow's orders and refuse to pay taxes, and some have even demanded Yeltsin's resignation. Separatism is spreading across the country.

With the precipitous fall in popularity of Yeltsin's regime, it is not amazing that the conservative opposition - an alliance of Stalinists and chauvinists - has strengthened its position enormously in the last few months. Conservatives, who shouted anti-Semitic slogans during a violent attack on the government TV station, have gained the unqualified support of one-fifth of the Russian population, not to mention the support of Moscow's parliament.

Several polls show that the conservatives' platform - the restoration of Russian authoritative statehood as the solution to all current problems, including protection of Russian minorities in former republics - is now two to three times more attractive to Russians than progress toward democracy and market economy. Many former democrats, including the most sophisticated liberal intellectuals, support this platform to some degree. In Moscow, these Democrats are referred to as "the advocates of enlightened Russian imperialism."

Although discontent remains high throughout the country, there are a number of reasons to suspect that Yeltsin's regime will hold out for some time despite its problems. So far, popular opposition is weak and poses little threat to the regime because Russians are tired, poor, and mentally fatigued after three years of pain and anguish. A survey done in May reveals that mental lethargy was reported by one-third of Russian citizens as the most prevalent aspect of their present state. People have lost hope for improvement in their lives. Only 6 percent of Russians view the future optimistically.

Several Russian democrats, such as former perestroika theorist Alexander Yakovlev and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, agree that totalitarianism in Russia may be unavoidable. Leonid Shebarshin, the former head of the Soviet Foreign Intelligence Service, shares this opinion.

It is possible that the Russian doomsayers exaggerate the Russian drama. Perhaps there is still time for an economic miracle.

However, Western leaders should take the gloomy prognoses coming from within Russia very seriously. They should prepare themselves for a new geopolitical reality, quite possibly including a restoration of totalitarianism, mild or harsh, in Moscow. Western leaders would be wise to continue to do what they can in order to prevent such developments, even if their means to affect such a giant country are very limited.

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