Yeltsin Paid a Price to Enforce Democracy

Russian military stands to gain more power in the wake of the parliament showdown

MANY sympathetic to the effort to achieve democratic reform and stability in Russia heaved a sigh of relief when Russian President Boris Yeltsin finally took decisive action against his opponents in the parliament building last month.

They are optimistic that, with former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, Speaker Raslan Khasbulatov, and Gen. Albert Makashov behind bars, the hard-line opposition has been subdued and the gridlock between the legislative and executive branches has been broken.

But there still are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future of democratic reform and stability in Russia. To begin with, Mr. Yeltsin's decision to use force against the hard-line opposition, however justifiable in the short run, bodes ill for the future.

When politics in a country are decided by brute force, rather than through accommodation and compromise, it has become what political scientist Samuel Huntington calls a ``praetorian'' society. In such a society the established institutions for resolving political disputes and building consensus are absent. Rather, various groups try to resolve their disagreements through trials of strength. That Yeltsin had to deal with the opposition by ``extra-constitutional'' decrees - and eventually by military force - suggests that Russia has become a truly praetorian society.

A number of established institutions have been destroyed. Clearly, the parliament has ceased to exist as an independent force in Russian politics. Those who resisted Yeltsin and stayed with Mr. Rutskoi and Mr. Khasbulatov to the end are either dead, wounded, in jail, or out of a job.

Less clear but more important is the weakening of the Russian presidency as a result of the events of those few weeks. The questionable constitutionality of Yeltsin's dissolution of the parliament was compounded by his apparent indecisiveness during the almost two weeks in which the hard-liners, barricaded in the Russian parliament, issued defiant decrees, established a shadow government, and stockpiled arms and ammunition. Many Yeltsin supporters asked: ``What was he waiting for?''

It now seems clear that he was waiting for the military to back him up. In fact, there is evidence that Yeltsin had been courting the military since early March in an effort to rally their support in his increasingly acrimonious struggle with the parliament. Without the decisive support of the Tula and Rayazan airborne divisions, the Tamen and Kantemir tank divisions, the Dzershinsky regiment, and other special units, Yeltsin would not have prevailed. He did prevail; the question is, at what price?

The price for this support may well turn out to be an even greater level of military influence in Russian domestic and foreign policies. Even before the events of early October, the military had already been making its influence felt on such issues as arms control, protection of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet Republics, the division of the Black Sea Fleet with the Ukraine, the dispute with Japan over the status of the Kurile Islands, and the possibility of some Eastern European states joining NATO. On each of these issues the military has been able to force the Yeltsin government to reverse itself and adopt positions that many military officers had been advocating.

Now the commander of the Russian forces in Germany, Colonel-General Matvei Burlakov, has publicly stated what must be on the minds of many Russian officers: ``What do we get in return for saving the Yeltsin government?'' The answer may well be increased military spending, a harder line on certain domestic and foreign political issues, and a greater military voice in the policies of the Yeltsin government.

In short, the only institution to benefit from the growing praetorianism in Russian politics is the Army. The future prospects for civilian democratic reform and liberal foreign and defense policies are not good in a political system in which military officers have as much influence as they now do in Russia. Yeltsin must therefore move quickly to curb the growing influence of the men on horseback and move from civilian dependence upon, to civilian control of, the military.

He must also quickly rebuild the civilian political institutions - the parliament and the presidency - that are necessary to contain and resolve political conflict. Early elections for both the legislature and the executive would be an important step away from praetorianism and toward the establishment of a stable democratic society. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.