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Fight Yeltsin’s Coup!

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When Boris Yeltsin announced that he was dissolving the Russian parliament, cutting off its finance and seizing its building, the White House, he was assured of support from all the major Western governments.

Douglas Hurd, for the British Foreign Office, was quick off the mark, declaring that Britain had consistently “supported the process of democratic and economic reform in Russia” and that the “mandate of the President had been thwarted by institutions with less democratic credentials”.

Clinton and US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, quickly followed suit, declaring that this constitutional coup was fine, because elections had been promised in the near future. An identical coup launched by President Fujimori of Peru against his congress in April 1992 resulted in Western condemnation and suspension of all aid. In Yeltsin’s case it has been accompanied by calls to speed up the distribution of aid to Russia!

As always for the imperialist powers, constitutions and laws can be quickly dispensed with when real economic interests are at stake. And they certainly are in Russia today.

While the struggle between the President and the Russian parliament appears to be about constitutional issues it has always really been about differences over the pace and nature of the final dismantling of the planned economy and the restoration of free market capitalism throughout Russia. The sharpest clashes have been over who controls the budget and decides on economic priorities, over who controls the Central Bank and the degree of subsidies to the state industries.

Yeltsin and his government have continually tried to implement a “fast track” programme for the restoration of capitalism. They want to follow the Polish model of freeing prices, removing subsidies, privatising the big state enterprises and using the Central Bank as a weapon to ensure the market, not the state, determines production.

The programme would lead to the collapse of thousands of state enterprises that only continue to produce because they receive massive credit from the Central Bank. Unemployment will rocket, probably to tens of millions, inflation will increase dramatically as subsidies on basic goods are removed.

Yeltsin’s problem was that he could not win a parliamentary majority for his programme. This was not, as the Western media likes to pretend, because the parliament was stuffed full of “hardline Communists”. Far from it. Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of the parliament, was Yeltsin’s comrade-in-arms on the steps of the White House during the August 1991 coup attempt. He even authored the call-to-arms speech delivered by Yeltsin from the top of a tank. Alexander Rutskoi, who declared Yeltsin’s actions in September an “open coup d’etat”, was Yeltsin’s running mate in the 1991 Presidential elections. One of the biggest groups of deputies is lined up behind Civic Union, which is committed to a transition to a market economy.

Certainly there are remnants of the old hardline Stalinists, linked together with the monarchists and far right in the Russian Unity faction, but they remain a minority. They have come to prominence since Yeltsin’s coup as defenders of the White House because they have links to the Stalinist hardliners and survivors amongst the August coup-mongers in and outside the army. It is they who can supply the arms and the muscle men to defend the parliament.

The roots of the conflict between President and parliament lie in the social basis of the hundreds of Peoples’ Deputies. Many of them still represent the old disintegrating ruling bureaucracy; the local council and regional officials, the managers of industrial and farm enterprises and the leaders of the old state trade unions. While being in favour of the restoration of capitalism these groups are afraid of losing out in any “big bang” transition to capitalism.

They want guarantees that privatisation will be carried out in such a way that the old bureaucracy can be the beneficiaries of the new capitalism by turning themselves into the new ruling class. They also fear that mass unemployment and hyper-inflation will cause mass social unrest directed at them, the nearest “representatives” of the government.

This is the cause of the dual power situation in Russia over the last period. Yeltsin has been unable to push through his programme against the powerful remnants of the old bureaucratic caste. These remain particularly strong in the regions, despite Yeltsin’s appointment of his own supporters as governors and executives in the localities.

Meanwhile, at a national level, parliament has been able to water down, evade and occasionally block Yeltsin’s measures. The forces that united in August 1991 against the military coup are now confronting one another on the streets.

The imperialists never had any doubts about where they stood. They wanted Yeltsin’s quick road to capitalism, whatever the cost to the masses of the Russian people. They made it quite clear that there would be little investment until capitalism is firmly entrenched. Yeltsin’s appeals for aid to cushion the impact of his reforms fell on deaf ears. As inflation rose, soaring to 350%, wiping out pensions and undermining wages, the parliamentary obstruction increased, as did the disillusion of the masses.

In May this year the Tokyo meeting of G7 promised $43 billion in aid to Russia. Again the imperialists, especially the US, made sure that little of it was given. A mere $1.5 million has been released by the IMF up to September. A key demand of the imperialists was an end to the massive subsidies to industry and basic food products that resulted in the parliament adopting a budget that involved a 25% deficit for 1993.

Yeltsin has tried every means at his disposal to end the “dual powerlessness” of the last two years. The April referendum in which Russians were called on to give a vote of confidence to Yeltsin and secondly to approve his reforms, in which just over half (58% and 53% respectively) voted yes, was a victory for Yeltsin but one which did not solve his problems with parliament.

His next ploy was to try and go round parliament, convening a series of meetings of regional and republic bosses, to tempt them into agreeing a new constitution which would give him, and them, greater powers. His final attempt was rebuffed in September. Two days later he announced the unconstitutional dissolution of parliament by presidential decree.

What will Yeltsin do now? In an editorial, shortly after the referendum, Workers Power said that to turn his result into a decisive victory, Yeltsin would have to oust his enemies in parliament and the provinces and gain undivided control over the Central Bank. We wrote, “This will require some sort of unconstitutional act that the army and KGB chiefs will support and carry out. This could mean promulgating a constitution by decree and calling elections to a new parliament.”

This is exactly what Yeltsin is doing. The Western governments’ lauding of Boris Yeltsin’s “democratic credentials” is total hypocrisy. His decree not only swept aside the constitution by dissolving parliament but also proposed a new constitution which has only a few trappings of democracy.

The elections announced for December would only be for a lower house in a bicameral parliament. A “Federation Council” will form the upper house made up of regional and council leaders, such as governors, most of whom are appointed by Yeltsin himself. The lower house, a “State Duma”, will have fewer powers and be made up of 400 elected delegates. Yeltsin could not have chosen a more appropriate name. The last State Duma to function was one convened by Tsar Nicholas the Last in 1905. It was dissolved twice until its composition reflected the Tsar’s opinions!

The proposal also removes the Central Bank and the Procurator General’s office from parliamentary control and places them under the direct control of the President. The Constitutional Court, which unanimously ruled Yeltsin’s actions unconstitutional, is suspended until the new parliament convenes.

Yeltsin’s new constitution is designed to focus enormous power in the hands of the President and his government, leaving the elected house of the parliament a largely impotent talking shop. Little wonder that Yeltsin, having previously said he would not stand again for President, calmly announced he would have new presidential elections next June and stand for another five year term.

Yeltsin and his imperialist backers know that to carry out the programme necessary for the restoration of capitalism, the President must have extraordinary powers, must be able to raise himself above the contending groups and classes in society in a “Bonapartist” fashion. Yeltsin is aware that he cannot let the discontent of the masses be reflected in democratic institutions.

He is acutely conscious of the results of the Polish elections where the former “Communists” are now the largest party, elected on a platform not dissimilar to the Civic Union’s, committed to slow down, not stop, the pace of privatisation. Neither Yeltsin nor his backers in Washington are willing to contemplate such an outcome and therefore “representative democracy” has to be moulded to the task in hand.

Yeltsin’s path is not completely clear yet. He still has to overcome the opposition in the provinces. Out of the 88 local parliaments, 24 have already gone on record as opposing his coup, threatening to withhold taxes and fuel. His Prime Minister has threatened to dissolve parliaments that obstruct the constitutional reforms.

The Russian President’s success will above all depend on keeping control of the army. So far it has repeatedly declared its “strict neutrality” which in effect means it is siding with the government as long as Yeltsin’s police and interior ministry troops can keep order. Only an outbreak of mass revolt and disorder would lead the army to question its role.

So far the mighty working class in Russia has remained passive, showing no signs of wanting to defend the parliament, or its institutions, stuffed as they are with former bureaucrats and placement. Neither have they shown any enthusiasm for Yeltsin.

The President cannot count on the kind of mass demonstrations or strikes which rallied to his support against the August coup.

The Russian working class remains a sleeping giant which still has to recover from the atomisation inflicted on it by more than 50 years of Stalinist dictatorship.

Revolutionary socialists in Russia should nevertheless use the crisis to try and rally the workers against this attack on their democratic rights. The parliament should be defended against Yeltsin’s coup even if it means temporarily blocking with the Stalinist and restorationist deputies opposed to Yeltsin, without for one moment giving any support to their political programme or positions.

The workers must organise independently to stop the Yeltsin/Gaidar economic programme for the restoration of capitalism which will mean poverty and unemployment for millions and riches for the few.

They must demand the immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly with full powers to adopt a new democratic constitution and to pass a programme of emergency measures to deal with the food shortages, economic chaos and inflation.

Such an assembly must be convened and protected by workers’ militias organised by workers’ councils throughout Russia. The soldier and sailor conscripts should be called on to refuse to obey Yeltsin and his Generals in implementing their plans for a dictatorial regime. These are the immediate tasks of the hour.n