A New Political Structure: The Russian Federation

Besides economic reforms, a great deal had to be done politically by Yeltsin's government. The Soviet constitution no longer worked and had to be replaced. The roles of the president of Russia, the Congress of People's Deputies, and the executive branch had to be redefined. An independent system of courts had to be established. Virtually all Soviet laws—including the civil and penal codes, as well as regulations of land, property, natural resources, labor, and taxes—had to be overhauled or adjusted. New political parties were mushrooming, in the absence of clear constituents or goals. (My favorite one was the Party of the Lovers of Beer.) Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations were being established monthly in every imaginable field (from cultural to environmental to political) and had to be regulated. New businesses were starting up, growing, breaking up, failing, and disappearing. Millions of state employees (professionals and blue-collar workers alike) were chronically paid their wages late by the partially privatized payroll system: the banks were making money on interest and were in no hurry to pay people state wages on time. Frequently workers would stage protests over unpaid wages—sometimes very dramatic ones, as in the case of gold miners in Siberia blockading the Trans-Siberian Railroad on a few occasions. In short, a new political structure and new laws were badly needed.

Thanks to the resilience of the population and some clever maneuvering by regional governors, widespread starvation and riots were avoided. One of the key ways common people survived was through trade. Yeltsin allowed anyone to be a trader, so lines of babushkas (grandmothers) selling food and cigarettes at bus stops to commuters on their way to and from work became common in every major city. The grandmas had spare time to wait in lines and buy goods at a lower price during the day, to resell them quickly in the evening at a small profit. Another major form of private enterprising was called “shuttle trading.” Over 3 million people took to it. It became possible, and very profitable, to travel to Turkey, Poland, or Cyprus and come back loaded with Western goods (jeans, VCRs, coffeemakers, etc.) to be sold on street corners or in hastily constructed city markets. Many early entrepreneurs of the new Russia made their first million rubles this way. Some of the most successful shuttle traders were middle-aged, aggressive people with university degrees, and over half were women. They were not afraid to bargain hard; to learn a few words in Turkish, Greek, or Polish; and to use some of their higher education in math to make good money.

Again, however, the overall situation was dicey. By the fall of 1992, Prime Minister Gaidar had accomplished the key steps of his ultraliberal economic agenda and could be conveniently dismissed by Yeltsin, to be replaced by a high-ranking apparatchik from the Soviet period, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Chernomyrdin's main training was in the gas industry. He was effectively the chief lobbyist for the state Gazprom monopoly, and as such he remained very useful to Yeltsin for the following 5 years. A national referendum on April 25, 1993, unexpectedly expressed high confidence in the course of Yeltsin's reforms. However, the question that was asked was essentially “Would you support reforms or go back to Communism?” Since few wanted to go back, the majority said “yes” to the reforms. This was, of course, not an unqualified endorsement. Later in 1993 voucher-based privatization would get into full swing, and Gaidar would come back as a deputy prime minister under Chernomyrdin.

Then a political disaster happened. The Congress of People's Deputies was composed of a variety of political parties and forces, having been elected under Gorbachev. Many deputies were supportive of Yeltsin; however, even more were critical of him and openly hostile to his government. In the absence of a new constitution, Yeltsin's hands were tied with respect to what he could and could not do with the reforms. His attempts to ram some key privatization bills through the Congress repeatedly failed. A standoff was brewing. Then on September 21, in a bold move, Yeltsin dissolved the Congress by a decree—something that he had no clear constitutional authority to do. He appealed directly to the people, as he had done in August 1991, to let him lead the nation out of the political impasse to a better and richer future. Overall public opinion would support Yeltsin, not the Communist-leaning deputies in the Congress.

The Congress refused to comply. Yeltsin's own vice-president, a charismatic ex-general and Afghan war hero named Alexander Rutskoi, was chosen as Yeltsin's replacement. The deputies, ensconced in the Russian parliament building (known, like the U.S. president's house, as the White House), prepared for a brutal standoff. Details of those fateful days can be found elsewhere (Brady, 1999; Aslund, 2007). With the tacit support of the Group of Seven (G7) governments, Yeltsin felt that the time to act was at hand, and that no one would dare to question his tough and undemocratic measures. On October 4, tanks summoned by Yeltsin into the capital shelled the White House, and riot police in full gear stormed the Ostankino TV tower, where supporters of the Congress were hiding. Over 150 casualties resulted from this massacre—the first major bloodshed of the supposedly democratic period, and a much larger toll than that of August 1991. Yeltsin won, and the hardliners were put in jail.

On December 12, 1993, new parliamentary elections and a constitutional referendum took place. The system of power in Russia from this point on was much different from the previous model. Much more power became concentrated in the president's tsar-like hands. The Congress was transformed into a bicameral legislature: The upper house was the Federation Council (Senate), composed of regional governors and their representatives elected in their regions (two for each of the 89 regions); and the lower house was the Duma (House of Representatives), with 450 deputies elected every 4 years, either by a direct vote or by party lists.

Although the new Russian model superficially resembled that of the United States, the president in Yeltsin's Russia played a much bigger role than the U.S. president, while the parliament had a much smaller role than the U.S. Congress. One of the key differences was the ability of the Russian president to propose new bills. In the United States, the power of introducing a bill rests solely with the members of Congress. Also, the president in Russia was given the power of appointing the prime minister over the will of the Parliament. The president's administration grew to be a huge body of several thousand bureaucrats, much like the old apparatus of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U. A national security council was established under the president to respond to pressing threats. It was composed of the heads of the power ministries (the police, KGB, the army, etc.).

One of the big outcomes of 1992–1993 was a geographic transformation of the country's federal administrative structure. As described in Chapter 7, the old R.S.F.S.R. was a federation (at least on paper) of many diverse units, called oblasts, krays, autonomous republics, autonomous oblasts, and autonomous okrugs. Many of these were retained, but their names and roles were modified. In his initial push to appease as many regional elites as possible, a jubilant Yeltsin proclaimed that local autonomous ethnic units should feel free to grab “as much sovereignty as they could swallow.” The more powerful political units, such as Tatarstan, Sakha (Yakutia), and Chechnya, took this slogan seriously and began procedures to become “self-governing nations” within the larger body of the Russian Federation. In one case, Chechnya, this process culminated in a full-blown war for secession that is not quite over yet.

In contrast to the autonomous republics, the autonomous okrugs received less power than they could have hoped for. Some were recently merged with neighboring oblasts (e.g., Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug was merged with Perm Oblast to form Permsky Kray). This made economical and political sense, because some of the smallest okrugs had very few people in a huge territory. At this writing, there are 83 units in the Russian Federation, including 21 republics and 4 autonomous okrugs. More mergers are being planned. According to some proposals, the optimal number of units would be about 50, as in the United States.