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Russian Roulette
Stuart Macdonald

On December 31st 1999, in a final, dramatic gesture, Russian President Boris Yeltsin closed the century with a bang - he resigned. He had presided over the most crucial stage in Russian history since The October Revolution of 1917 and yet the greatest legacy of his eight year reign was confusion. It seemed that, having lurched from one crisis to another (national debt defaulting and Chechnya to name but two), this was his last throw of the dice, in a game which was long since lost.

At the start of the decade, Russian prospects had appeared good. Certainly compared with how the country had been under Communist rule - poverty, poor quality of life, rampant social inequalities - the next ten years could only bring improvement. Mikail Gorbachev had bravely set the winds of change blowing and Communism was defeated, its grim underbelly finally exposed. Tragically for Russians and sadly for her allies, all that the supposedly new regime brought were empty promises and extinguished hope.
In the modern Russia of 2001, male life expectancy has fallen by seven years from its 1990 figure, to 58. To put this awful statistic further into perspective, a Russian male was more likely to live to 60 in 1901, than he is today. Social inequalities have actually worsened since 1990, with the same economic oligarchs as in Communist times, growing ever more equal at ordinary Russians' expense.

The Russian economy continues to make the headlines, but for all of the wrong reasons. In the heyday of Communism, the West was bombarded with figures telling of further miraculous gains in Russian productivity in her ultra-modern factories. Those same factories remain, almost unchanged from decades before, producing sub-standard goods which have little hope of competing with cheaper and better quality imports from abroad. In spite of Vladimir Putin's protestations and the best efforts of the IMF and World Bank, Russia is gradually but inexorably returning to the worst tenets of Communism, but without the discipline of authoritarian rule. This once proud nation is hurtling out of control, goaded by the greed of organised crime and corrupt politicians. As Anatol Lieven states in his recent book on the Chechen war: "Corruption, crime and disobedience are not simply aspects of the new Russian state, they lie at its very heart".


The factors which have led to this state of affairs are myriad, yet can largely be traced to the actions and failures of one man - Boris Yeltsin. He rode on a wave of public emotion to become Russia's first democratically elected ruler, in 1991. Yet by 1996, his decisions and erratic style of leadership had proven so unpopular, that he was forced to buy his second term in power. The price of his victory was one which the Russian people will continue to pay for many years - the privatisation of Russia's remaining nationalised assets (energy and telecommunications) at ridiculously low prices and into corrupt and irresponsible hands.

Had this sell-off been conducted in the proper manner, with the businesses going to the highest bidders, then there is a strong possibility that Russia would be in a vastly improved state today. However, the country is still reeling from the effects upon investment and trade as a consequence of its currency devaluation in the summer of 1998. The irony is that, had the Russian government held sufficient funds to support the Rouble - such as would have come from the proper auctioning of nationalised industries - this crisis and its damaging effects could easily have been averted.

The most fundamental of Yeltsin's many failings as a president, however, was his lack of firm guidance to his various governments and ministries of state. This vacuum where there should have been a consistently fair leader, meant that Russian officials had to manage as best they could. It is unsurprising then that the incidence of corruption spread like a cancer throughout every avenue of state. That is not to say that before there was none; more that the potential for effect and also the lure of the ultimate gain to businesses and officials alike, was easily sufficient to make the actual act of bribery, a mere technicality. However, for the picture to become as dark as reality paints it today, the motivation of money alone was not enough - there needed to be co-operation and co-ordination of resources.

The businesses which have tended to gain most under post-Communist rule have been those controlled by former state officials. Frequently, these people come from the former KGB, which is now known as the Federal Security Bureau (FSB). In the ultimate irony, cronyism between the FSB and the companies run by their former colleagues means that the investigations into corruption and conflicts of interest which the FSB has a political remit to carry out, never take place. As the American Foreign Policy Council concludes: "Russia's biggest Mafia is the KGB". A point that is reinforced when placed in the context of the State Parliament (Duma) elections in 1990, where 2,758 KGB officers stood for election. A large proportion of these representatives (over 80% according to some sources) were placed in positions of power, thus ensuring that the KGB's stranglehold on Russian politics persisted beyond the collapse of Communist rule.
There have been many attempts to break the grip of organised crime upon Russian life. Although there are obvious short-term benefits to the plundering of resources and the abuse of power, in the long-term, Russian businesses need the support and investment of Western governments and more importantly, of Western companies. The incumbents, however, are reluctant to relinquish their position of power and various attempts to tackle the corruption within Russian politics and business have met with failure, usually at high personal cost to the individuals concerned.

A typical example of this wicked contradiction in policy is to be found in the recently abandoned 'Kremlingate' enquiry. It was alleged that the family and entourage of former president Yeltsin had been paid bribes, so that a lucrative Kremlin refurbishment contract would be placed with a Swiss firm. Yury Skuratov was the state prosecutor who originally attempted to bring the case to court and as a direct result now faces financial ruin. Following several failed attempts by Yeltsin to fire Skuratov, a security service video of Skuratov having sex with two young prostitutes was aired on state television. He was forced to resign from office.

In the fourteen months since Yeltsin's resignation, his successor, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to regain the public's confidence. His most obvious act has been to continue the conflict in Chechnya where Yeltsin left off, in order to exploit ordinary Russians' fear of Islamic fundamentalism. Putin is a less erratic figurehead than Yeltsin, yet his political motivations remain highly questionable. Since taking office he has done little to combat the corruption which is now rife within the Russian system of government, a stance which has shown little sign of changing.

As a result, Russia continues to play its dangerous game with the lives and collective future of its people. There has, however, been a subtle and sinister shift in the rules. In the 1990s, it was generally assumed that Russia had embarked upon the rocky road to liberal, market reform, whose path was strewn with the obstacles of corruption and poverty. It has since become apparent that Russia is a country whose ultimate destination is that of corruption and social inequality, to the benefit of the very privileged few, with the obstacles of liberal reformists and the remnants of decent law enforcers in its path. It would appear that of the two, the latter path is proving rather easier to negotiate. This time, the game surely is up, no matter what last minute dramatics Russia's president may have in store.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

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