The Hour of the Demagogue

The Hour of the Demagogue

Mini Teaser: As fate has it, Russia is given to the power of extremes,.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

At crucial junctures, of course, the very survival of moderate reform has depended on the support of demagogy.  Last winter Yeltsin successfully halted Gorbachev's turn to the right, and the decisive factor in his victory was the recognition that the only way to break the new conservative line was through popular mobilization.  This was new: until the end of 1990, the challenge that Soviet liberals had mounted against Gorbachev had been decorously minuet-like, and there was widespread uneasiness within the opposition at the idea of trying to rally the people against him.  It was, after all, not fully clear how the people would answer.  (This hesitation was understandable: there had not been a single large political demonstration against Gorbachev in Moscow until 1991.  For all the ferment of perestroika, the big urban crowds that made the Eastern European revolutions were not part of the Soviet scene.  The student rallies that forced the resignation of the Ukrainian prime minister in the fall of 1990 were only a partial exception, and were not immediately imitated elsewhere.)

In the face of this hesitation, Yeltsin argued the case for political confrontation.  As he told the Russian Parliament last December, "We have not been elected by the people to patch up peeling facades."  The further Gorbachev turned to the right, the more radical Yeltsin's positions became.  On the economy, he favored private land ownership; on secession, he stood with the Baltic republics against Moscow; on the role of the army, he suggested that Russian soldiers disobey orders to fire on civilians and raised the possibility of separate forces for the Russian Republic.  As for Gorbachev himself, Yeltsin went on Soviet television in February to call for the president's resignation.  A month later, he ran up a huge majority in the Russian Republic in favor of instituting an elective presidency--a post he clearly intended for himself.

To many of his colleagues, not to speak of his critics, Yeltsin seemed on a populist rampage.(1)  His then deputy in the Russian legislature, Ruslan Khasbulatov, said recently that he especially doubted the call for Gorbachev's resignation but now recognizes that it was necessary.  Provoking the army seemed riskier still.  For a comparable challenge to the military, by a politician who was in no real position to see it through, one has to go back to the Kornilov affair (and Soviets know how that turned out).

Yet in April Gorbachev blinked.  He sought a truce with Yeltsin in the form of a pact signed by the leaders of the nine republics that had not declared secession, and this formula--the so-called "nine-plus-one" agreement--became the basis for a new round of cooperation between the two.  We may never know how Gorbachev felt about this retreat: had he grown dissatisfied with the crackdown because it was failing or because it contradicted his long-term reformist goals?  The answer matters for history's ultimate verdict on Gorbachev, but it is almost irrelevant to an analysis of what caused the crackdown to fail.  Whether Gorbachev was a firm believer in the turn to the right, or a merely a reluctant one, he abandoned the policy of repression for the same reason: Boris Yeltsin's successful demagogy.

A campaign of political confrontation had saved the good Gorbachev from the bad one.  The good one's response was now to argue that the time for liberal demagogy had passed; lack of unity would only make the path of reform more difficult.  Gorbachev's favorite themes were the need for what he called "civic accord" and the danger of dividing the country into "reds and whites"--communists and anticommunists.  On July 25, when he addressed the Central Committee for the last time before the coup, he went so far as to warn liberals against actions that would provoke the party into further repressive measures. (He referred to these politely as "another line of behavior.")  "This is by no means what society needs just now"; what is needed is "moderation of emotions."

The national unity approach clearly had its advocates in the Yeltsin camp.  One of the Russian president's advisers described his boss's outlook in these terms: "Anticommunist hysteria is out, replaced by an emphasis on competence and reliability regardless of party affiliation."(2)  The prospect of cooperation between moderates and radicals was further enhanced by the defection of Gorbachev's former chief lieutenants, Eduard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev, who on July 1 announced the formation of a semi-oppositionist group called the Movement of Democratic Reforms.  They argued that only unity among democrats offered a "realistic prospect" of success, and while the precise terms of the unity they proposed were unclear, the basic idea was not.  It was to build the broadest possible reform coalition, ignoring internal disagreements that were not directly related to the task at hand.  That Gorbachev himself hoped to work with this new organization was suggested by the description he gave the Communist Party in its new program: the "party of democratic reforms."

All the same, the differences between moderates and radicals remained fundamental to the very end of Gorbachev's rule, and they are worth sketching out to understand what each strategy contributed to the democratization of the Soviet system.

The Moderates' Reproach

The moderates' case was a practical one: continuing progress toward democracy depended on flexibility and realism.  The radicals' electoral victories were said to give them a stake in the effectiveness of government, and in tempering public expectations of any immediate improvement.  Because the radicals would eventually be held accountable for their promises, they needed to overcome the rigid idealism and refusal to compromise that Alexander Yakovlev last year derided in Moscow News as the "complex of the female student," or, in yet another abusive phrase, as "a normative approach worked up into psychosis."(3)  If the radicals remained moral and political absolutists, they would only spur expectations that could not be met and that would constrain future policy.  The people had to understand that the switch to a market economy brings unavoidable hardships, or they would not accept the pain when it came.

This critique had its logic, but it distorted Soviet political realities.  The crucial obstacle to economic reform was not, as their votes showed, what the public would accept, it was what Gorbachev would accept.  As long as he insisted on splitting the difference between the reform proposals of market economists and those of his conservative bureaucrats, liberals could only benefit from their unwillingness to compromise with him.  When asked in late summer 1990 to choose between the Shatalin-Yavlinsky "500 Days" plan and the program of then Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, Gorbachev's verdict was: combine them.  When asked, in the early summer of 1991, to choose between the reformulated Yavlinsky plan and Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov's so-called "anti-crisis" program, he had the same advice again: combine them. 

Because Gorbachev's prime minister always had a veto over proposals for rapid marketization, liberals correctly sought to highlight their differences with the government.  They would have gained nothing from supporting heavily negotiated programs that they did not think would be either successful or irreversible.  Had Yeltsin, for example, pieced together a compromise "500 Days" plan last year, he would have been held at least in part accountable for this year's economic collapse.  The damage done would have been more than personal.  The public would have had reason to believe that the painful transition to a market economy is, in fact, all pain and no transition.  Likewise, conservatives would have found it far easier to argue that all marketization plans are unworkable.  It was precisely because no successfully fudged compromise plan emerged last year that moderates like Yakovlev and Shevardnadze began to radicalize their economic programs this year.

Scolding their radical colleagues for short-sightedness, Soviet moderates offered a further critique of the long-term effects of the demagogic style: playing on popular anger might bring good returns for a while, but the picture was likely to change as other, less principled players join the game.  A super-charged political atmosphere does give illiberal demagogues opportunities they would not otherwise have.  This is why moderate reformers began to worry openly about the rise of political "speculators" who would be able to outbid the more responsible competition.  The moderates said, in brief: live by the crowd, die by the crowd.  Shevardnadze recently warned (and his phrase was a very common one) that in a deepening social crisis "someone completely unknown" could come to the fore of Soviet politics--unless reformers unite.

Like much of their case, this theme reflected the growing political isolation of moderate reformers, but it fit the facts only loosely.  The elections of the past two years did not confirm the fear that an angry people would support the angriest candidates.  Extreme Russian nationalists, to take just one example, did very poorly in parliamentary elections of 1990.  In the Russian presidential election in June 1991 the vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an admitted demagogue who tried to combine nationalist themes with economic grievances, was less than 8 percent.  And even if one is disturbed by Zhirinovsky's showing (and some people claim to be), it was the moderates rather than the radicals who needed to think hardest about its implications.  They were the ones who suffered most from his presence in the field.  The only candidate who could fairly be called a moderate reformer--former Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin--was also the one who fell furthest short of expectations.  He was the contender most closely identified with Gorbachev's reforms, and was regarded as Gorbachev's favorite in the race.  Bakatin got just 3 percent of the vote; Yeltsin, by contrast, drew 57 percent.

Essay Types: Essay