Rutskoi: Moscow's Man in the Wings


Over the past week, an anxious world watched the latest round of Boris Yeltsin's epic confrontation with the Russian parliament and its adroit leader, Ruslan Khasbulatov. Mr. Yeltsin seems to have won this round on points, and now has until the plebiscite on April 25 to train for a knockout. But he was not the only gainer. Less conspicuous -- but possibly of equal importance -- is the way in which the crisis promoted Alexander Rutskoi to leadership of the opposition to Mr. Yeltsin.

Is this the same Alexander Rutskoi whom Mr. Yeltsin himself hand-picked to be his running mate in 1991? Who organized the defense of the Moscow "White House" during the abortive coup? Who stood by Mr. Yelstin's side throughout the successful campaign for a new Federal Treaty which re-established a new )) Russia?

Yes, the very one. But now he leads the opposition and, as vice president, is separated from the big office by only one heartbeat -- or an impeachment, a resignation or a Yeltsin defeat in the plebiscite scheduled for next month.

For a year, Mr. Rutskoi has made no secret of his opposition to his president. He has criticized both the domestic and foreign policies of his boss. Most recently, he came out squarely against Mr. Yeltsin's call for special powers, although he then conceded Mr. Yeltsin's right to hold a plebiscite.

Mr. Yeltsin, with his keen political sense, reciprocated by assigning Mr. Rutskoi two of the most thankless tasks in his administration: to look after agriculture and to lead the fight against crime. Mr. Rutskoi responded by holding meetings with Mr. Yeltsin's most outspoken critics and forming what Moscow insiders call a "shadow cabinet."

All this attention had thrust Mr. Rutskoi to the fore even before last week's crisis. Mr. Yeltsin's duel with the parliament further strengthened the vice president. The parliament's point man, Mr. Khasbulatov, failed in his bid to oust Mr. Yeltsin. Not only that, the parliament speaker has conducted himself with such overweening arrogance that even his supporters have cooled toward him.

Along with these two strikes against him, Mr. Khasbulatov, a Chechin, has the liability of not being an ethnic Russian, no small matter in a land seeking to reclaim its national self-respect and pride. Mr. Rutskoi, by contrast, is Russian -- very Russian.

Who is this Alexander Rutskoi, and what does he stand for? Before 1988 he was an unknown. He was born in 1947 to Russian parents who were then living in the Ukraine. His father was an army man. Like so many Russians in the Red Army who were posted in other republics of the Soviet Union, the elder Rutskoi believed ardently in the Soviet Empire. Alexander followed in his father's footsteps and, instead of attending college, enlisted in the Air Force.

Had it not been for Afghanistan, Mr. Rutskoi might today be training fighter pilots at some remote base in Russia. But during the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, he was shot down twice and then taken hostage by the mujahedeen. When his captors finally freed him, he emerged as one of the few Russian heroes of the Afghan war. The public knew well that many Red Army boys had disgraced themselves in Afghanistan by committing massacres, trading in drugs or going AWOL. Mr. Rutskoi, by contrast, had stood tall, and thus became a symbol of Russia's post-war renewal. He was also promoted to colonel.

As perestroika gained momentum, Mr. Rutskoi tried his hand at politics. He lost in his first run for the parliament but was elected on his second try. This is when Mr. Yeltsin picked him out. A war hero with no inconvenient political views, he was young and sported a handsome mustache.

Mr. Rutskoi seemed to Mr. Yeltsin to be a perfect running mate, and so he was.

Once in office, however, Mr. Rutskoi's economic and political views began to take form. It soon emerged that while he professed to favor privatization of the economy, he insisted that large industries -- nearly three-quarters of the economy -- should remain state-owned. Even though many of these firms are basket cases, he has come out in favor of big state subsidies for them, the very subsidies that fueled hyper-inflation throughout this past year.

Furthermore, at a time when American and Western oil companies are bidding to help develop Russia's vast reserves, Mr. Rutskoi flatly opposes denationalizing Russia's oil industry. And he has strongly criticized Mr. Yeltsin's voucher plan for the sale of state assets.

In short, Mr. Rutskoi has emerged as a go-slow reformer, a champion of a mixed economy that would be mainly Socialist but with a -- of private ownership. This places him squarely with the bloc of big industrialists in the congress who are among Mr. Yeltsin's most bitter foes.

Collaborating closely with their leader, Arkady Volsky, Mr. Rutskoi has pushed for the stand-pat policies that have frustrated leaders of the G-7 nations and driven the International Monetary Fund nearly to distraction. Thus, Mr. Rutskoi has tried to block economic reform as it has been conceived by Mr. Yeltsin and most international experts.

Mr. Rutskoi would consider this a high compliment. For in addition to his economic conservatism, he has become a Russian nationalist who is convinced that the rich industrialized countries are pushing Russia around in the name of pro-market economic reform. Better for Russia to change more slowly, he would argue, than to submit to humiliating financial conditions that impose hardship on the people. Never mind that this stance leads to further inflation. Russians' self-respect and pride are the issue, not money. Preaching this line, he has become the swaggering apostle of a "Russia first" policy.

Mr. Rutskoi's defensive nationalism strikes a responsive chord with certain parts of the Russian public. No people in the twentieth century have endured a more sudden or decisive humiliation than have Russians since 1990. The British Empire withered gradually over centuries, but Russia's crumbled in weeks. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was once the world's most powerful political organization but it, too, died a quick and ignominious death. As the party fell, Russians also lost an ideology that had been drummed into them from birth and a pantheon of heroes whose images were as ubiquitous in Moscow or Magnitogorsk as Coke or Sanyo billboards in the West.

All this simply vanished, leaving in many people a psychological void to be filled by a pervasive sense of defeat and loss. To be sure, only a minority feel this way. Younger and better-educated Russians are generally more receptive to change, and even enthusiastic about it. But such feelings of loss are powerful among older people, Communist Party loyalists, the less educated and those who face unemployment because of the collapse of the defense industries. These are Mr. Rutskoi's constituents.

Such feelings cannot safely be ignored, for people who define themselves as victims can easily become aggressors. In Mr. Rutskoi's case, wounded national pride has led to several practical consequences. He has championed the cause of those ethnic Russians who now find themselves as unwelcome minorities in new countries carved from the Soviet Union. He has hinted that the borders of Russia should be adjusted at the expense of neighboring Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. He has shown no enthusiasm for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic countries and Moldova.

He also bridles at what he considers to be America's cultural imperialism directed against Russia. In Izvestia he wrote that "when I see the long lines at McDonald's [in Moscow] it depresses me almost as much as the loss of our nuclear parity with America."

Such views send tremors through the governments of Russia's neighboring states. The Baltic countries rightly fear that Russia might intrude into their domestic affairs in an effort to defend the Russian minorities there. Ukraine fears that Moscow might bring pressure to bear in order to reclaim the Crimea, or even the Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine. Faced with these threats to their country, the government in Kiev is unlikely to give up its nuclear arms or even to sign the START pact and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty until it is persuaded that Russians like Mr. Rutskoi will keep their hands off their country.

These Russian threats have yet to become official policy and may never do so if Mr. Rutskoi's influence is contained. But even now, Mr. Yeltsin's government feels pressure from the nationalistic sentiments represented by Mr. Rutskoi. It has dropped hints that it is prepared to defend more actively the interests of ethnic Russians living in the other new states. It has slowed troop withdrawal from the Baltic countries. And it has taken pains not to appear subservient to the West, and particularly to the United States. So far such gestures have staved off the need for stronger measures.

Regardless of whether Mr. Rutskoi advances further toward the Russian presidency, the concerns he has championed should not be dismissed simply as emanations of Russian chauvinism. They are the natural consequences of the sudden loss of empire. Many French people succumbed to similar emotions after the loss of Algeria, as did the Portuguese after their country ended five centuries of colonial rule in West Africa. In each case, many in the "victim" country became more strident in their country's defense, less ready to cooperate with other countries and generally more prickly to deal with. This is what is happening in Russia.

The best antidote to such jingoism is economic prosperity and the promise of a better future. Under Mr. Yeltsin, Russia has finally taken the first steps toward achieving these goals. Many further steps must follow. If they do, and if the Russian public comes to believe in the possibility of a more prosperous future, the mounting passions which Alexander Rutskoi epitomizes will gradually dissipate. If such economic progress does not occur, however, rest assured that Mr. Rutskoi will be waiting in the wings.

S. Frederick Starr, president of Oberlin College, has written numerous books and articles on Russia.

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