Class struggle in post-Communist Russia

PARIS — PARIS -- Appropriately enough, for a society formed in Marxism, Russia this week will experience the climax of a class struggle.

The important classes in post-perestroika Russia are not the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. They are the old apparatus accustomed to run the country under communism, and the new "capitalists" -- those former members of the Communist apparatus adroit enough to have appropriated large chunks of the country's resources, calling it privatization.


The West calls the two groups the Communists and the reformers. This is a highly romanticized description of the reality, although it suits Washington, and Washington politics.

There are certainly reformers in Russia, but to identify reform with the entourage and practices of President Boris Yeltsin is to abuse the language. The best that can be argued for him is that his re-election is likely to prove better for Russia's neighbors and for the West than a victory by Gennady Zyuganov and the refurbished Communist Party.


It should surprise no one that this is a struggle for economic power, since Western elections are usually the same. President Clinton is to the American movie and television industry, and Silicon Valley, what Boris Yeltsin is to the conglomerate that now controls a major part of Russian raw-materials production. They finance his campaign, and in return he looks after their interests.

Former Senator Bob Dole is to the Chiquita Banana company, whose export interests he has faithfully protected for many years, what Gennady Zyuganov is to Russia's military-industrial complex. The Cold War's end has left arms and aerospace manufacturers stranded, if not strangled. They still are nationalized industries, and the Communist Party's return to power would mean their rescue by public finance.

The workers and jobless have little say in this -- until now. However they are the ones who will cast the votes, and if the counting is honest on Sunday, the voters will decide which of these two large and selfish interest groups will run their country in the future.

Thus has Mr. Yeltsin been handing out in campaign largess 5 trillion rubles taken from the protesting Russian Central Bank. He has even done the twist, or what purported to be the twist, to please the voters (and the television cameras) of Rostov-on-Don. Mr. Zyuganov reels from the blows, low and high, that he has absorbed from the president's campaign apparatus in the past few days.

But the most important thing about this election is that the president and Mr. Zyuganov have really had to go out and campaign. The result could not be settled ahead of time, as in the simpler days of "democratic centralism." To try could have provoked an uncontrollable reaction. Russians today take their political freedom very seriously.

Civil-war possibility

Nonetheless this struggle for power is serious enough for Russian commentators as well as politicians to talk about the vote in terms of a possible provocation to civil war. It is impossible for someone not part of the Russian political scene to say how serious this risk may really be.

Certainly if Mr. Zyuganov wins, the people who presently control Russia's energy and raw-materials resources, principal source of Russia's export income, as well as the country's enormous energy reserves, will be in danger of expulsion from power and office, their industry re-nationalized.


Mr. Zyuganov explicitly threatens this. He says, "Russia's natural gas and its oil, like all of its natural resources, are the treasury of all of Russia, and are not the private wealth of those now in charge of them."

This is a claim with justice behind it. The industry's present managers are mostly the people who ran the energy industry when it was the property of the state. They were handed it virtually as a gift, in the guise of its privatization, and at a stroke were made rich and powerful. Their principal political ally is Mr. Yeltsin's prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

But Mr. Zyuganov's backers in the armaments industry have also inherited from the Soviet state the offices and privileges they hold. (As do others in this struggle; the old security establishment of the U.S.S.R., which was broken into parts following the Soviet Union's collapse, is also a major power player.)

This is what underlies Sunday's election, and what will be important in its outcome. So far as Russia's foreign and domestic policies are concerned, the rivals have little to argue about. All the candidates want Russia rebuilt as a great power, its prestige restored, the republics of the old U.S.S.R. reunited, and new social policies to appease popular discontent and the anger of those people for whom reform has meant ruin. It is easy to agree on all that, if not so easy to do it. It's the power and wealth that makes the trouble.


William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.


Pub Date: 6/13/96