Yeltsin's Reforms: New Wine In Old Bottles

By Dennis R. Papazian, Ph.D.

Almost anyone watching Boris Yeltsin's performance during his recent tour in America would certainly feel sympathy and respect for this colossal man who is heroically prodding his disintegrating homeland--seemingly against all odds--out of the chaos produced by 70 years of communism and five years of misbegotten reforms into the verdant fields of free enterprise and democracy.

Yeltsin cut a congenial figure during his enthusiastically received address before the joint session of Congress, while he perambulated around Washington and the White House, and certainly while visiting Kansas where, like a good ole' boy, he kissed babies and worked the crowd.

Those who know and like the peoples of the former Soviet Union, and those who want them to succeed in this difficult transition to a market economy, do not begrudge them the $12 billion aid appropriation currently before Congress. The money is certainly needed to urge the reform process along. But those who have visited the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as I have recently, realize that foreign capital--as necessary as it is--cannot work miracles. Foreign aid must be accompanied by extraordinary changes in the political, social, and legal infrastructure of the successor states if it is bring to economic results.

To paraphrase Milton, the nation of the CIS have problems, "so many and so huge, that each alone would ask a life to wail. " Few Americans can even imagine the size of the job of reforming a political unit that sweeps from Europe to the Pacific--covering 11 time zones--and from the Arctic circle in the north to the borders of Iran in the south. The problem involves some 300 million people of 100 different nationalities, at all levels of social development from primitive tribes in Siberia to the sophisticated intelligentsia of the few leading cities of the more advanced republics. The Russian bear, no matter what the theory, still predominates in the area by its sheer size, numbers, and power.

Moreover, the Russians have a tradition of state-run enterprises that stretches back far before the communist takeover to the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. They lack a banking system as we know it, and have no commercial law to speak of. And, since all the property belonged to the state, there is no standard instrument for recording and guaranteeing property rights under privatization. Yeltsin and his reformers have their job cut out for them.

To make matters worse, the USSR had been ecologically trashed by 70-years of communist rule and it presently faces environmental problems which are almost insuperable. The nationalist movements that swept away communist rule, few people realize, had their origins in the spirited ecological movements of the 1980s which seemingly--at that time--had no political agenda. From Estonia to Armenia, from Georgia to Siberia, the pattern of protest was almost the same. Nationalism became the antipode of communism. In Yerevan, Armenia, the campaign to close the chemical plants and the leaking atomic power station which poisoned and deformed local children produced the leaders who were later to organize the millions who protested the mistreatment of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabagh by their Azerbaijani rulers. In Siberia it was the criminal pollution of Lake Baikal, the world's deepest fresh-water lake, that drove Russian "village" writers to fire nationalist protests. It was the dehydration of the Aral Sea, one of the greatest man-made catastrophes of all time, and the poisoning of the land and surface water in Central Asia by ill-conceived, Moscow-directed agricultural policies that inflamed a hatred for the Russians.

It was the explosion of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, with 20 million citizens exposed to deathly radiation, that stripped away the cant and deceit hiding the compounding human and physical degradation of Soviet life over the 70 years of communism. Life expectancy was falling below that of Third World countries, and the infant mortality rate had reached 33 per thousand as compared to nine for countries like Germany and Great Britain.

No matter how well intentioned the reform movement, it faces structural problems that can only be set right, if at all, by phenomenally hard work, brilliant policies, and astounding good luck.

On my return to the United States, my friends asked me what changes I noticed in the former Soviet Union after a hiatus of ten years. As a matter of fact, I was struck more by the absence of change than its presence. The standard of living has fallen, inflation is causing hardship, and the physical infrastructure is in gross need of repair.

Sure there is an open-air market along the Old Arbat Street and at many subway stops, the golden arches of McDonald's was a welcome sight, and certainly most people seemed more willing to talk and appeared less concerned about being overhead. But few seemed to know where things were heading, and fewer still seemed inclined to stick out their necks or take chances. A joke making its rounds in Yerevan goes like this: A wife wakes up and says, "Dear, I woke up this morning and the electricity was working, the water was running, and we have cooking gas for the oven." "Oh my God," replies her husband, "the Communists are back in power."

The former Soviet Union was a country which didn't work, no matter what nostalgia its citizens might have for the old order, and it is still a country which doesn't work. Gorbachev's attempted reforms were based on two traditional forces of getting things done, administrative law and the managerial hierarchy of the Communist party. He issued decrees in such numbers and of such a contradictory nature that laws were more honored in the ignoring than in being executed. With such confusion still prevalent, laws now carry little weight and area are a weak instrument of change. The outlawing of the Communist party after the August coup seemed to eliminate the other pillar of the traditional order. This leaves Yeltsin and company in the awkward position of depending on the old administrative hierarchy for carrying out the spirit of the current reforms.

Yet most of the guys in the bowels of the administrative hierarchies--now thinly disguised as nationalists, democrats, and reformers--and even many at the top, are old communists in new bottles. They work much the same way as they have always done, but perhaps in a less formal and official fashion. The old boy network is still in place. Want to get a building permit, a license, hard currency, a vacation spot, an airline ticket, a new car? See one of the movers and shakers, someone with connections, and grease the way with cash or favors.

I do not mean to imply that Yeltsin and the reformers are not sincere in their desire for change, but they--and we--must honestly face the reality that the task of overhauling a vast and complex society is no easy matter. There are problems of mentality as well as of structure to overcome. Is it worth a few billion dollars of American money to attempt to move the process along? Sure. It's a gamble, but one undoubtedly worth taking. A reformed Soviet Union should save the U.S. billions in defense and make the world more safe for democracy. Such a lofty goal is worth a small investment no matter what its chances of success.

Dennis R. Papazian is a professor of Russian history at The University of Michigan-Dearborn and a faculty member of The Russian Research Center at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

[Late June 1992]

[Minor grammatical changes, July 18, 1994, by Gerald E. Ottenbreit, Jr.]

[A different version of this was published in the Detroit News on July 14, 1992.