By MARTHA MERRITT
One of the most distressing developments of the late twentieth century has been Russia’s decline from an unlovely but functional superpower to an international basketcase.
Now Russia is poor enough to have her handicrafts sold at our local “Ten Thousand Villages” store in Mishawaka but still rich enough that many people have telephones, allowing them to report on their dwindling living standards and health to the ever-present pollsters. It was sometimes assumed that the only replacement for communism would be democracy. Instead, Russians refer to democrats as “dem-schiza” [dem-crazies] and have far more expressions for anarchy and lawlessness than is healthy.
On a trip to Russia this summer, I was again struck by the contrast between Moscow and the Muscovites. The city has never looked better, full of restored historical buildings, ostentatious government and business offices, and a new warren of elegant shops beneath central Moscow. Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov has national-level ambitions and has spent considerable money to demonstrate his worth. Moving around this display is an increasingly ghost-like populace: children look malnourished, what used to be ugly public housing is now hideous and full of danger, beggars throng silently in public places. Drunkenness, perpetually a problem in Russia, is of such proportions that young men can be seen staggering in the streets by 10:00 a.m. on weekdays. Life expectancy has fallen to 58 years for men, 64 for women.
The Russian with whom I stayed, a self-described “Soviet babushka,” just after Russian independence purchased the apartment in which she had lived with her husband for 30 years. This was a brave step for an elderly person at a time when it was unclear whether property ownership would be fully legal or recognized by the new Russia. She held onto an additional 30,000 rubles while debating whether to save or spend it.
As it turned out, government policy in 1992 made the decision for her: within a week the value of her holdings was reduced from a possible several used cars or one additional small apartment to the price of a lunch. Now this 72- year-old works for the equivalent of $18 a month and worries endlessly about how her middle-aged children will survive.
Events in high politics were equally unhappy this summer. President Yeltsin fired popular Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov shortly before my arrival in May, and I witnessed an enraged Duma take the threatened step of impeachment proceedings against the president on five charges of treason. The Duma backed down after three tense days and many rumors of pay-offs. It then approved Primakov’s successor, Sergey Stepashin, and just now has approved the third prime minister this year, Vladimir Putin. The Duma cooperates with the merry-go-round of appointments that substitutes for governing Russia in part to ensure stability as elections approach, for the Duma in December 1999 and for the presidency in the summer of 2000.
This summer was particularly important as a time to lay the groundwork for the first constitutionally-mandated transfer of executive power in Russia’s tumultuous history. Instead, Yeltsin and “The Family” who back him are desperately seeking an alternative. Newspapers are full of accounts of backroom bargaining, including charges that the continuing unrest in the Caucasus will be escalated or that Russia and Belarus will suddenly unite so that Yeltsin might extend his limit of two-terms.
Meanwhile, most people hardly speak of the elections. Instead, I heard three words recently borrowed from English: boyfriend, girlfriend and killer. The latter is often used when referring to St. Petersburg, where the assassination of parliamentarian Galina Starovoitova in December 1998 was only the most shocking in a continuing series. On the other hand, public relations among the unmarried — which have gone from virtually no displays of affection under communism to discreet necking on park benches in 1993 and wholehearted groping on the massive escalators to the metro in 1999 — could be seen as a sign of social relaxation after too many decades of repression. But they also look like a desperate last hurrah, a reflection of life on the edge that has become the norm in Russia in this decade.
Can elections perform a democratic function against this backdrop of social devastation? The presidential elections of 1996 featured Yeltsin eliminating candidates from the “democratic” camp, strategic silences on the part of the media, and lacklustre public participation. At least elimination did not mean murder, media were distorted by their own choice, and public participation was not enforced. But we should anticipate other, less savory demonstrations of public “voice” in Russia precisely because elites have been successful in manipulating elections.
Passengers leaving the Moscow metro are asked not to forget their possessions. Somehow this summer I heard instead the warning on the London Underground — to “mind the gap” looming beneath our feet.
Martha Merritt is an associate professor of government and international relations.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.