An interview with Fyodor Burlatsky
Throughout most of his life Fyodor Burlatsky has been an influential political analyst in Russia. As a speechwriter for Khrushchev, he was a leading member of a group of reformers during the liberalized period known as "the thaw." When Khrushchev was deposed, Burlatsky quit the Central Committee of the Communist Party in protest. Under Brezhnev he lost his job three times because of his democratic inclinations. During the Gorbachev years he was editor of the "Literary Newspaper," a member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, and the leader of the commission that introduced human rights legislation to his country. In recent years he and Gavriil Popov, the former mayor of Moscow, have held a weekly TV show discussing politics. With the Communists' electoral victory this winter, Burlatsky did not win a seat in the current State Duma, but he heads the Scientific Council for the Council of Federation, the upper chamber of Russia's parliament. He also has recently published a new book in Russian about Khrushchev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin. In March and April, Professor Burlatsky was a fellow at the University of Toronto's Centre for Russian and East European Studies. As his hostess, I had the pleasure of talking politics with this genial man for many long hours. Here is an edited version of one conversation.
FYODOR BURLATSKY: I call our system a "democratura." We have a parliament and a president who are elected, though maybe 90 percent of these officials used to belong to the Communist nomenklatura. Our President holds more power than the leader in any democratic society. He can even issue decrees that may be more important sources of law than what parliament does.
METTA SPENCER: But you were involved in writing the new Russian constitution. Did you oppose all those structural arrangements at the time?
BURLATSKY: Yes, after we finished our work a small group wrote many new articles and excluded the provisions for the State Duma to control the President and the Government. According to the constitution, the President proposes a candidate prime minister for the Duma's approval. The President can use this to push the Duma out, for if they refuse three times they must go out and a new election will take place.
It is not the constitution, but Yeltsin's personal traits, that cause most of our problems. He has changed his team and his approach four times without worrying about anyone. He favored Gaidar so much at first that Gaidar came to believe that Yeltsin really loved him, but in the end was deeply disappointed. So were the last ministers whom Yeltsin sent from his cabinet - Kozyrev and Chubais.
And then there were his cruel decisions about Chechnya, which he took over all kinds of objections. And he has taken control of the TV programs. He likes authoritarian power. Gorbachev was a weak president - a polite president who listened to both sides and worried about many decisions. But this man Yeltsin is a real decision-maker. He likes to decide even though he understands nothing about what he is doing. During one year and a half he signed 3,000 decrees, in addition to all his other responsibilities. He issued all kinds of decrees, including one about private ownership of land, and a decree against the Mafia, which allows people to be kept in jail for 30 days without permission from the court. The constitution says that it can be done only for 48 hours, but that counts as nothing. Yeltsin's police use it, not only against the Mafia but against some individuals whom the people around Yeltsin dislike.
He has more power than even a General Secretary - except, of course, Stalin. Brezhnev had a politburo with 18 members who were elected on the same level as himself. All of them were powerful. But Yeltsin has an administration that he appoints personally.
That administration is a strange body because the constitution doesn't say what its function is. It looks formally like the American administration but it doesn't include ministers. This one is just composed of bureaucrats - staff advisers. They work in the same building as the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Old Square. There are about 2,000 to 3,000 persons working there - exactly as many as during Khrushchev's time when I was in the Central Committee. We had about 3,000 people, who prepared everything for us. But now nobody knows what these people are doing. They are divided into departments - economic department, international department, domestic department, propaganda department, and so on. However, they don't prepare decisions on these matters. Economic decisions usually come from Prime Minister Chernomyrdin's staff, and political decisions usually come from Yeltsin's advisers, so these people have nothing to do with these decisions.
SPENCER: Well, do these 3,000 people do anything?
BURLATSKY: Yes. When I was working with Filatov, I saw that their first responsibility was propaganda - like a press secretary. Also, their special duty is their contact with different social groups that are included by the President in the so-called "chamber." This organization has about 400 people, and includes all our parties. But in practice this administrative staff is for Yeltsin to use in debate.
There are, in effect, two governments: the political and the economic governments. The economic government is the official one. Chernomyrdin is officially in charge of it. Yeltsin nominated to parliament only the prime minister. He chose the ministers and the deputy prime minister himself without consultation with the Duma. He manages this government. Once a week he meets with Chernomyrdin and gives him some instructions on what the government must do.
Then we have a so-called security council. The constitution does not say what its function is or who are supposed to be included in it. Yeltsin personally decided whom to include. The United States also has a security council, but ours cannot be compared to it. In the beginning Yeltsin included not many people, but then he added to it until it became something like a politburo of people whom Yeltsin personally appoints. He gives some of them (nobody knows which ones) the right to vote, and others not.
The economic government depends greatly on Yeltsin and a little bit on parliament. For example, parliament has now decided to increase the minimum wage 20 percent. Yeltsin can send this draft law back to the Duma, but it can overcome his veto with two-thirds of the votes. Of course, it's a good thing that we elect a parliament. It's a big step toward democracy.
SPENCER: How many people are in the Duma?
Four hundred fifty. And in the upper chamber, the Council of Federation, there should be two representatives for every "subject" of the federation. We have 89 subjects, so the total should be 178. "Subjects" are the national republics and the oblasts, which are something like states in the United States. The representatives only come to their offices about once every two weeks. They can send back legislation if they don't agree with the Duma's decision, or they can try to find a compromise. If they don't say anything about a bill from the Duma within two weeks, it automatically becomes law. So they can block legislation and they can also initiate legislation.
Besides the federal government we have about 12 national republics and the oblasts; each one elects its own president or governor and Duma.The majority of their officials are from the old nomenklatura. This is a real step toward democracy, even if so far it looks like the power in Argentina during Peron or in China during Chiang Kai-Shek.
And then there is also the constitutional court, which comprises people who are loyal to Yeltsin. When the State Duma asked them to decide whether the presidential decision to start the war in Chechnya had a legal basis, the constitutional court said yes, there was a legal basis. But really, the president can start such a war only because he doesn't call it a war. Formally, he cannot start a war without the approval of the Council of Federation. So he called this war an "administrative action against armed people" - people who used weapons for which they had no permission.
We did a good job designing constitutional legislation for human rights, but because of our conservative court system, these are not implemented. The police and even the court system are corrupt. Besides, people don't usually know what constitutional rights they really have.
Now, about our party system I can say this: we are really a pluralistic political society today. We have many parties - which is good. But the bad part is that we have only one real party - the Communist Party. They have representatives in all regions and even in the factories, which supposedly is not allowed. What about the others? Many groups coalesce around particular leaders, but they have no programs. They are just personal parties. Yavlinsky,or Zhirinovsky, for example. This is just the first step toward pluralism because there should be two to five real parties competing for power. If you compare the platforms of our parties, you will hardly find any differences. They have not found their electorate - the social group to represent. Some of them tried to do so without success. The Agrarian Party, for example, lost the peasants' support and were not elected to parliament.
SPENCER: Why can't these groups get together? Why isn't there a centralist party?
BURLATSKY: That's a difficult question. The first reason is the pendulum phenomenon of Russian political culture. Left, right, left, right. Even today, Russians don't like complicated explanations - such as yes and no, or half this, half that, or compromise. They want to know: are you communist or anti-communist? The electorate does not support the centre. In 1993 people from all the parties were invited to the Kremlin to watch the election results. We expected the centrist parties to receive a big place. When we saw the figures showing Zhirinovsky's success, everybody was shocked. Speakers such as Yury Kariakin addressed the TV camera saying, "You are really a stupid people! What are you doing?" We didn't understand why they supported that terrible man. And in the second election, the same thing happened, though the leaders had been changed.
A second reason is that all these parties are divided. Russians don't want to give power to another man. Each one says, "I am the leader." Take Gaidar and Yavlinsky. They have similar views, but they both want to be elected president. Hundreds of people believe they can manage the country as a president. Terrible. I'm an intellectual with much experience, but I have never felt that I could be a minister. I know I am more an adviser.
And to answer your question, there is a third reason too. It is that President Yeltsin has moved to the centre with Chernomyrdin. He really has become more moderate.
Still, it will take at least 10 years to make the transition. Everything still depends on the government. Officially, about 70 percent of our economy is privately owned now, but one businessman told me that no more than 15 or 20 percent have no direct bureaucratic and state control. The bureaucrats don't fight corruption because if somebody steals something, he divides the money with them.
The Communists say they will take money from the rich - but rich people are not so stupid. They send their money abroad. And then there is the problem of federalism. The CIS countries will cost us nine billion American dollars to form some sort of confederation.
SPENCER: You mean, if they form a confederation, Russia will forgive their debts?
BURLATSKY: Yes. However, I don't think all of the former Soviet republics will re-combine. Ukraine is suffering now, but the West will help them and they will not join. Georgia will go into this new alliance only if Russia will promise them to take back Abkhasia, which is not easy. But Russia will pay that price.
What else can be done to solve our problems? We need a new president who is not ideological. A practical man, like Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. He's doing a good job in Moscow. Yeltsin, even if he is elected, will not continue long, if only for health reasons. That is why it is urgent to improve the constitution and give a control function to parliament. We need to create a real government which does not depend so much on the president or even on the parliament. We need to include all the ministers. Then we can move, step by step, toward a real market, without letting a few people become so rich and the others become so poor. I'm optimistic. I believe we will do this.
Metta Spencer is the editor of Peace.