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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Private Wealth, Public Power In Moscow

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The political firestorm touched off by President Boris Yeltsin's decision to appoint a rich businessman as a security aide highlights how far Russia has come since the end of communism and how far it has yet to go before becoming the "normal" country most Russians say they want.

Earlier this week, the Russian president named Boris A. Berezovsky, a wealthy businessman and longtime Yeltsin backer, as the deputy chief of the National Security Council.

Berezovsky's appointment disturbed many in Moscow because it raises some questions about the increasingly murky linkages between private wealth and public power in Russia and because Berezovsky himself completely lacks any experience in the national security area.

Indeed, Duma speaker Gennadiy Seleznyov spoke for many in the Russian capital when he denounced the appointment as an example of blatant cronyism. And the usually cooperative Seleznyov added that as a result, he would refuse to participate in Yeltsin's new presidential council.

While Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and other Yeltsin loyalists sought to put the best face on things, even some unnamed aides to Yeltsin conceded to Western reporters that "it is so blatant that it looks bad."

And at the same time, the appointment disturbed many in the West who saw it as evidence of confusion and uncertainty at the upper reaches of the Russian state. Such "disarray" was invoked by a U.S. State Department official to help explain why Moscow had backed off from signing an agreement on missile defense systems on Tuesday.

The new national security aide, the chairman of Russia's largest car dealership, gained his wealth two years ago when he engineered the privatization of a state television network to himself and a group of investors.

And Berezovsky gained his prominence when he used his network to promote Boris Yeltsin's reelection, something the president's political opponents are unlikely to forgive.

But if Berezovsky's appointment has attracted attention because of the political passions it has elicited, it also merits attention as a measure of Russia's political transformation.

On the one hand, Yeltsin's decision to reward a supporter with a high position is typical of what political leaders in democracies normally do. That such people often lack prior experience in security issues has not always been a handicap in their performance in office.

And the Russian president's ability to reach out beyond the state's own national security apparatus is in some ways a positive development. Five years ago, Yeltsin could not have named someone from the private sector to such a post because a large private sector did not exist. Now it does, and he can.

But on the other hand, Yeltsin's decision to appoint an inexperienced man who has earned enormous wealth as a result of close ties to the state highlights just how far Russia is from becoming a democratic and law-based state.

Even in established democratic countries, private wealth plays a key role in political life. But it is restricted or at least mediated both by law and by traditions of public service. Legal systems in such countries attempt to block the use of public office for private gain, and longstanding traditions of public service help to maintain a clear line between private and public activities.

But as the Berezovsky appointment shows, Russia lacks both of these features. Its legal system has not developed to the point where it can maintain these distinctions; and it still lacks a tradition of disinterested public service that would support such a division.

Instead, Russian officials and Russian businessmen often seek to exploit the other because neither side draws a clear line between public and private action. Many entrepreneurs see office as a means to enrich themselves, and many state officials see their contacts with business as a means to the same thing.

In the process, the public interest gets lost. And consequently, while Yeltsin may have hoped to stabilize Russian politics with this appointment, he has done just the reverse, further undermining public confidence in the Russian state as a servant of the people rather than of special interests.