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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Tale Of Two Elites

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The future of Russian reforms is likely to be determined by the still uncertain outcome of a struggle between a political elite drawn largely from the old Soviet nomenklatura and a new economic elite drawn from other social groups.

That is the conclusion of Russian historian Sergei Volkov. He argues in the Moscow journal "Ekspert" that if the political elite wins out, then the decade since the 1990s is likely to be remembered as a second New Economic Policy, a period when the political elite made concessions to the economic elite to save itself at least for a time. But if the new economic elite wins out, then Russia will move toward greater democracy and freedom both economic and political.

Volkov, a historian specializing in elites, notes that there is an enormous gulf between two groups that are often lumped together as reformers. He writes that even at "the peak" of democratic reforms, the spring of 1993, 90 percent of the 200 most senior political officials were former communists and 75 percent of the total were members of the nomenklatura, the group of senior officials controlled by the party apparatus.

That pattern, Volkov argues, continues in Moscow, but it is especially evident among the governors of Russia's farflung regions. Only 31.5 percent of the governors are under 50, and "practically all of them even the youngest (with a few exceptions)" were members of the Communist Party. And before 1991, 91 percent of the governors belonged to the nomenklatura and 60 percent were members of its most senior ranks.

Some of the heads of the largest businesses have a similar background, Volkov concedes, but he points out that the leaders of small and medium-sized businesses have an entirely different background. They often were outsiders who have now taken advantage of the new possibilities to build businesses and make money. And by virtue of their economic experiences, they have a very different and more liberal political agenda as well.

For the foreseeable future, Volkov suggests, the political elite of Russia is likely to remain unchanged at least in terms of its biographical background. President Vladimir Putin thus is likely to be forced to rely on these people with their Soviet background or on unprincipled people who are interested only in the power that his promise of restoring the power of the state would seem to guarantee.

With time, the number of people with personal Soviet experiences will inevitably decline in the government and in society at large. But to a greater extent than many had expected, Volkov writes, the politically powerful with such experiences are attempting to transmit their values to a new generation, to ensure that Russia will continue to be governed according to nomenklatura principles.

Inevitably, this approach will bring the political elite into increasing conflict with the new economic elite, and that conflict could be resolved in one of three ways. The two groups could converge, in which case each would make compromises with the other that might undercut it in the longer term. The economic elite could finally displace the political elite, a development that would likely allow Russia to move in a more liberal but not necessarily more democratic direction. Or the current political elite could succeed.

According to Volkov, a victory by the current political elite would almost inevitably lead to a new reassertion of government control over the economy, something that at least in many sectors could harm the country's economic prospects. In some ways, Volkov argues, that is the most likely prospect -- at least in the short term.

If that happens, he suggests, then the 1990s will have been a recapitulation of Lenin's New Economic Policy, "a provisional concession to circumstances in order with the help of 'non-correct' people to guarantee the preservation of 'correct' power."

As in the 1920s, Volkov concludes, such an outcome may appear tempting to the political elite. But if that elite pursues it, it may find that in seeking this narrow basis for self-preservation, it will sow the seeds of its own self-destruction.