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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Banning The Party, Saving The Nomenklatura?

Washington, 18 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Following the latest anti-Semitic outburst by a Communist Duma deputy, one of Russia's most powerful business leaders has again called for banning the Communist Party. But this appeal may have less to do with opposition to anti-Semitism than with a defense of the interests of Russia's powerful new rich.

On Wednesday, Boris Berezovsky said the Russian government should ban the Communist Party because its anti-Semitic leaders should "sit in the dock and not in the Duma." He added that the authorities must be prepared to use force to do so, noting that "the later they use force, the more blood will be shed."

Berezovsky's call came the day after Duma Security Committee chairman Viktor Ilyukhin suggested that Jews in President Boris Yeltsin's entourage were behind what he called "a genocide against the Russian people." This appeal repeats one he made two months ago following the anti-Semitic statements of another Communist Duma deputy, Albert Makashov.

But now just as then, many Russians have been skeptical of Berezovsky's proposals. Even those who are appalled by the views expressed by Makashov and Ilyukhin and who fear a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Russia have expressed doubts about the wisdom of banning the Communists altogether.

The reformist Yabloko faction this week called for a resolution denouncing Ilyukhin personally for his remarks rather than attacking the party as a whole.

And the Moscow newspaper Komersant even suggested that Ilyukhin hoped to provoke the Russian government into banning his party, something that the paper said "would strengthen the party's image as the main opposition force."

Berezovsky, who is Jewish himself, has never had a good relationship with the Russian Communist Party. For many of that party's members, Berezovsky has become almost a symbol of what they believe has gone wrong during the transition from the Soviet system to an unregulated capitalist system.

And thus his proposal certainly reflects his personal outrage at the anti-Semitism of many in the Communist Party. But like other proposals for a ban, it may reflect something else as well: an effort by some of the oligarchs to destroy a group that they may believe threatens their property and power.

More than any other group, the Communist Party opposes the uncertain title many of the oligarchs, as the new rich are known because of their influence over the state, have to property that has been privatized into their hands. The party's leaders called for renationalization of some property and a revision of the division of previously nationalized property that took place after 1991.

And thus it is no surprise that members of this group, the people who have benefited the most from the way in which Russian privatization has taken place would be especially interested in breaking the Communist Party as an institutional force.

Indeed, viewed from that perspective, Berezovsky's proposal may represent the latest development in what many have called nomenklatura privatization, the process that transferred much of the country's wealth into the hands of the party's most senior officials and put them at odds with the party's official ideology.

That process, begun by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, helps to explain why the members of what many had thought were the core of the Communist Party refused to defend that party and the Soviet Union in 1991.

And it also clarifies why so many of the former members of the nomenklatura, now newly rich because of this process, have become among the most active and vociferous opponents of a party still committed to nationalization.

Indeed, many of the businessmen-oligarchs, both former members of the nomenklatura and those newly rich individuals who have allied themselves with that group, appear to believe that the destruction of the Communist Party would eliminate a group that has sought to limit the power of the newly rich in Russia.

But to the extent members of this group seek to use the fight against anti-Semitism to destroy a political party and thus defend their own parochial interests, they will do little to promote either the free society or the free market they claim to be defending.