The Myth of Russian Reform

Over the past several days, the New York Times and the Washington Post have noted the breakup of Poland’s coalition government, those papers and others have analyzed Bill Clinton’s trip to Russia, and Vladimir Putin told Tom Brokaw that communism had been a “beautiful but harmful fairy tale,” a comment which was interpreted by the “hopeful West,” according to Slate’s “The Week/The Spin,” as: “This is the democratic, internationalist Putin that Yeltsin promised us.” Nothing special about Poland and Russia being in the news: Next week, given the propensity for governments in that part of the world to break down and new leaders to appear, it will be the turn of the Czech Republic and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, the coincidence strikes me as a good occasion to quash a myth beloved of headline writers and wire-service journalists, which happens to be in evidence at the moment: the myth, namely, that the main political battle, in most ex-Communist countries, is the struggle between “reformers” and “anti-reformers.”

True, in one or two places, at one or two moments in time, it has been: The political defeat of Vladimir Meciar, for example (the ex-Communist-turned-nationalist leader of Slovakia), was a positive step in the direction of the Westernization of the country. But just as often, the real political fault lines—the ones of interest to the actual people who live in Eastern Europe—are drawn around other issues altogether. In Russia, for example, the question pertinent to most Russians is not whether Vladimir Putin has, like every other thinking human being, now realized that communism was a failure. Even Gorbachev and Yeltsin were onto that idea, a good 15 years ago. Nor are they much interested, for example, in whether he will or won’t support a flat tax, a question already of burning interest to foreigners and viewed with skepticism in Moscow (taxes are fine, if anyone pays them). Nor are they even interested, exactly, in Putin’s “internationalism,” which I take to be code for “pro-Westernism.” Far more critical, to Russians, is the issue of which particular plutocrats Putin will support and how he will support them. Will he go on maintaining the superior position of “the Family,” Yeltsin’s former business entourage, or won’t he? Will he continue to grant special tax status to Gazprom, the world’s largest company, or won’t he?

This is why Western newspaper analysis of Russia is so often wrong or at least misplaced: To date, the writing about Putin’s Cabinet and entourage has generally focused on how well-known a given Putin appointee or adviser is in the West—and therefore how “reformist” he is likely to be. Russian analysts, on the other hand, focus on which particular business clan supports the man in question (they are all men) and whose interests he is therefore likely to favor. Likewise, the most important political battle in Russia over the past year, that between the interests grouped around Putin and the interests grouped around Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, had nothing to do with “Left vs. Right” or “Reform vs. Nasty,” but is better characterized by the Leninist phrase “Who Whom?” In that context, calling one group more or less “democratic” or “internationalist” or “pro-Western” makes no sense.

Ditto Poland. Because I happen to have inside information (to reveal sources: I am married to a member of the Polish government), I actually laughed out loud at the first paragraph of the wire-story report on the current coalition crisis which appeared in the Washington Post: “A small liberal party dropped out of its 2 1/2-year-old coalition with Poland’s fractious Solidarity bloc on Tuesday, frustrated over the government’s failure to push through key reforms needed to get Poland into the European Union.” If only “reform” were actually what the crisis were about: Far more important were various personal antagonisms, the recent ill humor of the finance minister, and above all the central division between the two parties of the coalition, a division which is largely sociological and cultural, not political. To generalize roughly, the “Solidarity bloc” consists largely of former anti-Communists who never had anything to do with the Communist Party elite. The “small liberal party” (Freedom Union) consists largely of former Communists who became anti-Communists. The former group is provincial; the latter group comes from Warsaw and a few big cities. The former group is larger, looser, worse-educated, and disorganized; the latter is smaller, speaks more foreign languages, and is better funded. They also dislike one another deeply—and, once again, “Left vs. Right” and “Reform vs. Anti-Reform” have nothing to do with it. Nor does the government’s “failure to push through key reforms needed to get Poland into the European Union.” Socialists and free-marketeers can be found in both parties, whose leaders have nevertheless managed to push through radical reforms of health care, local government, and pensions, at great political cost to them all.

As I say, those are simplifications. I don’t want to go into more detail, however, for fear of losing my audience. I don’t think you really want to know the sordid reasons why various people in Warsaw and Moscow hate various other people in Warsaw and Moscow—although I suspect that fear of what might happen to one’s readership is precisely the reason why so many journalists try to make out that the political battles being played out in Eastern Europe (or anywhere, really) are about things we in the West understand. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the readers understand that sometimes, in the great struggle to make foreign politics sound familiar, the truth gets muddied, or worse.