Air Date: November 5, 1996||
Susan Lehmann, Assistant Professor of Sociology,
Thomas Remington, Professor of Political Science,
Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, Assistant Professor of
Political Science and International Affairs,
(This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, producer: This is Common Ground. The Russian state is in
trouble again. Now it’s the health of the President, the back taxes owed the government, and
people not being paid for their work.
THOMAS REMINGTON, Professor of Political Science, Emory University: We’re beginning to
see what could be a very serious social distress this winter with the energy industry not
supplying energy to its customers because creditors aren’t paying the energy industry. Atomic
power plant workers are going on strike; this is dangerous. A lot of parts of Russia, now that
winter is coming on, are cold. So, yeah, I think we might in fact see some serious social and
political distress this winter as a result of this general breakdown in the circulation of funds.
DAVIDSON: Russia’s latest crisis is the topic we’ll be discussing on this edition of
Common Ground. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
When we recorded my conversation with today’s guests, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was still
scheduled for heart surgery in mid-November. With me to discuss what might happen if President
Yeltsin doesn’t survive the surgery or is incapable of carrying out the duties of office, are
Professor Thomas Remington of Emory University in Atlanta, Susan Lehmann of the Averill Harriman
Institute at Columbia University and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss of Princeton University. I asked Thomas
Remington first, what are the possible scenarios for succession and the power struggle taking
place, especially after the firing of National Security Aide Alexander Lebed.
REMINGTON: There’s been a lot of uncertainty about what would happen in the event that
Yeltsin dies, either before or as a result of his heart surgery. It’s important I think for
people to recognize that there is a constitutional mechanism that provides for a succession in
the event that the President is either dead or unable to perform the duties of his office. There
is, of course, some uncertainty over how it would be determined that a president cannot perform
the duties of his office; if he’s incapacitated, who decides that? And as you know in our own
constitution’s history, we had to have a constitutional amendment to clarify that procedure
because that could become politically very controversial.
But, to return to your question, if Yeltsin dies then the Prime Minister, currently Victor
Chernomyrdin, takes over as acting president and within three months of that, there must be new
elections. So at that point of course we would begin to speculate at what candidates are the most
popular or viable as possible future presidents. The Prime Minister will run for the presidency
sooner or later, but he doesn’t have the personal appeal or charisma that Yeltsin has had when he
was healthier or that General Lebed has. So General Lebed is currently considered to be the most
popular figure, even though he’s now been cast out of the Kremlin in disgrace. That might
actually help his electoral prospects. So if the election were held say even in 1996 or early
1997, General Lebed would be a very strong candidate and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin would be
another potential successor.
The Mayor of Moscow will clearly be a candidate, Luzkhov. He’s considered an effective big city
mayor, not always scrupulous in his moral outlook, but capable and effective, a person who gets
things done. The Communists clearly will run a candidate. Zhirinovsky will be back but he’s
pretty weak and perhaps Gregor Yavlinski who ran for president this past summer would run again,
but he’s pretty weak.
So I would think that the most likely successors would be either Lebed or Prime Minister
DAVIDSON: Now we’ve seen some recent firings—General Lebed was one of them—is this all
a part of a jockeying for position in case Yeltsin dies? Is this tied to his health, Kathryn
KATHRYN STONER-WEISS, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs,
Princeton University: Most definitely I think it’s tied to jockeying for position should
Yeltsin die or become incapacitated in a longer term which is another, perhaps more likely,
scenario. With respect to Lebed’s chances of winning the election, I’m not certain. He certainly
polls very, very well with the Russian public right now, but his problem previously has been that
he doesn’t have a party organization, a strong party organization and especially out in Russia’s
regions. He does well in certain parts of Russia but not well in other parts of Russia. And I
wonder if that would be a problem, Tom, if you think that will be a problem when he does run for
the presidency, and it seems like he most certainly will, whether it’s in the near term or the
REMINGTON: Well, it’s a very good point and I definitely agree that the lack of an
organizational base or a way of reaching voters on his own will hinder him. In the past of course
he has allied himself with other politicians who had some organizational base. He ran as the #2
figure on a list for Parliament last December, with a group called the Congress of Russian
Communities and it failed to get the necessary 5% to enter Parliament. So his alliance in that
case didn’t help him. So his appeal, and I think Kathryn’s quite right on this, tends to be more
personal and it may be that he won’t be able to either recruit for out of enthusiasm that he
needs or to hire them for money. But as a popular politician he may very well know how to ally
himself with industrialists, with trade unions, conceivably with military groups and so it’s
quite possible he can overcome his organizational deficit.
DAVIDSON: Now, a person that we were, oh, go ahead and jump right in Susan Lehmann.
SUSAN LEHMANN, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Columbia University: I think one thing
to consider, Lebed had a strong but narrow constituency in the presidential elections in June.
And a number of the people that we polled, we do extensive survey work—national surveys in
Russia—a number of the people we polled expressed sort of fear about what Lebed would bring to
Russia. He seemed a sort of scary figure to a lot of people. I wonder if in fact he hasn’t
allayed some of those fears and increased his credibility by targeting Chechnya as an issue which
he was going to address. He went in and in a very short amount of time came out with an agreement
of that morass that Russian people clearly have said they wanted resolved. So he may have helped
himself a lot with his short term in office by presenting himself as a man who gets things done
and who resolves an issue that is important to the Russian people. So even if though he was in
office a short term, he may have broadened his constituency considerably the next time he goes up
DAVIDSON: The question that I’d like to pose to all of you is how much should Americans
be concerned about the succession issue if President Yeltsin does not survive or cannot carry on
his duties in office? Are there scenarios, are there people out there who could stop the whole
reform process, stop the economic reforms, stop the democratic reforms? Is this a possibility
that we’re looking at? Susan Lehmann?
LEHMANN: I think it’s unlikely that anyone will totally stop the economic and social
reforms, even Zhuganov, if he got in I don’t think would revert back totally to the old system.
I guess I have more faith in Zhuganov being more Social Democratic than some of my colleagues
felt. I’ve been distressed with the American concentration on Yeltsin as the only way to go in
Russia and ignoring his flaws, ignoring problems that they’ve had. I think we’ve sort of turned a
blind eye when Yeltsin doesn’t do the right things because we’ve labeled him a Democrat so he’s
okay and everybody else is the devil. And I think that there’s several possible people who could
come in who are really unknowns. Lebed’s an unknown—I’m not clear what Lebed would do if he came
into power as president. I know there’s a lot of fear in the United States about him, but it’s
quite possible that he would be for strong market reform although he might impose tariffs and
things that the American government might not like but might in fact strengthen the Russian
economy, and in the long term might be a real plus for Russia. But I’ve been distressed that the
American policy makers are just focused on Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin as the only ones we should
DAVIDSON: Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, do you agree that the US has focused too much on Yeltsin?
STONER-WEISS: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree with that because I do a lot of work out in
the regions. There are a lot of regional governors who are strongly opposed and have been opposed
at various times to Yeltsin and also at various times to Yeltsin and also to various policies
emanating out of Moscow and I’m actually a Canadian citizen although a permanent resident and I’m
always slightly embarrassed when I’m pigeonholed by these people and asked, why is it that the
American government’s so blindly apparently seems to back Boris Yeltsin? Don’t they know that
there are many ways toward reform and toward democracy and his is not the only way? So opposition
to Yeltsin does not necessarily mean opposition to the entire process of reform, and I think
that’s sort of been a mistake in one aspect of American foreign policy, although Clinton has
tried to branch out a little bit when he visited this Spring. He did make an effort to see other
political actors. So it is possible that American foreign policy will change somewhat, but it has
been distressing, I do agree.
DAVIDSON: Thomas Remington, where do you see reform going in a post-Yeltsin era?
REMINGTON: I tend to think that the same balance of economic and political forces that
are largely shaping policy now in Russia will continue to in the future. There are a couple of
problems with their political and economic system that aren’t being resolved. One is an excessive
concentration of power in the presidency makes it an extremely desirable prize in the political
contest and so an awful lot of effort is put into capturing control of the Kremlin when what
people might better do is to concentrate on the political competition outside Moscow. Why isn’t
there more agreement that there needs to be the rule of law? So I’m afraid that in this somewhat
ambiguous environment where the rules aren’t clear, they aren’t clear for foreign investors, they
aren’t clear to many Russians, how far can you go? How much power do you have? Will an agreement
be enforced? This sort of legal and political ambiguity that people operate with which creates
such uncertainty for them, I’m afraid that’s going to continue for a while.
On the other hand, there are some powerful interests that do want a more open economic
environment. I’ve on the whole thought that Victor Chernomyrdin as Prime Minister, since he came
out of the natural gas industry, ran the natural gas monopoly and continues, according to all
accounts, to have very strong ties to the gas industry or GazProm as that firm is called. That is
a firm interested in a more open economy. It’s a firm which is, relatively speaking, a winner in
the Russian economic reform process rather than a loser. I think on the whole that’s beneficial
to Russia because it means there are some interests that are interested in free trade with the
outside world, free contacts with the outside world, and more or less civilized rules of
DAVIDSON: We are talking on this edition of Common Ground with Thomas Remington,
Political Science Professor at Emory University, Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, Professor of Political
Science at Princeton University, and Susan Lehmann, Professor of Sociology at Columbia
University. We’ve been talking about Russia and possible leadership scenarios if President
Yeltsin is unable to carry on. Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are
available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of
the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of
programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
Susan Lehmann, I’d like to know, since you’ve spent a lot of time surveying ordinary Russians,
how important is the leadership issue to everyday Russians? Is this a matter of utmost importance
to them? I mean that is definitely the focus of the United States right now. Or do they have
other things on their minds?
LEHMANN: They have a lot of other things according to our surveys on their minds. I mean
clearly they care about who the president is going to be and less so about parliamentary people.
When we looked at how much they were involved in following the campaigns, most people didn’t
attend rallies, didn’t pay much attention to the media, they had some discussions in the home
with their family and friends about the campaign, but they have great concerns about not being
paid for three and four months and where that money’s going to come from. The major concern they
have is law and order. People say that what’s more important to them than personal democratic
liberty is law and order. And we asked what were the most trusted institutions in the state and
the one that ranked the highest, 53% of people said the Russian army. And second, at 52% was the
Russian Orthodox Church—an interesting combination. Local political organs ranked in the 30%
range and national organs in terms of trust ranked in the 20% range.
So there was more trust of regional officials and some other organizations than there was of the
presidency. I think that the fact that a lot of Yeltsin’s campaign promises were never
fulfilled—he stood in Yaroslav and promised all kinds of money just a month or so prior to the
campaign—not a dime of it got sent to Yaroslav after the campaign. I think that’s made a lot of
people think, “gee, we thought he… we gave him a second chance; we thought finally he was going
to fix the problems with employment and the economy and three months have gone by and nothing’s
coming through.” It makes people even more cynical about politics.
DAVIDSON: Well they certainly had law and order under the Soviet system. Do you get a
sense that people would take that over a more chaotic situation?
LEHMANN: No, I think if they did they would have voted for either Zhuganov or Lebed in
the presidential election. I think if they, you know if they clearly wanted law and order to be
prime, that would have been their vote. They didn’t vote that way, but I don’t think that… I
mean I think it’s a major concern of theirs. I think they have a set of competing interests, and
it’s just a question of how they balance those interests.
DAVIDSON: Well Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, you do a lot of work out in the regions. Where does
this leadership issue fall into the priorities as far as you can tell?
STONER-WEISS: I guess I would also concur that my sense is they fall relatively low on
the priority list and that people’s main concern is with their own personal economic well being.
Although it doesn’t drop completely off the priority list because I think a lot of regional
government actors, although they would like to do a lot more themselves independent of Moscow,
realize that there still is a certain amount of dependence… some financial dependence, on
DAVIDSON: Well Susan Lehmann pointed out that people haven’t been paid for three and four
months; at least from last figures 50% of the taxes have not been paid. How long can this
situation go on and you know when you hear things like that, it makes you wonder is this country
on the verge of collapse or is this something sustainable?
REMINGTON: I don’t think it’s sustainable to tell you the truth, although many people say
that this situation of mounting arrears, back pay owed to workers, back taxes owed by enterprises
to government, government payments that are owed to organizations, including local ones and
institutes and schools and hospitals, the problem of arrears or non-payments is an old one. It
began in ’92, but each year it gets bigger though periodically it dips down as a result of
financial interventions or devaluation of the ruble. It’s reached in ’96 an unprecedented level,
so I think at some point something serious will happen more in the financial system than in the
economy overall. I don’t see how the ruble can retain the value that it has and it might be that
the government will pay off its debts by radically devaluating the ruble and everyone will be a
whole lot poorer and I think that will create serious political instability.
We’re beginning to see what could be a very serious social distress this winter with the energy
industry not supplying energy to its customers because it’s creditors aren’t paying the energy
industry. Atomic power plant workers are going on strike; this is dangerous. A lot of parts of
Russia, now that winter is coming on, are cold. So, yeah, I think we might in fact see some
serious social and political distress this winter as a result of this general breakdown in the
circulation of funds.
DAVIDSON: Susan Lehmann, you’d like to respond to that?
LEHMANN: Yeah, I just want to make one extra point. In addition to the energy sector not
getting paid, the military isn’t getting paid, which cannot be an intelligent policy on anybody’s
part. So the military… it’s not just school teachers and doctors who aren’t getting their
salary; it’s people working in the military who are in very bad shape. And I think that creates a
dangerous and unstable situation as well. If there’s problems with workers at atomic plants not
working and you have to send someone in to get them to work, but the military is sympathetic with
those people, it’s not clear what’s going to happen and who’s in charge and can make people go
back to work.
DAVIDSON: Is it mainly employees of the government who are not getting paid because the
government doesn’t have the money to pay them? And do you have any sense of how many people or
what percentage of the population is owed back wages? Kathryn Stoner-Weiss.
STONER-WEISS: We recently had someone come and speak at Princeton who estimated… the
back wages question I don’t think I can give you an exact figure… but estimated at something
like 35% of the Russian population currently lives below the official poverty line, which is a
remarkably high number. One of the things that surprises me though is that there hasn’t been more
social unrest, and this is not a new situation. This was certainly the situation when people
voted for Yeltsin in June and then again in July. And so it seems as though the Russian voter
doesn’t vote from their pocketbook. In fact we have a mutual acquaintance who’s been doing a lot
of electoral research…
DAVIDSON: Probably the opposite of U.S. electorate.
STONER-WEISS: Yes, I guess it’s more of a “what have you done for me lately,” and it has
to be very, very recent. So it may have helped that Yeltsin made those promises, but he’s now
pretty much officially canceled all of them in the last month.
DAVIDSON: Susan, I did want to go back to you. You brought up that the two most trusted
institutions in Russia right now are the military and the Orthodox Church. What does that say to
LEHMANN: I think one of the things that struck me as very interesting when I looked at
the survey that we did in June was that there were 4,000 respondents in a national sample. What
interested me was that even when respondents were asked what the state’s role toward the church
should be, of course the majority of active believers—89% or something—said the state should
support religion. Passive believers, slightly fewer, but 50% of atheists said the state should
support religion. Which I think points to the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is not a
religious institution solely but a cultural institution. It helps define who Russians
are—they’re Orthodox—it’s part of who they are.
So the Russian Orthodox Church hasn’t taken a large political role at this point and they have a
lot of rebuilding to do in society at this point. It’s clear from the work that we’ve done on
religion that although a lot of people are willing to say that they are Russian Orthodox, they
don’t have a very clear idea of what the dogma is. They don’t attend church very often, even
active believers, the vast majority of them attend only for religious holidays or family events
such as baptisms or funerals.
DAVIDSON: Most people have not lived with any religious traditions throughout the Soviet
LEHMANN: Right, but I think the church is concentrating on rebuilding its constituency
and integrating itself into everyday life first rather than having a political face. But it
leaves the door open—a possibility—if it at this moment has a high degree of trust behind it,
that presumably they could try to capitalize on that. Whether they will or not, I’m not sure.
DAVIDSON: Thomas Remington, did you want to respond to that?
REMINGTON: To offer an additional answer on this question of what we should read from
information that tells us, as polls have for the past several years, that these very hierarchical
and traditional organizations, the army and the church, consistently are the most trusted or the
confidence ratings in them are the highest, and that representative organizations such as
political parties and the Parliament, are distrusted far more than they’re trusted. It is
probably misleading to infer from that Russians don’t believe in democracy. Russians may not
trust the parties or the new constitutional institutions which exist; they may vote against
existing politicians and parties; but, I think they tend to value the right to vote. And the
polls also show that Russians now do value the rights that they have to express their discontent
DAVIDSON: I have just one final question that I’d like you all to respond to. We all know
why Russia, which was a part of the Soviet Union, was important to the United States during the
Cold War. I’d like you to give me your assessment of how important is Russia to the United States
today and why?
STONER-WEISS: I’ll begin. I think the main reason Americans should care about what’s
going on in Russia, one of the main reasons and there are many, is that Russia is a multi-ethnic
state and there is a potential for multi-ethnic conflict there. There already has been conflict
in the war in Chechnya so there’s a human rights issue. Also it’s a very, very large potential
market for American firms so I think we have an abiding… deep abiding economic foreign policy
interest in stability in Russia as a whole. And third, Russia is of course still a nuclear state;
still is a superpower of sorts; and, so we should care very much about the safety of their
nuclear weapons and especially security of those weapons. So I think those are the three most
compelling reasons in my mind anyway.
DAVIDSON: Susan Lehmann?
LEHMANN: A couple of reasons I would mention. There are a million reasons why I think
anyone who is a scholar would want to study Russia as a laboratory so to speak. It’s a very
interesting place; it’s evolving in a lot of interesting ways. But I think for the first, I think
you have to recognize that the Russians as a people, I think, feel very warm and strong ties
towards American and I think that that’s important. They don’t look to the Chinese as their
model. That’s not a group of people that they feel are like them. They feel the Americans are
like them, and when you have a very large country almost the size of the United States, the
people looking for advice and help and who feel that they’re brothers or kindred or cousins, you
can’t ignore that.
And I think from a strategic point of view, I would want to mention the fact that the southern
part of Russia is very Muslim and not just Chechnya is a problem. There has been Islamic revival
all along the southern tier of Russia and then into central Asia, the Uzbeks are very involved
with the situation and Afghanistan. So I think that from a point of view of religion being an
issue, what happens with that whole southern tier is very important strategically, both for
Russia but for the world in terms of balance. There’s a lot of countries that could tip different
ways, depending on who they want to ally with and it’s an open market at this point as to who’s
going to have influence in that sphere of the world.
DAVIDSON: And Thomas Remington, I’ll give you the final word.
REMINGTON: I can only add maybe two points to the points that have been made. One
extending the point that Susan made about Russia’s proximity to the near East and the importance
of the political expressions of Islam. Russia is also a major player in Europe. Russia, generally
speaking, is going to be a very powerful regional actor in a world that is not quite dominated by
two countries anymore. A powerful regional presence or source of influences—it’s political
direction is going to matter a great deal to us. We could very easily, I think, go back to a Cold
War division of Europe and that’s very undesirable. I would hate for U.S. policy to drive Russia
into a defensive and hostile mode, so we want Russia to be a contributive, constructive player to
stability in Europe as well as along its southern rim.
The other point that really extends what Kathryn was saying about Russia’s economic potential,
it’s both an enormous potential market—it’s also an extraordinarily wealthy source of natural
resources. It continues to have huge oil and gas reserves as well as other mineral resources and
so it’s going to be a player on the world market in many areas and we want it to be a partner in
world economic arrangements, trade arrangements, rather than a kind of autarkic and a
self-enclosed state. I think there are many reasons for Americans to be concerned about the way
in which Russia participates in the world society.
DAVIDSON: I’ve been talking on this edition of Common Ground with Thomas Remington
from Emory University, Susan Lehmann, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and Kathryn
Stoner-Weiss, Professor of Political Science at Princeton University. For Common Ground,
I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
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