(END of the COLD WAR and the SOVIET UNION – continued)

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Transition to a Market Economy

Boris Yeltsin was elected President of Russia in June, 1991 – the first direct presidential election in Russian history. In October, Yeltsin announced that Russia would proceed with market-oriented reforms. From Russia's parliament, Yeltsin received one year of special powers for the purpose of remaking Russia's economy. Members of parliament felt close to Yeltsin, remembering his having stood atop a tank in Moscow.

Yeltsin's reforms were to be described as similar to Poland's reforms, known as "shock therapy." In Russia there was a sudden privatization of 225,000 or so state-owned businesses, a sudden release of price and currency controls, withdrawal of state subsidies, and trade liberalization. Yeltsin had assembled a team of economists devoted to free-market economics. They were admirers of the US economist Milton Friedman and referred to in Moscow as the "Chicago Boys."

In his book, Superpower Illusions, the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, writes that shock therapy "ignored the fact that there was no legitimate capital in the country" – in other words, holders of investments in wealth. Matlock describes the result: "Communist Party officials, senior military and KGB officer, and other privileged insiders join the criminals who had been running a black market steal what they could, as fast as they could." (Matlock, p. 111)

The Soviet Union was sailing into free enterprise without people who had a lot of experience with decision-making in a free market economy. Almost no Soviet employees or managers had such experience. Also, laws that fit a free enterprise system were not in place. It was to be described as like building a house with no plumbing.

It has been written that gradual approach might have been better. Matlock describes this as "first freeing up trade and small business, with generous loans available to entrepreneurs as well as arrest and prosecution of the criminals who preyed on small businesses. Heavy industry, rail and air transport, and communications could have remained temporarily under state ownership, as corporations required to compete with state-owned corporations." (Matlock, p. 111)

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes of the effect of the shock doctrine's disconnection with public opinion – that lack of democracy resulting from Yeltsin's dictatorial powers. Klein writes.

Like the Polish supporters of Solidarity, 67 percent of Russians told pollsters in 1992 they believed workers' cooperatives were the most equitable way to privatize the assets of the Communist state, and 79 percent said they considered maintaining full employment to be a core function of government. (Klein, p. 224)

Yeltsin promised difficulty for approximately six months but that then recovery would come and Russia would become a great economic power – the fourth largest in the world. According to Klein, "After only one year, shock therapy had taken a devastating toll. Inflation had reduced the value of Russia's currency. "[M]illions of middle-class Russians had lost their life savings ...abrupt cuts to subsidies meant millions of workers had not been paid in months. The average Russian consumed 40 percent less in 1992 than in 1991 (Klein, pages 224-25). The government moved to control inflation through austerity. To fight inflation, interest rates were raised and massive cuts in state welfare spending were made. By mid-1993 from 39 to 49 percent of the population was living in poverty. Buying dried up, and by the mid-1990s the economy was depressed. In 1998, Russia's economy suffered more with a financial crash triggered by the financial crisis that began in Asia in 1997. According to statistics by Russia's government, the economic decline in terms of Gross Domestic Product was more severe than that suffered by the in the United States in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

According to Wikipedia, alcohol-related deaths in Russia increased 60 percent in the 1990s, and deaths from infectious and parasitic diseases increased 100 percent, "mainly because medicines were no longer affordable to the poor."

Taking middle ground and caution had not been the way of the Marxist-Leninists in power in the Soviet Union. Moderation had been the way of those Social Democrats that Lenin had despised, and it had not been the way of Russia's new emotionally inclined leader, Boris Yeltsin.

There were political consequences, including a rise in hostility toward Yeltsin. On 13 August 1993 a complaint in the newspaper Izvestiya read, "The President issues decrees as if there were no Supreme Soviet, and the Supreme Soviet suspends decrees as if there were no President." On September 21, Yeltsin announced in a televised address that by decree he was disbanding the Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies, and he declared his intent to rule by decree until the election of the new parliament and a referendum on a new constitution. That night, the Supreme Soviet declared Yeltsin removed from presidency, because he had breached the constitution. Anti-Yeltsin demonstrators hit the streets, protesting living conditions. Yeltsin secured the support of Russia's army and ministry of interior forces, and in a massive show of force in early October Yeltsin called up tanks that shelled Russia's parliament building. The Supreme Soviet was dissolved.

In December 1993, elections to a new parliament, the State Duma, were held. Candidates associated with Yeltsin's economic policies suffered. The anti-Yeltsin vote is said to have split between supporters of the Communist Party and Russia's ultra-nationalists, but there must have been at least a few people of measure between these opposing positions. At the same time there was a referendum on the new constitution. The referendum won and expanded the powers of Russia's chief of state, President Yeltsin, who remained in power and won the right to appoint the members of the government, to dismiss the prime minister and, in some cases, to dissolve the Duma.


Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders, by George W. Breslauer, 2002

Superpower Illusions, by Jack F. Matlock Jr, 2011

BBC: "Lech Walesa Recalls Solidarity Triumph" (Aug 29, '05)

The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein, 2008

Reflections on a Ravaged Century, by Robert Conquest, 2001

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Chapter 6 and 7," Paul Kennedy, 1987

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