Fyodor Burlatsky (changes under Yeltsin), 1996

Interview with Fyodor Burlatsky in Toronto, April 6, 1996
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

Burlatsky stayed with me while visiting the U of T for a month or six weeks.

BURLATSKY: As I told you before, I call our political system a “democratura” in that we have a President who was elected by all people — it’s some sort of democracy. We have a Parliament which was elected too but at the same time we have very similar to the past political elite which combine maybe include maybe 90 percent of the nomenclatura, Communist nomenclature, some of them from the high level like Yeltsin. Yeltsin was a full member of last politburo of the central committee or like Chernomyrdin, who was a member of central committee of Communist party. Many of them from Komsomol. Komsomol was a terrible group mostly terrible for nomenclature because they collected young people — real careerists — and people who usually served KGB. The Komsomol leaders usually served the KGB and .. the first Komsomol leader (Shelepin?) became the president of KGB; the second Komsomol leader Semichastny, became president of KGB and many people from Komsomol nomenclature were going to KGB and became the highest positions there.

SPENCER: Do you think Gorbachev was KGB?

BURLATSKY: I don’t know. I could not say this.

SPENCER: You’ve heard people say that just because he started he worked in the Komsomol.

BURLATSKY: Yeah, but he was from the same Komsomol elite; that’s why he in the beginning maybe had similar feeling. But from other side you know the memoirs which come from Mlynar who lived with Gorbachev in university — I met him many times. He explained that Gorbachev during Khrushchev time was very close to social Democracy. I personally never hear anything about his being KGB, but what about the others I know exactly. Komsomol people served KGB. That’s why I worry very much about (Selesnov?) who was active member of Komsomol nomenclature. He became a chief editor of Komsomol at that time and his views are foxy like all Komsomol leaders. The party leaders are more.. the conservative views. The Komsomol can say this and that but really the worst part of nomenclatura, worser part.

And this is the first why I call this democratura and the second reason is because of the power on the basis of the Constitution. The President gained such power as nobody now in democratic societies. He has a right — his duty — to manage the police, to declare peace and war, to manage the government and to appoint the Prime Minister for State Duma. He can push away the State Duma because he has a right to declare decrees which became maybe more important than what Parliament is doing . That’s why on the basis of Constitution President really gained unusual packages of power.

SPENCER: But were part of the business of writing the Constitution. and you opposed all that?

BURLATSKY: Yes, you know it was the first part when they finished our work and then a small group which was managed by Filatov did many remarks in favor of President and wrote many new articles and excluded something which was written bout the ability for State Duma to control. State Duma officially have no right to control President and even government — they have no right. Can decide just who they choose as a Prime Minister on the basis of the proposal which President makes and he can use this to push away the Duma. If they refuse three times they must go out and a new election starts. But it is not a Constitutional reason — it’s a personal Yeltsin reason. Yeltsin is a man who likes authoritarian power… You will compare him and Gorbachev. Gorbachev was a weak President, a very polite President. who listened to his side and side and worried about many decisions. But this man (Yeltsin) is a real decision-maker. He likes to decide even though he understanda nothing about what he is doing. During one and a half year, he signed about 3,000 decrees. You can understand how much. He has many other responsibilities what to do— international level, domestic level , hundreds and hundreds of meetings with people, with groups — yet he signed this decree, which became like a bill, not understanding what he is doing. Yes, there may be a general idea but then somebody prepare this and destroyed our decision-making process and destroy our administration and decision-making system.

And third, I told you there are four kinds of change and he didn’t worry for anybody. He liked Gaidar, “so unusual man even for reforms” and after this Gaidar became so disappointed. He got feeling that Yeltsin really loved him. The same as ministers from his last team who he sent from the cabinet — Kozyrev and Chubais.

And then his cruel decisions about Chechnya … The public opinion didn’t understand why he started a war. He decided against all obstacles, objections. And then TV for example; he decided about the first TV program, which was very important and sent there this man to be director — Blagovolin.

SPENCER; Yakovlev left and was replaced by Blagovolin?

BURLATSKY: Yes, but Yakovlev still is in the body which manages — it’s called the council. It manages the first program. And then Parliament decided many times that this first program might come back and destroy the Yeltsin decision. And nothing happened after this. They even accepted a law… a decree.

And there was a decree about the private property of the land, and a decree against the Mafia. This decree allows to put people (in jail) for 30 days without any permission from court, but in the Constitution was mentioned that it can be done only for 48 hours. But it’s nothing. Yeltsin’s police use it not only against the Mafia but against some people whom the people around Yeltsin dislike. That’s why the first institution of democratura is Yeltsin. (He) is given more power than even General Secretary (not with Stalin of course) but Brezhnev had before. Around Brezhnev there were 18 members of the politburo. They were elected on the same level as he was elected . … And all of them were very powerful.

This is the first. The second is the so-called administration by Yeltsin. Is a very strange body because the Constitution doesn’t mention what kind of function they have. It look formally like American administration but have really nothing because administration don’t include ministers. This is just apparat. Like at central committee.

SPENCER: Bureaucrats?

BURLATSKY: Bureaucrats. Staffs. Advisors. Yeltsin has a right to appoint them. They placed them in the same building as the Central Committee of Communist party. The Old Square, you know. It’s called Old Square — the same building — and they include about — nobody know exactly — 2,000 persons to 3,000 persons. It was exactly as many as during the Krushchev time when in was in the Central Committee …we had about 3,000 people.

SPENCER; Staffs?

BURLATSKY: Staffs. Nobody know what they are doing. Before, the apparat of the Central Committee prepared everything. They are divided into departments — economical problems, other problem, international problem departments, domestic department, propaganda department — this this body, really doesn’t prepare such decisions because economical decision usually come from Chernomyrdin’s staff, and they have nothing to do with this, and then political decision usually come from the Yeltsin advisors. So what kind of responsibility they have nobody knows.

SPENCER: These 3,000 people?

BURLATSKY: 3,000 people.

SPENCER: Well do they do anything?

BURLATSKY: Yes. They are doing something . What I saw during (working) with Filatov, their first responsibility was propaganda. He worked very much with the mass media for Yeltsin. Sometimes every day. Like a press secretary with serious arguments and then they serve the so-called Council of Security, and prepare some papers for them. And then something else — their special duty is their contacts with different parties and social groups which are included in the so-called “chamber” by the President. All our parties and high level social groups, they asked us to be included in this so-called …chamber, called Public Chamber or something like this. The chamber has about 400 people and Filatov was the real boss. Now Yegorov is in power despite the fact that formally Sobchak became the president of this chamber.

SPENCER: Sobchak is no longer in St. Petersburg?

BURLATSKY: No , he’s in St. Petersburg but he have to come from time to time on the meetings in this chamber and did nothing else.

SPENCER : But he’s still mayor?

BURLATSKY: Yeah. This is the second body. Practical this is staffs who Yeltsin can use in any debate. Then there are two governments. One government is political government. Second is economic government The economic government is the official government. Chernomyrdin is the official (deciding) in which way it can be combined. Yeltsin gave proposal for Parliament only about the Prime Minister and chose the Ministers and Deputy Prime Minister (Soskovets) himself without consultation with the Duma.

This is only the President’s right and he really managed this government, the President. Once a week — the same as in France — the President have meeting with Chernomyrdin and give him some instructions on what the government must do: this and that. Then we have a so-called council of security and the Constitution does not mention what kind of council, what kind of function, what kind of rights this body means and who are included in it. Yeltsin personally decided who he include in Security Council. The name come from United States too, Council of Security but they have nothing adequate with the American council

SPENCER: The Russian council is not as good or as strong as the American council?

BURLATSKY: No, they have nothing that can be compared, nothing what kind of persons what level it include. Because the council of Security in the United States include the Presidential assistants and the military people and, if I remember well, the Minister of Justice. And here in the beginning Yeltsin include not so much people — the Minister of Domestic Affairs, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of former KGB, and the spy office.

SPENCER: Intelligence?

BURLATSKY: Intelligence. But then he include in this institution the two speakers from the two chamber of Parliament, Mr. Shumeiko and Mr. Rybkin. Was a little bit strange because before it was just government people. Then it became something like politburo — people from different places of Parliament now are serving Yeltsin in this council of security. And last time (it happened just now — I saw information from your paper) that Yeltsin include the new speakers of course… two speakers from the Parliament and they replaced Shumeiko and Rybkin and include some people from the government — Chernomyrdin — and include in this body and many others. If I am not wrong even the federal procurator now. It has become like a politburo before — but should be about 15 persons. But the difference is that these people are not elected. This is Yeltsin who personally appoints them; he can include; he can exclude and it was a strange procedure. He give some of them full right not only to discuss something but to vote (I don’t know which ones, what is the decision — nobody knows) and some of them not, and really …most of the people …like the Politburo during Stalin time. People who agree with him and never criticize what the first person wants to do.

And then the economic government, which depends very much on Yeltsin and not so much but a little bit on Parliament because of some criticism from a member of Parliament had influence of course, not on decision-making process but had some influence on the government. For example they decided now, Parliament, that it should be increase in minimum wage of 20 percent and Chernomyrdin’s (decision) doesn’t became a law because Yeltsin didn’t decide. He has the possibility to send draft of law back to State Duma then very complicated procedure started you can overcome his veto if you receive two-thirds of voters. It becomes very complicated. He have right to control the decision which come from the State Duma. And government and then Parliament. Of course it’s very good thing that we elect a Parliament in the first history of Communist times It’s a big step to democracy. …(If) real people are included in Parliament, if Parliament become a stable body in future it will become an institute for real democracy.

SPENCER: How many people are in the Duma?

BURLATSKY: 450 and in the council of federation there should be 2 representatives for every subject of the federation. We have 89 subjects, subjects we call the national republics, this is subject. of federation and the so-called oblast region but I don’t know oblasts are something like states United State. And all of them together are 89. and 2 representatives for every subject. This should be about 178. They work, they come to their office, not every day, once in two weeks usually. They control what State Duma prepare. They have some rights about decisions, about law. They can send back if they don’t agree with a Duma’s decision. They can start some procedures, try to find compromise and they decide … then they send this to Yeltsin If they do not say something about the law which they didn’t prepare in two weeks, it automatically goes.

SPENCER: So they can block it?

BURLATSKY: Yes, they can block it.

SPENCER: But they can’t initiate legislation?

BURLATSKY:Yes, they can write. They may send their draft to State Duma. They have right to decide themselves some very important things especially about peace and war, about the problems of federation. And about the procedure to replace the President. This procedure is started in State Duma but the last decision should come from council of Federation. The Council of Federation include all very important people from the regions. That’s why it may be more important that State Duma for President because it has … over who were elected or should be elected Presidents of national republics and then the presidents of local state Dumas have different denominations. Can be “Supreme Soviet” sometimes; in Tatarstan they don’t like “State Duma.” …

And really of course Parliament have some possibility to limit the presidential power but not so much. State Duma now started to fight for a change in Constitution which will give so-called control function to the Duma. which now is not included in Constitution.

And then the regions power, which is more conservative. It looks more like the previous communists. Of course usually it is the same people. Some of them are very professional, very active people. Some of them not so much. It’s very strange that region elected them. It’s a paradox.

SPENCER: What is their role. First of all, what is a region? Different from an oblast?

BURLATSKY: “Region” includes two different institutions. First, national republics — Tatarstan, Sakhia republic or Irkutska or Chechnyan republic; that’s one thing. And majority — the second category — are Russian oblasts: Novgorodskaya, Sara..skaya, etc.

SPENCER: How does this body differ from the Council of Federations?

BURLATSKY: No, this is regional power.

SPENCER: I see. So it’s not part of the federal government.

BURLATSKY: No. I’m talking of the regional power now. Every subject have two people in the council of federation and this is the president from the national republic or the government in Russia — oblast, or something. And second is the president of some sort of regional parliament. became the members of council of federation but I’m going now to discuss the structure of the regional power.

We have maybe 12 national republics and they elect their down president … they elected something like regional Duma and, practically speaking, the majority of people are from the old nomenklatura. That’s why we have some sort of democratura . Solzhenitsyn explained this as oligarchy; some others explain this as continuation of Communist power, but really this is a step to democracy, very important step I think, but at the same time this looks like the power in Latin America during Peron, or in China during Chiang Kai Shek — something like this. And then the second institution, after Yeltsin, became not so powerful and he named all the people who should be elected constitutional for president but after this they should be elected by the Council of Federation. they refused some of them but they can elect just people who president who president mentioned again. they …

SPENCER: Who elects them after he’s nominated them?

BURLATSKY: The Council of Federation. Sometimes they refuse (for example, Sovietsky) but all these people were mentioned by president. He finds people who are loyal to him. And especially this constitution court made the decisions which are in favor of president. When the State Duma sent statement to them to decide whether the presidential decision to start the war in Chechnya had legal a legal basis or not, the constitutional court decided yes, there was a legal basis. They don’t discuss the problem, about what happened.. . they discussed just the juridical problem: this is not against the constitution. But really, it is, of course. President can start such war which he doesn’t call a war because formally he cannot start a war without decision which should come from Council of Federation. He has no constitutional right to this result. That’s why he mentioned in his decree that he started that Chechnyan war as administrative action against so-called “armed people” — people who used weapons wile they have no permission for this.

SPENCER: The U. S. has that conflict with Congress too.

BURLATSKY: Yeah. And then the human rights which I explained about this problem. Did a very good job of the constitution legislation; with good decisions which come from the Soviet parliament and Russian parliament which include human rights legislation system but there are no (implementation) because of our very old conservative court system and because we accept some very important cause… criminal court procedure, criminal process. That’s why it’s nothing because people are corrupted, the police, and even in the court t system because usually people don’t know about the constitutional rights which they really have.

…. (turn over tape, something is missing)

This is our party system. From the beginning of first parliament we declare freedom of party and social organizations — it was very important. Now we are really pluralistic political society. We have a lot less than hundred parties and political groups which call them parties. This is good but what is bad is that we have only one real party — the communist party. They have a divided structure. They have representatives maybe in all regions, and even in the factories — which is not allowed. But they are allowed to have a minister there. not as was before in every collective, but they really have it. What about the other? This is not so much but is some groups around the leaders who support this or that and the majority of them are I think only for a leader and for a right to be elected to the Parliament or to the regional parliament but have no programs, have no active groups — just personal parties. Yavlinsky, for example. Or Zhirinovsky. And especially with the small parties. That is why this is just the first step to pluralism, because there should be two, three, four or five real parties who have possibility for competition for competition for power and we have not such parties and if you will compare the platforms which they declared during the election campaign to the Parliament, for the president, it will be very difficult for you to find some difference. Usually is the same. State economy and private economy and private property of the land; 80 percent of the parties stay the same. Or about social security for the people or …federation but such parties like the Communist parties and Zhirinovsky’s party are different. Of course, they express something which is not based on centralist views. All others look like real like the social democrats outside our country: mixed economy, political pluralism, freedom of press, more possibilities for simple people, more social security. They did not find their political face, they did not find their electorate, the social group whom they represent — workers, peasants, or intellectuals. Some of them tried to do this — for example the Agrarian party but now they lost their support and were not elected even to the parliament. They had no connection with the electorate. In spite of the fact that they call themselves Agrarian Party, the peasant people did not elect them. What kind of party is this that they don’t have the real social group who support them?

SPENCER: Why can’t these various groups get together then? Why isn’t there a centralist party?

BURLATSKY: Is very interesting question and it’s so difficult to answer. First reason, pendulum phenomenon of Russian political culture. Left, right, left right. The Russian people don’t like complicated explanations of anything. Yes and no. Half this, half that. compromise… Even now. Are you communist? anti-communist? Democrats. This is the first. The electorate does not support the center. The election campaign — not for first time, but the third time — did not elect the people from the centre. When the leaders of parliament were elected in 1993 there were invited to the Kremlin people from all different parties to watch the results of the election and we thought that everybody from the centrist parties would receive a very big place. Suddenly I saw the figures — there was a great success of Zhirinovsky and everybody was shocked. Speakers who too k floor Yury Kariakin said to the people [to the TV cameras] who elected him: “You are really a stupid people! What are you doing?” We didn’t understand why they supported Zhirinovsky, a terrible man , and didn’t support us. Even Gaidar. And the second election, again the same in spite the fact that the leaders were changed. The first is their political culture and the second is that all these parties were (divided). I saw many centrists because the Russians like very much personal power. They don’t want to give this power to another man. “I am the first!” “I am the leader.” Take Gaidar and Yavlinsky. They have very similar views but Gaidar wanted to be elected the President , the Prime minister and the same Yavlinsky.

SPENCER: Do you think Gaidar’s economic views are very similar to Yavlinsky’s?

BURLATSKY: No, no. But it’s closer to Gaidar than … and Yavlinsky supports (Zhuganov).

SPENCER: Does he say that openly?

BURLATSKY: During election speaker in the State Duma…. I think that he had personal agreement with Zhuganov that if Zhurganov became President he will become maybe Prime Minister or maybe the first deputy Prime Minister. That’s why he support Zhurganov and now is very close to him but he is ashamed for him, that’s why he try to save his face and during when they decide about the denunciation of Beloruskaya agreement, Yavlinsky was against this — a very big mistake. Of course he try to explain to the public opinion that he’s not so close to the Communists, but he find a wrong (formulation) because people do not like this idea. It will not come back to Soviet Union, but what happened in Beloruskaya, they will never forgive. Even I have the same opinion. Those people decided without referendum something about the great, great country. I was against this. I never support Soviet Union or come back to Soviet Union, especially the communist state. And Yavlinsky did a mistake now. he will lose many votes. ..demonstrations he is outside so-called. A very big mistake (for a centrist). The second reason is the personal one. They don’t like to give the leadership to somebody else and so many hundreds of people believe that they have the possibility to manage this country as a President. Terrible, from my point of view. I never have in my mind ‚ I’m an intellectual man with many experience and professional policy, but I never have the feeling that I can be a minister. I know that I am more advisor. I could never be involved in such intrigues to criticize this man or that man. [The job is] something different. And we have hundreds who believe [they can do it]. Symptom of a weak democracy. And especially symptom of the political culture of the elite. What kind of responsibility have this hundred people? Nothing. Such at great moment of the history of our state, we have so many difficulties, so difficult to find the real decision, yet hundreds have decided they can rule this country. This is a paradox. Everything in the Russian tradition . It comes from the Russian history before, long before we became an empire. Course you know the country was divided and every region had their own prince. Maybe it’s our mentality to forget.

And the third reason why, to answer your question. The third reason is that President Yeltsin moved to the center with Chernomyrdin. They really moved to the center, became more quiet, more reasonable, compared with Gaidar’s reforms. Yvlinsky did not find something different — just criticism. Ask Yavlinsky, “what do you want to do if you became prime Minister?”

Maybe this are the reasons and it is a tragedy for our country that we try to jump from state without a bridge to prepare the economy, people, the public opinion. Not less than 10 years — step by step — agriculture, then trade, industrial sector. This jump created such economical structure which can be eliminated as bureaucratic and corrupt market system.

Everything still depends on the government. If they want to support some private company, the company will succeed. They rush it. With private banks, they allow to them to do something with their dollars and the current money. It falls immediately,. The high bureaucracy became very rich and controlled with economic measures and personal measures the private sector. I asked one of our very known businessmen what part of the economy is really included the private sector? (Because officially about 70 percent). And he told me not more than 15 or 20 percent have no direct bureaucratic and state control. Because some of them — factories, have 55 percent of state capital or 40 percent is enough. And there are many other possibilities to manipulate. Maybe somebody steal something, he divids this money with the bureaucrats. And that’s why they don’t fight the corruption

SPENCER: So what’s the answer?

BURLATSKY: What can be done? What will happen? Whoever comes to power — Communists or Yeltsin or somebody else — they will have a very small corridor… Our b udget for 1996 includes 343.93 ____ and expenses includes 428.93. Deficit is 85 (trillion)? We try to find this money from the West but they give not enough, and second we become (dependent on Western policy).

Second is Chechnya. It’s so difficult to find a decision because this war came ….. now maybe 30 percent (approved the war). This is terrible war. … We can say let them go out but maybe 50 percent of electorate support Yeltsin. We can say, let them give confederation but now I don’t know will Dudayev agree or not? We can surround this place with soldiers, let them do what they want to do and not decide now. Take the Russian people not give them support to rebuild the country, or give them money. Give the money to the Russians. Then the problem of oil, the pipeline. They take the money. But still I’m sure that the new president will stop that war. It can be done.

The communists say, we will take some from money the rich people but the rich people are not so stupid and they send their money abroad. They have a passport with multi-visas, and some of them haver personal planes and start to go out. Many of them are thinking. More than hundred million dollars. These people have big money, even intellectuals have some money. And what can be done? Just some step toward privatization — maybe the the law of private property of the land to give the land to the people.

SPENCER: They don’t want it. The peasants are the ones who are most opposed to privatization.

BURLATSKY: Yeah because they worry that he land will go to the rich people and to the businessmen.

SPENCER: But wouldn’t it?

BURLATSKY: Yes, it would.

SPENCER: So why do you support it?

BURLATSKY: I support the principle of private land. We should have the right of private land. Everybody who now is sitting with this land especially peasants may receive some real permission that this land belongs to them, to their families, forever. What about the possibility to trade the land? It should be divided on two parts: one part is the land which have been explored for agriculture. The other part is the land which can be not explored, can be used for country houses, for factories, for new buildings. This part can be sold, can be put into the banks, something like this. I am not a great specialist but I support the idea of private property and the idea to divide it.

And then the problem of corruption with the Mafia. I don’t know what can be done. Sometime I think that if they continue, should be done something like in Peru. They shot many people. Course it’s impossible on a legal level to do something because they have connections on a high level. Why [hasn’t Chernomyrdin done something?] You can say, “Look what are you doing now? are you nothing? Who control? The association which cost 900 million dollars …

And then the problem of federalism. And then the cost of inflation. The CIS countries will cost us nine (million?) American dollars to form some sort of confederation .

SPENCER: You mean if they form a Confederation, Russia will forgive the debt?

BURLATSKY: Forgive, yes. the price… Russia, about 1 in 4 million (or billion?) dollars debt.

SPENCER: Will all of the former Soviet republics re-combine?

BURLATSKY: I don’t think so. The main problem is with Ukraine. Ukraine is a very big state and it has some tradition…

SPENCER: Ukraine owes a lot of debt.

BURLATSKY: But is spite of this fact they suffered, they really have now terrible living conditions but will continue, especially because the United States will help them. I think that the West will pay good money to Ukraine. Georgia will go to this new alliance only if will promise them to take back Abkhasia, which is not so easy. They have tried others without success.

SPENCER: I thought Georgia was winning. Is that true?

BURLATSKY: Without Russia, no. Abkhasians are Muslims and because they need Russian support . Azerbaijan and Turkey and others. That’s why Shevardnadze will come to the alliance only with a very big price.

SPENCER: But Russia will pay that price?

BURLATSKY: I think so. What can be done? First, they really need a new president outside the nomenklatura. Without any ideological result in any ideological …. It’s terrible. It should be a practical man like Luzhkov. Maybe he’s corrupted but he’s doing a good job in Moscow . I think that we can find somewhere, on regional level some governors who are really good. Maybe they will come from the previous nomenklatura, but such people who exclude from their brain some … and Yeltsin despite the fact that he is elected or not for health reason will not so long continue.

That’s why the second problem is very important. It should be done to improve the Constitution. Is better to change the Constitution before the election.

SPENCER: That’s only six weeks away!

BURLATSKY: Yes, it can be done. Can start the law which can be adopted by the State Duma and then Yeltsin can decide: “Okay, I will limit my power, I will agree to this,” and in this case he will have more support from the people. Or there is the other possibility to include this in the referendum together with election of President. Very important to do things in the Constitution first to give control function to Parliament and second, to create a strong government, real government, which not depend so much on President. Should not so much depend from parliament too because we do not need a government like in Italy, which was changed every time. It was impossible during the transition period. We need a stronger, real government which will include all ministers, economical and political. Government is divided. They decided something about for example Mafia, but the minister of domestic affairs not depend on Yeltsin. He’s included in Council of Security. There is no real government. Something strange. and then there should be established and start toward an economical policy, on the basis of centrist views, step by step toward a real market and to the people. Not to become rich for a few people and to become so poor for the others. And then a federation and many other things.

And I believe that we will do this. Maybe not exactly after the election but in a short period if there does not exist some terrible conflicts — which can not be excluded. for example the use of force against the parliament. Yeltsin was very close to it. But I believe that next year we will go this way. I worry about the possibility that the communists will receive too much power. That would be so dangerous! But at least maybe we will overcome all this.

See also
Fyodor Burlatsky (invading Afghanistan), 1990
Fyodor Burlatsky (his political struggles), 1994
Fyodor Burlatsky (his human rights actions), 1997

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books