By John Helmer in Moscow
The soft-spoken general is wearing civilian clothes — a trim double-breasted suit, with a paisley tie discreetly knotted at
a pressed white collar.
It is not the uniform of the old nomenklatura, nor of the new entrepreneur.
The silver flecks in his thick hair convey photogenic authority. The high cheek-bones, grey-green eyes and chiselled jaw signal for the television audience an unmistakable Slav.
He answers questions at length, with a lulling rhythm and in carefully measured sound bytes that edit nicely for the evening news.
He drinks only orange juice.
Unheard of in the Western community, his reputation is growing fast in Russian political circles.
Retired before he turned 50, he was a counter-intelligence officer of the KGB for twenty-six years, specializing in defence of Russia’s economic and technological secrets.
For two years he watched from the pinnacle of the Soviet government as authority collapsed around him. From the KGB he became a senior member of staff in the Soviet Council of Ministers, headed by Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. Before Ryzhkov fell, he had joined the staff of Russian Prime Minister, Ivan Silayev.
He participated in the defence of the White House during the August putsch, and when Prime Minister Silayev was replaced by Mr Yeltsin, he became a staff advisor to Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, resigning that post last December.
He is now a politician running against President Yeltsin.
In the view of members of Congress, Kremlin officials and political observers in Moscow, who know his background and have seen him perform, he is one of the few figures in Russia today — perhaps the only one — who can mobilize the country’s discontent and ride the rising wave of national sentiment to power.
This is General Alexander Sterligov, chairman of the Russian National Assembly (Sobor).
In a few days’ time the general and his legal advisors will file a brief with the Constitutional Court, charging President Yeltsin with
violating his oath of office and failing to preserve the security of Russia. The indictment seeks to impeach the President.
In May Gen. Sterligov will lead the first congress of Sobor to the launch of a national political party, to be followed by a campaign for a million signatures to force parliamentary elections. If Mr Yeltsin blocks the move, as Gen. Sterligov anticipates, he says massive civil disobedience will follow until elections can be held.
Come next winter, he says, it will be impossible for the present government and parliament to co-exist. Without elections, and a new parliament and new government policy to follow, he believes the country is heading for war.
“It is a pity that the democratic process began in Russia with a lot of hopes. That process gave us hope for the resurrection of Russia,” Gen. Sterligov says in his first interview with a Western newspaper. “But now that process has become destructive.”
“If there is no organization that can help Russian people define their place, and halt the current process from leading to war, so the the country will go to the dogs — and to war.”
Gen. Sterligov has read the papers of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Russian ministries of economics, agriculture and social protection. The arithmetic is clear.
By the end of the year, the production of food will not have risen, but prices will have increased at least tenfold, so that the distribution of food will shift radically — to a narrow stratum of urbanites with the money to afford the new prices. The biggest change in most Russians’ diet will be the loss of meat, butter and milk.
Despite some relaxation of the money supply and enterprise taxation, and a modest increase in Central Bank credits, most industrial enterprises will be technically insolvent — owing more money than they have revenue to pay out.
The loss of production currently projected will be 15 percent in iron and steel; 16 percent in chemicals; military goods 22 percent; timber 10 percent; consumer goods 13 percent; textiles and other light industry 10 percent; and food processing 18 percent. The declines may be even sharper if Mr Yeltsin implements a further increase in fuel prices by the summer.
Officially, unemployment will total 2.2 million by December. The real number of jobs lost may be five times that amount, including millions whose working time has already been cut to half the work week or less, and whose promised pay increases are being withheld because enterprise payrolls have no cash. At least six million will be removed altogether from state payrolls.
As the winter approaches, the government’s strategy to raise oil prices and revalue the rouble may succeed in covering foreign debts and lifting hard-currency reserves — but only enough to fill the gaps opened by domestic production losses, with high-priced imports purchased with more Western credits.
From the Western economic perspective, the situation in Russia will be stabilizing. From the point of view of most Russians,
the loss of livelihood and living standards will be approaching the scale of Stalin’s industrialization and farm collectivization of the 1930s.
It is at that point, Gen. Sterligov expects, life itself will be threatened, as it was then.
In his view, by December attempts at achieving a stable consensus on domestic policy between Mr Yeltsin and parliament will be widely seen to have failed. Supporters of the President and of the parliament will discredit each other. The atmosphere of mutual toleration, damaged in the April session of the Peoples Congress, will evaporate altogether.
The privatization of apartments, enterprises and farms — the foundation of Mr Yeltsin’s public support and of the popuar hope in his economic reforms — will not be enough to offset the liquidation of all other assets — personal savings, product inventories, operating capital, and food stocks.
The street markets of Muscovites now selling small lots of goods purchased wholesale will have turned to the sale of personal possessions and stolen goods in a desperate effort to maintain consumption.
It is then that one opinion will emerge — Russia has been betrayed.
According to Gen. Sterligov, “it is impossible to imagine in what way the President can pull the country out of the crisis — the same President who has deceived the people on all points he has promised.”
Two ideas fire Gen. Sterligov’s strategy to win power by next winter.
The first is that Mr Yeltsin and the Russian democrats who support him have failed, just as the communists who preceded him failed, to protect and Russia’s national interests. No alliance with either is now possible, he says — nor necessary in a popular campaign to win new elections.
Acknowledging he was a member of the Communist Party, he adds: “it is our tragedy that this [communist] ideology is hostile to the old national traditions of Russia. This ideology brought a great disaster to our country. We have lost the best part of our people. And so it is quite impossible to collaborate with people who are carriers of this ideology. We can collaborate only on the patriotic basis.”
He dismisses the possibility that if the Yeltsin government falls, the financial support of the West will be withdrawn, or that Western threats to withhold credits will sway most Russians.
“A consensus on the transformation of our economy to the market is solid. We also need foreign capital…[But] the great part of the help will be used to cover debts that are growing. Also [what remains will not be enough]. One sausage for a man will not save anybody.”
In Gen. Sterligov’s assessment, the price and credit policies of the Yeltsin government this year, like the Silayev and Pavlov governments of a year ago, have only added to the foreign dependence of the Russian economy. If they “did not kill the peasant with elevated prices for equipment, we would not need food from the storages of NATO.”
His second idea is that only by forming a new political consensus on “the patriotic basis” can a Russian government and parliament represent the underlying views of a majority of Russian people, and enjoy the trust needed to sustain more sacrifices.
Gen. Sterligov is already a recognized figure among deputies in Congress. He says he is prepared to make an alliance with the
principal party leaders in parliament, including those from the “Democratic Russia” movement which has been Mr Yeltsin’s base.
There is a condition, though. “‘Democratic Russia’ brought Russia to this crisis. They have to convince the people they are not just looking for their own personal place in politics, especially in the national movement.”
He rejects the government’s charge that the opposition to its policies is communist-inspired, driven by the attempt to hang on to elite privileges.
“When the leaders of our present government say in every speech that the old communist nomenklatura prevents them from doing things, they are either lying intentionally, or they don’t understand. The resistance is from the professionals who try to prevent the final destruction of the economy. A professional cannot fail to see the stupidity and the absurdity of this policy, and so every professional in his place tries to save what is possible.”
He believes that “in spite of the circus show in this Congress”, the “national ideas will gain momentum. Perhaps [already] it is possible to say these ideas made deputies more decisive, because the deputies feel some force that will support them.”
The general is not ready to go into details of his economic programme until after the founding party congress opens on May 15.
But he is clear that the foreign and defence policies of the government have “divided the Russian people by artificial frontiers”, and left Russians in the former Soviet republics exposed to attack. Where Gen. Sterligov and the Sobor propose to draw Russia’s borders and how they intend to defend them — these too are details of a policy that is to be formed, debated and published in a fortnight.
For a policy he describes as “keeping the Navy in port”, he blames Marshal Evgeniy Shaposhnikov, the former Soviet defence minister and commander of Russian forces. “The rating of this smiling man in the Army is perhaps 2 percent. A pilot [Marshal Shaposhnikov was an Air Force officer] never should play a role that cannot belong to him.”
He dismisses the Foreign Minister, Mr Andrei Kozyrev, as “a dilettante”.
Support for Gen.Sterligov is reportedly high among Russian military men. He explains that under existing law they cannot form a movement of their own, nor join the new parties. Nonetheless, his view — one supported by many deputies in parliament — is that the Russian military will stay out of politics unless the government acts unconstitutionally, or there is a danger the republics now forming the Russian Federation will attempt to secede, as the Soviet republics did last year.
It is that threat, the danger of the further unravelling of Russia itself, which is the most powerful element in the appeal of new figures like Gen. Sterligov. He is convinced that Mr Yeltsin encouraged and exploited last year’s dissolution of the Soviet Union for his own power, but cannot stop the same process from occurring again.
Gen. Sterligov is quietly confident that before the winter returns, he can persuade most Russians he is the man who can.