St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak at U-M
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During his visit to Ann Arbor, February 26-28, Anatoly Sobchak, mayor of St. Petersburg, member of the Supreme Consultative Council under the Russian President, and professor of law at St. Petersburg State University, discussed the current political and economic situation in the Russian Federation, expressed optimism about the future of democratic and market reforms, and denied presidential aspirations.
Sobchak is one of the leading figures in Russia's democratic movement. He entered politics in 1989 when he was elected, in the Soviet Union's first competitive multi-candidate elections, to the Congress of People's Deputies. He became a member of the coordinating committee of the Interregional Deputies Groupan association of democratic deputies which included Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Sakharovand his critical and eloquent speeches during the Congress sessions earned him widespread popularity. He became president of the Leningrad City Council in 1990, and was elected mayor of newly renamed St. Petersburg the following year. In August 1991, he persuaded local military leaders not to attack the city, thus ensuring that the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev did not spread. He supported President Yeltsin during both the 1991 coup and the October 1993 civil unrest. He is a leader of the Movement for Democratic Reform, a coalition of several democratic parties founded in 1991, and most recently, he participated in the drafting of the new Russian constitution, which was ratified in 1993.
While in Ann Arbor, Sobchak served as the DeRoy: Graf Visiting Professor in Honors, conducting seminars for students in the University's Honors Program. He met with University of Michigan president James Duderstadt and with faculty members from various divisions. He also talked with Detroit- and Ann Arbor-based corporate leaders interested in international business. He held a press conference and delivered a public lecture on "The New Russian Constitution: Law as the Basis for Building a Democratic Society."
As mayor of St. Petersburg, Sobchak created a free economic zone in the city, which gave it the right to conduct foreign trade and to set taxes and import duties. His priorities include the de-monopolization of public economic sectors and the establishment of private property. At present, Sobchak told students, 72% of St. Petersburg's formerly state-owned property, including enterprises, has been privatized. He has also succeeded in attracting investment to his city; some 9,000 foreign and joint venture firms currently operate there.
During his Ann Arbor appearances, Sobchak was questioned several times about the war in Chechnya. While he denied Chechnya's right to secede from the Russian Federation, Sobchak argued that the Russian government could have applied political and economic pressure to resolve the situation. Instead, acting out of inertia and the mental habits left over from the communist system, leaders tried to solve the problem by force. The war, Sobchak asserted, was a grave political mistake. If the Russian army had actually been able to defeat Chechen forces in two hours, as Defense Minister Grachev had promised, the result would have been a dangerous increase of military control in Russia. As it is, the Chechen war will force the implementation of much-needed military reform, Sobchak explained.
Sobchak praised Boris Yeltsin as a courageous leader, but cited as Yeltsin's greatest weakness the President's inability to chose good advisers. Sobchak himself does not plan to seek the presidency, and has promised to campaign for whichever democratic reformist candidate runs during next year's elections.
Sobchak's visit to Ann Arbor was sponsored by the Ann Arbor-based Avfuel Corporation, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Honors Program, the International Institute, and the William Davidson Institute. Sobchak was accompanied by his wife, Dr. Liudmila Narusova. A specialist on the history of 19th-century Russian social thought; she delivered a lecture entitled, "The Liberation Movement in 19th-Century Russia."
Sobchak on . . .
There are several reasons for the rise of nationalism. First is the disintegration of the empire. There are always people who get upset about it, who suffer over it. Nationalists [play on] nostalgia and the desire to revive the Soviet Union.
Second is the situation of the 25 million Russians who have found themselves living in areas outside of Russia that were part of the former USSR, people now in the position of being minorities who are discriminated against. Nationalists within Russia use as one of their main slogans the abnormal situation of Russians outside of Russia.
The third, perhaps most important, reason is that communist slogans are not popular in Russia now. And even the communist party does not campaign under Marxist-Leninist slogans. But for all of the supporters of the previous regime, nationalism is the most comfortable form This has happened in most all of the countries of the post-communist world, where nationalist movements are headed by either former communist functionaries or former officers.
All of our nationalists smell badly; they smell of fascism.
The Russian "Mafia"
American readers imagine the kind of Mafia that exists in the United States, but there is no such Mafia in Russia. We ourselves facilitated the foundation of the [Russian] Mafia when, in 1992, the Supreme Soviet, under the leadership of [Ruslan] Khasbulatov, passed a law on the establishment of private security structures. Thanks to this, we ourselves legalized bandits. People until then had no legal right to carry weapons, now any three [of these] bandits can register themselves as a private security agency and receive the right to carry arms. And if he has an official right to carry weapons, tomorrow he can come to you and say, you need protection, I will defend you. I would like 10 per cent of your profits, and everything will be OK.' This is the scheme by which the Russian Mafia works.
Deborah Field is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, and a Research Assistant at the Center for Russian and East European Studies.