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Analysis From Washington - A Triumph For Democracy?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, May 9 (RFE/RL) - What happens if someone opposed to democracy uses democratic procedures to come to power? Is it ever appropriate for democratic leaders to use non-democratic means to oppose them? And how should those committed to democracy react to either case?

Such questions have long agitated democratic thinkers in the West. But recently they have taken on new urgency in the context of the Russian presidential elections.

Some in Russia and the West argue that the reelection of Boris Yeltsin and the survival of Russian democracy are virtually the same thing and that as a result, Yeltsin is justified in using almost any means -- such as putting off the vote -- to make sure that happens.

Others, again in both places, argue that if Yeltsin remains in office through the use of such measures, Russian democracy would suffer an enormous setback. They suggest that it is better to uphold the procedures even if that means someone actively opposed to democracy should come to power.

To a very great extent, this argument reflects the clash of two very different views of just what democracy is.

On the one hand, there are those who believe that democracy is a set of procedures for allowing the citizenry to express their views and that any violation of these procedures will have the most negative consequences for democratic liberties.

On the other hand are those who define democracy in substantive terms and believe that it is about outcomes. If the existing procedures do not produce these outcomes, then, this group argues, those procedures cannot be deemed democratic.

Obviously at several levels, these two definitions overlap. The procedural view acknowledges that if the procedures do not allow the population to express its views, then the procedures must be changed. And the substantive perspective generally concedes that unless certain kinds of procedures are followed, democracy does not exist.

But neither perspective completely deals with the current situation in Russia. There, some democratic institutions -- including elections -- exist, but many of the values that infuse them in the West -- including notions about the peaceful rotation of elites and the rights of both political majorities and political minorities -- are not yet widespread.

This should come as no surprise. Until very recently, Russia lacked any democratic experience to draw on. Now, in a major step forward, it has a democratically elected president. But one election -- especially a vote in which the incumbent wins -- does not a democracy make.

And no one will be justified in proclaiming that Russia is a full-fledged democracy until a sitting president is defeated at the ballot box and his opponent is to take office without violence or resistance.

In this election year, that next step may be extremely problematic because neither of Yeltsin's main opponents appears fully committed to democracy and Yeltsin's aides are warning of civil strife regardless of the electoral outcome.

But because that step -- the peaceful replacement of one leader by another through elections -- is the sine qua non of democracy, those who care about the institutionalization of that system in Russia should beware of falling into a dangerous self-deception, of proclaiming the triumph of democracy when such a victory has not yet happened.

Such people should recognize that a Yeltsin victory may keep a democrat in office but not directly advance the cause of democratization of Russia, while a victory by some of his non-democratic opponents might represent a victory for democratic procedures but at the same time quite possibly be a fundamental defeat for democracy itself.