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Analysis From Washington -- Open Politics and Closed

  • Paul Goble



Washington, June 24 (RFE/RL) -- The balance between open and closed politics in Moscow last week indicates both how much has changed in Russian political life -- and how little.

On the one hand, the shifts at the top of the Russian government clearly reflect the new power of open politics in Russian life. President Boris Yeltsin would not have elevated Aleksandr Lebed to the Security Council save for the latter's unexpectedly high finish in the first round of the voting.

Nor would Yeltsin have removed his closest cronies and his defense minister had he not been interested in positioning himself for victory in the second round. That now seems assured.

On the other hand, the way in which these changes were made -- with rumors of conspiracies, planned coups and arrests in the night -- reflects how little has changed from the closed Kremlin politics of the past.

And such methods breed both cynicism on the part of Russians themselves and confusion among Western observers.

More than one Russian has told Western journalists that the personnel changes around the Russian president reflect less policy than politics and that, in any event, those just removed are likely to land somewhere else or even return at some point in the future.

And Western analytic opinion has now split into two groups. One includes those who analyze the latest changes as if they had taken place in a long-established democracy. Such people conclude that the Russian people have spoken for reform and that their leaders have listened and responded in a normal and appropriate way.

And the other group consists of those who see the elections being an occasion for rather than a cause of these changes, who point to a possible Yeltsin-Lebed accord even before the vote, and who doubt that the elections represent the confirmation of Russian democracy that the first group of analysts see.

As is so often the case, the actual situation contains elements from both perspectives.

Obviously, the Russian elections mattered profoundly. They forced Yeltsin and the other political leaders to appear in public, to make promises and to build coalitions. In Yeltsin's case, the election campaign by itself seemed to revive him from the torpor into which he had fallen during the last year.

Moreover, the elections clearly showed what the Russian people were most concerned about -- overcoming current economic difficulties, fighting crime, and ending the Chechen conflict. As in other countries, all the leading candidates had to address these and not other issues.

And the vote, largely because of Yeltsin's skill in transforming them from a referendum on his stewardship in office into a question of whether the Russian people wanted to return to the past, marked another step toward the repudiation of that past. That in and of itself made this election important.

At the same time, however, the way in which Yeltsin and the political leadership have conducted themselves since the first round raises some disturbing questions about how politics at the top of the Russian political pyramid will be played out.

While replacing some or all officials after an election is normal for established democracies, doing so on the basis of what looks like pre-election agreements among competitors or talking about some kind of palace conspiracy is not.

And the fact that the rotation of virtually the same people in and out and then back into the government by the same president suggests if it does not prove that that president can and will change just as dramatically in the future. That highlights the power of the office of the presidency rather than that of democracy itself.

In short, the Russian elections represent a major step forward on the path toward democracy, but they are by no means the last step on that long road.
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