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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Dilemmas Of Democratization

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Like many other parliamentary actions in post-communist states, the Russian Duma's preliminary vote against the government's privatization program is simultaneously a manifestation of democratization and a threat to its further development.

Last Thursday's preliminary vote for a non-binding resolution that is expected to be adopted this week was a manifestation of Russia's democratization in three important ways. First, many Russians are suffering from the Russian government's untrammeled and often corrupt privatization program, and their representatives are reflecting their views, even if in what may be an inappropriate way.

Second, members of the Duma are themselves becoming increasingly sophisticated in using wedge issues to undercut their opponents, in this case the government of President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and to generate support for themselves.

Even those who are appalled by this latest display of opposition to further progress toward a free market society cannot fail to be impressed by the parliament's skill in raising an issue in a way that benefits both the parliament as a whole and many of its individual members.

And third, this vote suggests that the Russian parliament is seeking to carve out a role for itself in a political system in which the president has predominant power and routinely flaunts it to cow the parliament into submission.

Within the last two weeks, for example, Yeltsin's aides have implied that the president was quite prepared to dismiss the parliament if it did not back his budget proposals. What the Duma has done thus represents another effort to counterbalance the power of the Russian executive and thus make the Russian state more democratic than it has been up to now.

For all these reasons, supporters of democratization both in Russia and abroad may thus welcome the parliament's actions even if they oppose or are even appalled by the specific content of that action.

But at the same time, this action is likely to have three consequences that will undermine these possibilities for more democracy in Russia, and these may prove to be the more important at least in the short term.

First, the parliamentary vote calls for the end to one of the most important processes promoting the decentralization of power away from the Russian state and into the hand of Russian society, a shift that is a necessary precondition for the further development of democracy in that country.

Second, this vote is likely to strengthen the views of many in Russia and the West that the only way to see economic reforms through is to back ever more powers for the executive. In Russia itself, such a conclusion would only reenforce a traditional willingness to defer to authority, a willingness that itself represents a threat to democratic values.

Abroad, and especially among those who believe that promoting economic change is the best way to promote political development, such a conclusion will undermine their moral authority among Russians who will decide that the West does not mean what it says about democracy or much else.

And third, and perhaps most significantly, this latest Duma vote raises the possibility that there could be a renewed clash between a parliament reflecting many values inherited from the Soviet past and an executive power based on a commitment to a democratic and free market future.

Because of the changes enshrined in the December 1993 Russian constitution, that clash would likely end more quickly and without the bloodshed of October 1993. But it would end not with the triumph of democracy but rather of an authority committed to democracy.

For all these reasons, then, supporters of democratization both in Russia and abroad can only be concerned by the Duma vote even if they recognize that at least in part it reflects some healthy developments in Russian society and politics.

This latest example of the dilemmas of democratization suggests why the path from a totalitarian past to democracy and free markets is so difficult and why advocates of these two valued goals must tread so carefully lest in seeking to achieve their ends, they discover that they have subverted them in the process.