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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Hyphenate Discredited

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 16 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The return of communist-era officials to positions of power in the Russian government represents a major defeat for free market democracy as a strategy, if not a goal, for post-communist countries.

But even more, it highlights the dangers involved in seeking to promote any form of hyphenated democracy, one in which the political system of rule by the people is made dependent on any other issue.

During the Cold War, many in both communist countries and the West concluded that the concept of "peoples' democracy" was two lies for the price of one. But after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, many in both East and West began to press for a new hyphenate-free market democracy.

The logic for this as a goal seemed compelling. On the one hand, democracy would free the population to define its own goals, thus making market relationships more attractive. And on the other, a free market would decentralize power away from the state, thus making democracy more stable.

But to the extent that free market democracy became not a goal but rather a strategy, it required post-communist countries to make two transitions simultaneously: to move from dictatorship to democracy and from state socialism to a free market.

And as the situation in the Russian Federation has demonstrated, the simultaneous pursuit of both has made the achievement of either more problematic precisely because of the tensions that these shifts generate, at least in the initial stages.

The pursuit of a free market has had the effect of dislocating many who had found a place in the old system, of dramatically increasing income differentiation in societies that had known little of it, and of creating a situation in which many felt they would remain permanent losers.

Meanwhile, the pursuit of democracy has allowed the grievances such conditions inevitably generate to be expressed at the ballot box, given opportunities for representatives of the communist past to present themselves as the defenders of the population, and generated negative attitudes toward foreign governments and institutions that have pressed for free market democracy.

Within the Russian Federation and certain other post-communist states, that has meant that the incomplete introduction of market relations has had a negative impact on the still new democratic political forms.

And that in turn has had the effect of discrediting both the idea of democracy and that of the free market. After all, in the minds of many Russians, neither has yet been able to provide them with the better life they seek, and the problems of the transition in each have tended to poison views about the other.

At the same time, the strategy of free market democracy advocated by many Western experts and governments has had some negative consequences on the West as well. On the one hand, it has meant that Western officials often have had to bless as democratic behavior that is clearly not when those engaging in it are seen as promoting free market values.

And on the other, it has meant that Western officials have often opposed the expression of popular attitudes via democratic means when those attitudes are antagonistic to the development of a free market.

Both of these trends have undercut the moral authority of both the concepts of democracy and free markets and also of the Western governments and individuals who have urged them. That in turn has made it more rather than less likely that Russians will turn away from the very goals that would in the longer term benefit them.

This contradiction between democracy and free markets as strategies is less obvious in the non-Russian countries. Because governments and peoples there can draw on a sense of national achievement because of the events of 1991, many of them have found it easier to pursue both goals at the same time.

But because the Russian government and most Russians view the collapse of the Soviet Union as anything but a good thing and because no Russian government to date has been willing or able to pursue an openly nationalist policy, the Russian Federation has not been able to escape the consequences of this particular form of hyphenated democracy.

If the Russian government chooses to pursue both democracy and free markets in the future, it will almost certainly turn to a more nationalist rhetoric to justify the short-term sacrifices such an approach will entail.

But if it chooses a different path, as some indications coming out of Moscow now suggest, at least part of the reason for that will be the pursuit of a form of hyphenated democracy that as a strategy if not a goal was inherently problematic.