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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Long Dark Shadow Of A Dangerous Decision

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The failure of the Russian Duma to condemn the anti-semitic statements of one of its members not only makes a new wave of anti-semitism in that country more likely but may also threaten both Russian democracy and the territorial integrity of that country.

Last Wednesday, the State Duma failed to pass a resolution censuring anti-semitic remarks by hardline Communist deputy Albert Makashov during anti-government protests in October. The measure attracted only 107 votes, far fewer than the 226 votes needed for passage. Even more, that measure was opposed by 121 deputies.

On Friday, a group of Russian artists denounced the failure of the Duma to attack, saying that the vote demonstrated "the moral and intellectual level" of the members of that Duma, "disgraced Russia in the eyes of the civilized world," and opened the door to the worst excesses of the past.

Unless people speak out, the signers of the open letter said, the Russian people will deserve whatever happens to them -- even if it means a repetition of the events of October 1993 when President Boris Yeltsin used force to disperse the old parliament or even October 1917 when Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power.

And then on Sunday, Boris Berezovsky, the executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, suggested that the consequences of the Duma vote could prove even more dramatic.

Speaking on Moscow's Ekho radio, Berezovsky said that the vote showed that the Russian Communist Party, which opposed the condemnation of Makashov's anti-semitic remarks, must be banned if Russia is to have a future.

"The Communists now represent a danger to the integrity of the Russian state," Berezovsky said. On the one hand, they have converted themselves into "national patriots and nationalists," a development that can easily lead to new clashes between the parliament and the Russian government.

And on the other, by failing to condemn anti-semitism, Berezovsky added, the Communists are "stirring up inter-ethnic discord" and ethnicizing politics, two developments that threaten both the prospects for democracy and the territorial integrity of the multi-national Russian Federation.

The policy implicit in the Communists' approach, Berezovsky argued, guarantees heightened conflicts among the country's various ethnic groups. Moreover, it demonstrates that the Communists have learned nothing from the experience of the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and thus have nothing new to offer.

"The Soviet Union disintegrated on the national formula," Berezovsky said. "And the same problem exists for Russia." Consequently, if the Communists try to take the country backward to the Soviet past, they would almost certainly promote the break-up of the Russian Federation.

In the short term, Berezovsky argued, the Communist would lead to the disintegration of the country, starting with non-Russian regions in the North Caucasus rather than with increasingly independent-minded but still ethnic Russian regions of the Far East.

At one level, of course, Berezovsky's apocalyptic vision is likely to be dismissed by many in both Russia and the West simply as a rhetorical device to mobilize support against the Communists for their failure to denounce anti-semitism.

But at another and more important level, Berezovsky's conclusions, like those of the signers of the open letter, reflect their understanding of a fundamental political reality: when a state seeks to exploit ethnic animosities to build its authority, it not only violates the human rights of the targeted groups but it also threatens democracy and stability.

And for that reason, many in both Russia and the West are likely to take his words more seriously than they would have in the past and to agree with the signers of the open letter that "if you care for peace in Russia, if you care for freedom -- including your own -- then you must act!"