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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Democracy And Stability Conflict

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Many Russian leaders are urging the use of authoritarian means in order to ensure the stability of their country. And many Western analysts and officials appear to have accepted their logic.

But any return to authoritarianism, the historical record suggests, would be unlikely to promote genuine stability. Over the long haul, democracies have proved to be more stable than authoritarian systems. They provide governments with the legitimacy any regime needs to do its job, they respond more promptly and thoroughly to popular demands, and they establish rules for orderly transitions from one leader to another.

Nonetheless, the reasons behind both the Russian proposals and Western acceptance of them are compelling: if democracies are more stable once they are in place, transitions from authoritarian rule to a democratic system often are more unstable than either the authoritarian past or the democratic future.

That such demands should be put forward by leaders interested in expanding their own power or by populations suffering from the tensions of the transition is hardly surprising. But what is surprising and even disturbing is the increasing willingness of some Western observers to accept or even advocate that a little -- supposedly temporary -- authoritarianism may be not only necessary but acceptable.

In the last month alone, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has argued that the governors of Russia's widespread regions should be appointed by Moscow rather than elected by the people in their areas. Such an arrangement, Primakov suggests, is necessary to ensure that the governors will obey Moscow's orders rather than respond to the views of their immediate constituents.

While such a change would require amending the Russian constitution and would be opposed by many Russians, some in Russia as well as in the West see Primakov's proposal as a necessary if potentially problematic step given Moscow's current inability to run the country.

In both places, such views are likely to be reinforced by Russian and Western press coverage of recent statements by Sergei Karaganov, the chairman of Moscow's Council on Defense and Foreign Policy, a grouping of business and political leaders, and a scholar who over the last decade has regularly attracted much attention in Russia and the West.

According to Karaganov and his council, Moscow is no longer able to impose its will on the regions or even to insist on a general policy line. It cannot pay its military, it cannot pay its judges, and it may soon fall into the category of a failed state "like Angola, Somalia and others" which "are in the process of factual disintegration even as they formally retain their integrity."

Such a situation is especially terrifying to Russians who have rarely lived through a period when Moscow is weak and largely ignored by the rest of the country. And thus an increasing number of them are willing to listen to Primakov, Karaganov and others who argue that Moscow must take back power lest the country fall apart.

But this situation is also terrifying to many in the West. If the international community has largely come to terms with failed states in Africa and Asia because they pose few challenges to outsiders, it is much less comfortable with the idea of a failed state in Russia.

On the one hand, there are still enormous numbers of weapons of mass destruction on the territory of the Russian Federation, and no one wants to see such weapons fall into the wrong hands and possibly be used against the West. On the other, ever more people in the West have accepted the idea of Weimar Russia, the notion that Russia could slide toward a red-brown fascism much as Weimar Germany did in giving way to Adolf Hitler's regime. And consequently, they are prepared to accept, even back authoritarian measures by Primakov in order to prevent that from happening.

But there are three compelling reasons why anyone who accepts that logic in the Russian case may be making a serious mistake. First, Primakov will not be in office forever, and any authoritarian arrangements he introduces might be used by his successors in ways that no one committed to democracy or stability could want.

Second, any effort to impose order in the ways Primakov is suggesting could backfire, triggering the very collapse of the state that he says he opposes. After all, the Soviet Union fell apart eight years ago less because of Mikhail Gorbachev's loosening of the reins than because having loosened them, he tried to take back power and no one in the republics wanted to yield it.

And third, as Yeltsin's spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin said recently, free elections in Russia both across the federation and in the regions are a remarkable "achievement for democracy" and a step forward that is "hard to renounce and should not be renounced."

Or Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of American democracy put it even more sharply: "Those who would sacrifice essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."