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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Democracy, Free Markets And Peace

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The results of the Russian parliamentary election this week call into question the widely-held belief that democracy, free market economics, and peaceful behavior automatically and necessarily reinforce one another.

Taking advantage of their franchise, Russian voters last Sunday overwhelmingly cast their ballots for some parties committed to market reforms but not to peace, for others committed to free market economics but not to democracy, and for still a third group of parties committed to neither.

Fewer than one Russian in ten cast a ballot for Grigoriy Yavlinsky's Yabloko, the only party clearly committed to genuinely democratic forms of government, free market reforms rather than the oligarchic control, and peace rather than aggression in Chechnya.

This Russian pattern, of course, does not by itself call into question the logic that underlies the conviction that these three things are somehow related. Free market economics do lead to the dispersal of power that makes democracy possible, and democracy undoubtedly thrives when people feel they have a real stake in the system.

Moreover, citizens in a position to control their own destinies through the ballot box and the marketplace generally are going to be less interested in making war on other than in defending the rights and privileges they enjoy.

But if this logic remains compelling, the results of the Russian election highlight three aspects of the relationship among them that many in both Russia and the West have tended to ignore.

First, if democracy, free markets, and peace reinforce each other once they are established in a country, they may not work that way in countries seeking to make the transition from totalitarianism. There, progress in one area may be accompanied by retreats elsewhere.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has used the war in Chechnya to generate support for himself and his Unity party via democratic elections, tapping into and exacerbating some of the worst features of nationalist feelings.

Russia's oligarchs, including people like Boris Berezovsky, have used the elections to gain the immunity of a deputy and thus restrict rather than expand economic reform. And the Communist Party used the vote to mobilize those who have been left behind economically and who seek security in forms that might prove less democratic than those of today.

Second, if democracy remains only a set of procedures for expressing the will of the majority rather than a system of values that recognizes the rights of minorities, some leaders may be able to mobilize nationalist passions which threaten not only free markets and peace but democracy itself.

A generation ago, Israeli political scientist J.L. Talmon published a book entitled "Totalitarian Democracy," in which he described a situation in which leaders use the forms of democracy to override individual rights, discriminate against ethnic and political minorities, and mobilize their populations for war.

Such a system, Talmon noted, substituted the form of democracy for its content, a switch that some observers fear may be happening now in Russia given the campaign Putin's government is conducting in Chechnya and against people from the Caucasus.

And third, however interrelated these three goals may be, the Russian events suggest that those who want them all must work for each rather than assuming that pushing one forward will be sufficient to achieve the other two. Many in both Russia and the West have acted in the belief that economic reform is the key to both democracy and peaceful cooperation, an approach that has sometimes led those who take this position to call things democracy and peace when they are not.

If the Russian election leads ever more people to recognize this danger, then this vote may ultimately help to produce the "peaceful revolution" in a place where some are already claiming it has happened.