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Eastern Europe/Russia: Analysis From Washington--Right, Left, Right ...

Washington, 23 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Election results this week from Lithuania and Russia highlight a fundamental fact of political life in the East:

While incumbents enjoy significant and obvious powers of office, challengers -- from both the left and the right -- have one advantage that incumbents do not. They can win votes by blaming those in power for the suffering their electorates are now going through.

In Lithuania, the Conservative Party, headed by Vytautas Landsbergis who led his country to the recovery of its independence in 1991, trounced the former communists of the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDLP), thus reversing the results of 1992. At that time, the Lithuanian voters rejected Landsbergis' conservatives and voted for the LDLP.

Meanwhile, in Russia's Kursk region, Aleksandr Rutskoi, the hardline nationalist who led the Supreme Soviet uprising against President Boris Yeltsin in October 1993, won 79 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial election against four more reformist alternatives. And other opponents of Yeltsin-backed reformers won in the Kaliningrad and Kirov regions and appear set to win in Pskov region as well.

In each case, the voters backed the challenger rather than the incumbent in the hopes that he could somehow deal with the problems now besetting them, and as the Lithuanian case shows, they may then back the other side in the next election if the new incumbents prove incapable of improving the situation.

Those who hope for the institutionalization of democracy in this region can only greet such peaceful alternations in the political fortunes of incumbents and outsiders. But the special problems of countries undergoing the many transitions these states face may make such alternations more problematic than they would be in stable democratic regimes.

The power of insurgent outsiders in these transitional societies helps to explain why so many political leaders there have been tempted to exploit the powers of incumbency up to and including electoral fraud in order to maintain their position.

Yeltsin's use of the powers of incumbency to control the media in Russia to assist his reelection and Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan's apparent use of irregularities in the voting process to keep himself in office are only two of the more notable of such efforts.

Such alternations in the political fortunes of incumbents and outsiders may make it impossible for either side ever to implement its version of reforms and survive the next election. Reformers will not be able to carry out their reforms, and the opponents of reform will not be able to completely block them, thus leading to a situation in which the people may experience the worst of both.

And that in turn may undermine the authority of democratic government for yet another reason. In such a situation, many politicians are likely to conclude that they should exploit their offices for the short time for personal gain.

Constant shifts between incumbents and outsiders, between the left and the right, could be destabilizing in another way if foreign policy questions become the primary basis of political divisions.

Such a prospect is already all too real in both the former Soviet republics and those East European countries who will not be included in NATO during the first round.

If one party becomes identified with the policies of accommodation with Moscow and another identified only with the policy of nationalist-based resistance, elections leading to shifts from one side to the other could tear apart the still fragile fabric of democracy in these states.

Thus, while many in both these countries and the West will want to see the Landsbergis victory as portending one thing for Lithuania and the Rutskoi triumph another thing for Russia, no final conclusions seem justified.