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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- 'Unanimously'

Prague, 8 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- During the weekend, a political party claiming to speak for Russia's Muslims and other minorities did something more reminiscent of Soviet times than of democratic societies. According to the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass, it voted "unanimously" to back acting Russian President Vladimir Putin for election.

Given Putin's lead in the polls, this action by the Refakh movement passed largely unnoticed. After all, ever more groups are jumping on Putin's bandwagon. But by declaring that its delegates had taken this decision "unanimously," Refakh has taken a step that recalls the Soviet past and raises questions about Russia's democratic future.

Soviet leaders prided themselves on gaining unanimous or virtually unanimous support for their decisions. Until the Gorbachev era, government bodies and Communist Party committees almost inevitably voted "unanimously." And voters routinely approved carefully selected candidates with 99.9 percent or more of the vote.

Such unanimity reflected not agreement but rather a continuing effort by the party both to portray itself as being in possession of scientific truth about all things and to intimidate those who might object to one or another aspect of the party's policies into concluding that they were both few in number and completely isolated from the mainstream.

At the end of the Soviet period, this unanimity collapsed as government bodies like the Congress of Peoples' Deputies demonstrated that there were real and deep divisions about almost every question and that the political community tended to divide differently depending on the issue involved.

Many Soviet citizens who had become accustomed to unanimous decisions, to the sense that their country was united on all major questions, were profoundly troubled by this change. But many more were empowered by the discovery that disagreement did not necessarily lead to disaster and that being in a minority on one issue did not mean being an outcast on all.

Indeed, that sense of political possibilities underlay Russia's halting steps toward democracy after 1991. First in the Supreme Soviet and then in the State Duma, the politicians seldom voted unanimously for anything. Instead, they have remained divided, even fragmented and often were unable to reach a decision at all.

That is often the way of democratic societies. But because relatively few Russians had any experience with that aspect of democracy, many of them were troubled by it and have welcomed the decisiveness of individual leaders such as President Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s and Putin now.

Some of them, the recent action by Refakh suggests, apparently would like to go further, to return to a time of unanimous decisions and the social unanimity that such decisions appear to reflect. But such a shift entails three dangers which may give pause to some of those who are superficially attracted to this option.

First, decisions reported as "unanimous" are seldom unanimous in fact. Rather they reflect the power of a leader or leadership group to impose its will and stifle opposition. But such power is not a source of strength but rather one of weakness.

Not only does it mean that the real issues cannot be thrashed out in public, but it also means that minorities on one issue can seldom hope to gain a majority on others in the absence of radical and ratchet-like change.

Second, "unanimous" decisions by their very nature are intended by the leaders who insist on them to be intimidating, to force those who disagree into silence and thus reduce still further their chances for finding support.

And third, and perhaps most dangerous of all, "unanimous" decisions give a false sense that everyone agrees. They suggest that the leaders do not have to worry about opposition, that everyone is satisfied, and that things can continue without radical change for as long as the leaders maintain power.

At present, "unanimity" does not seem to be the biggest problem on the Russian political landscape. But Refakh's decision to do something "unanimously" is a straw in a wind that is pointing in the wrong direction.