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Make them truly democratic: Yeltsin's elections.


Elections in Russia, which President Boris Yeltsin has set for December, will be conducted according to the government's script, under the government's control and by the government's rules. The Central Election Commission, appointed by Yeltsin and composed mainly of turncoat former deputies, is denying the right to participate in its work not just to representatives of the opposition but to anyone with any degree of competence.

Throughout October, the commission was concerned mainly with mapping out electoral districts. This was done in such a manner that regions that had voted against Yeltsin in the April 1993 referendum had an average of 590,000 voters per electoral mandate, while in pro-Yeltsin districts the corresponding figure was only 456,000. On the scale of the country as a whole, this means that millions of votes cast for opposition candidates will simply not count.

In any case, Western election observers will watch only the people actually putting their ballots into the box. The preparation for the elections and the formation of local election commissions, which will determine the registration of candidates locally and are supposed to create a level playing field, are now under way, but without outside scrutiny. Foreigners, to use a Russian saying, will see how we gobble the porridge, but now how it was cooked up. The independence of international observers will be severely restricted. They must register with the election commission, which may at any time strip them of their authority or even deport them.

The present lack of oversight is, in itself, sufficient reason to refuse to participate in the forthcoming elections, just as democratic circles in Russia refused in 1905 to participate in the rigged "Bulygin Duma." But a boycott would make sense only if the majority of the opposition were united. On the contrary, almost all opposition forces, from the Centrists to the Communists, which criticized Yeltsin's plans to elect the "illegal parliament," have already announced their willingness to take part in the vote. Only the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, the Party of Labor and the left-wing faction of the social democrats are boycotting. All this reflects the weakness of legal and civil consciousness in Russia. But what else can one expect in a country that, after more than seventy years of Communist dictatorship, shifted with hardly any interim stage to authoritarian "presidential rule"?

In such a context Western political activists could still take some initiative. I am not talking about those people who made demagogic pronouncements of "support for democracy" while simultaneously endorsing the assassination of the first and only freely elected Parliament of Russia. Rather, I am talking about those who sincerely desire to see a free Russia. There must be international control over the preparations for the elections and over the work of the electoral commissions. And this must be done immediately, not in December when it will be too late to have any effect.



President Boris Yeltsin's repudiation of his promise to submit to early presidential elections somewhat cooled the West's enthusiasm for him. Although Yeltsin later said that his decree on constitutional reform, which had set presidential elections for June 12, 1994, still stands, his earlier statement inspired fears abroad: If he violates his own promises in internal politics, will he be an unreliable partner in foreign policy matters? For us in Russia there are many other questions that for some reason remain barely touched upon by the Western media.

After the events of October 3 and 4, which ended with Yeltsin's tanks crushing the Parliament, we live in a different Russia. The extremism of the authorities has removed moral constraints from politics and has split society. Imposed revolution is winning out over reform. What can be done to keep Russia from sliding further into the abyss? There are many possible prescriptions, but I am interested in a way out of the current crisis that preserves the momentum of democratic development; only a democratic perspective can insure a worthy future for Russia. Proposals to creep toward democracy through authoritarianism are illusory because they are politically untenable and because of Russian traditions and experience. Those who say "Well, we'll just repress the opposition and then build a society based on the rule of law" are naive.

Examining the course of events, one begins to wonder whether Russia should have begun the reforms at all. What was the point? To replace the all-powerful Communist Party with a single guiding and ruling (or "democratizing") party? Or to prove that we cannot get by without an unchanging and all-powerful nomenklatura entrenching itself in the legislative and executive branches? I couldn't believe my ears when I heard Sergei Filatov, the head of Yeltsin's administration, declare that Yeltsin's proposed constitution provision allowing a minister to serve simultaneously in the legislature was not in and of itself undemocratic. This principle would be fine under a parliamentary form of government. But Yeltsin's constitution calls for a presidential republic, and in such a republic any attempt to implement this principle would lead directly to the usurpation of power by a small oligarchic group and the establishment of a dictatorship.

Riding a wave of euphoria after the "October victory," the authorities have practically eliminated the opposition, although they have tried in every way possible to prove just the opposite. With typical Bolshevik confidence in their own infallibility, they again want to convince us that they will use undemocratic methods temporarily because they have no other choice. How many times has that already happened in Russian history. We all know how it ends.

How legitimate can parliamentary elections be at all when they are based on a presidential decree and not on the 1989 Law on Elections? Can such elections really give the government a mandate to carry out enormous, complex reforms when only 25 percent of registered voters need participate for them to be declared valid, as allowed by the new and hastily adopted rules? Theoretically, a candidate could win with less than 10 percent of the vote.

More generally, why was it deemed necessary to hold elections so quickly? So that the opposition would not have time to regroup? This would explain the Yeltsinites' clever plan to allow two large and well-organized opposition forces, the People's Party of Free Russia and the Communist Party, to participate in the elections, but only well after the campaign had already begun. In fact, the government's delaying action stemmed not from the October events but from the "Polish syndrome"--the fear that like the Poles, Russians might vote out the current government in favor of the leftist opposition.

Why did the Yeltsin leadership take complete control of the work of the commissions that are to supervise the elections? Where else in the world does the executive branch do this? It's like a soccer game in which the captain of one of the teams is referee. The Yeltsinites can argue that the executive must take charge because there is no legislative branch at the moment. But the absence of the latter only makes it that much more important to preclude all possible suspicion of ruling-party abuse of procedures and vote-counting.

The Yeltsinites should understanding that the October events were not a rear-guard battle against the forces of yesterday; they reflected a wave of social discontent that adventurists tried to harness. Russia needs a search for agreement that takes into consideration the interests of all the various social groups, not a "war against the opposition." If the President continues to listen exclusively to the "democrats" around him, the authorities will soon find themselves in conflict not only with their opponents but also with all of society. What then? Another state of emergency?

For this reason, it is extremely important to get back to the rule of law, to the constitutional field of politics. Outside this field, the only game possible is one without any rules, in which the basic argument will always be force.

Conclusion: Elections must be so free and so democratic that the authorities cannot set up a new one-party model. It does not matter how many parties compete in the elections so long as a real opposition is able to operate. What must be done to guarantee this?

[section] Elections should be postponed for a month or two to allow all political parties sufficient time to prepare for them. Sources of campaign finance must be publicy disclosed and discussed.

[Section] For the elections to be legitimate, the repuired level of participation must be raised to 50 percent of registered voters, as it was before.

[Section] The Central Election Commission and its local affiliates should give equal representation to all political forces. Otherwise the governemnt will be suspected of following the Stalinist precept that "it's not important who votes, it's important who counts the votes."

[Section] No one should be allowed to hold posts in both the executive and legislative branches. The principle of separation of powers was one of the most important achievements of the young Russian democracy since the late 1980s. And considering the catastrophic state of the economy, ministers should be working twenty-five hours a day rather than getting involved in election campaigns.

[Section] All political forces participating in the elections must be guaranteed equal access to the media, including state-controlled television. Let's hope the authorities will allow this--if not on their own initiative, then at least under the pressure of world opinion.


"The United States does not easily support ['e suspension of parliaments. But these are extraordinary times." Thus spoke Secretary of State Warren Christopher in October in Moscow, where the announced President Clinton's proposed mid-January visit. The step was clearly designed to Signal U.S. approval of the Russian elections scheduled for December 12, even though under the best of circumstances those elections will be terribly biased. Why did Christopher enact such a comedy? Because, he said, President Clinton is full of admiration for the "courage" of Boris Yeltsin in his struggles for "democracy" and "free-market reform."

The shelling of the Russian Parliament is not the only thing our "democrats" have to swallow. They must not cover up or rationalize actions by the Yelstin government that have, to put it midly, a very remote relationship with democracy:L seizure of total control over telvision, management of the other mass media, bans on political parties and newspapers. Freedom, it would seen, depends on the whim of the master. Thus Pravda and Sovetskaya Rossivya were graciously told that they could resume publication--if they charged their names and their editors!

The manner in which the new consititution is being introduced is even odder. The draft produced by a special conference spfonsored by Yeltsin has now been rewritten by his servants to make it even more to his measure. It will become law if it is approved by half the electorate, but whatever happens, it will not be debated by any parlimentary assembly, neither the old Supreme Soviet nor the new Federal Assembly provided for in the draft. In announcing thsi procedure, Yeltsin revealed he no longer intends to hold a presidential election next June. Sergei Filatov, head of his administration, explained that the original promise to hold an election was no longer binding. Once you have sent in the tanks, who cares about a broken pledge? (Yeltsin's later statement implying that the election was on after all was even less binding.)

If you are unconcerned about constitutional niceties, you may be shocked by the "ethnic cleansing" in Moscow. The emergency laws have enabled police in the capital to carry out mass raids against Causcasians, who are being beaten up and deproted by lthe thousands. (In Russia "Caucasian" refers to a denizen of the Caucasus-Armenians, Georgians and other Chechens--whom Russians regard as drakies.) Yeltsin's advocates defend the crackdown on the grounds that the "Caucasian mafia" dominated the food market and the a majority of Muscovites approve. Yet was it necessary to attack only one of the many mafias, selected on the basis of ethnicity and thus pandering to the lowest instincts of Russians? While the police raids do not go unreported in the Western press, they fail to provoke the worth of our editorialists, once so full of moral indignation over brelaches of democracy in Eastern Europe.

Do I hear voices from the right jeering at the cheek of someone of the left preaching against double standards in the coverage of Russia? There is, alas, an element of historical truth in the charge. For many years, a good section of the Western left, for all sorts of reasons (the end justified the means, the future was being forged in the Soviet Union, etc.), turned a blind eye toward, or even glorified, crimes committed in the name of socialism. Though the sin is an ancient one and the number of unconditional supporters of the Soviet Union dwindled in the last quarter-century, the left is still paying a price. For many people, and not only in Eastern Europe, socialism is still associated with Soviet repression, with the gulag.

What is exasperating is that indulgence for Stalin's crimes ran directly counter to what the left stands for. If socialism is a movement from below, if it means a gradual conquet by the people, changing themselves as they change society, then domocracy is the very air it breathes. Freedom is "always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently"; "without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every pubic institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element." Those quotations are from a text written by Rosa Luxemburg seventy-five years ago, when to use the term "democratic socialism" was like saying buttery butter.

But didn't genuine socialists mock bourgeois democralcy and its formal rights? They did and, since the value of a freedowm is most appreciated when one is deprived of it, they mayt well have altered the emphasis after Russia's bitter experience--the emphasis, though not the criticism itself. They had described bourgeous constitutional rights as formal because they were insufficiently democratic. The did not propose to abolish them but to give them a full meaning by filling them with social content through economic justice and equality. Even today you cannot define democracy as one person, one vote and postulate the equality of voters in a society where, say, financier Geroge Soros claims he pockets more than $1 billion in a week of clever speculation--an amount an American on the minimum wage would earn only after working for more than 100,000 years (no the printer did not make a mistake), provided she was lucky enough to work a forty-hour week each year.

Differing analysis of our society, and the political consequences drawn from them, will always separate the socialist from the liberal. But that does not mean lthey cannot stand together, on the same platform or on parallel ones, in the struggle for basic freedoms. Indeed, in the campaign against repression in Russia, such an alliance is indispensable for the prosaic reason that the liberal voice carries more weight both in Washington and in Moscow. Let the true beleivers in the rights of humankid stand up and be counted. Let them condemn police programs in Moscow and violations of the elementary rights of the opposition. Let them send honest observers at once to monitor this electoral campaign--paticularly to places far from Moscow--to prevent the vote from being a total farce. To claim that observers sent by the National Endowment for Democracy, as was proposed by the U.S. government, will keep the Yeltsin boys in check is like sending fellow travelers to insure the fairness of the poll in stalin's time. As to the propagandists, high and low, who are determined to present apparatchik Yelstin turned Czar Boris as the apostle of freedom, if they carry on much longer, "free market democracy" will join "the white man's burden" in the lexicon of capitalist cant.
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Title Annotation:three observations; Boris Yeltsin
Author:Kagarlitsky, Boris; Likhotal, Aleksandr; Singer, Daniel
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 6, 1993
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