The Populist Danger in Russia


June 17, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The Russian Republic has had its election, but the result does little to solve its critical problems, which are the need for economic and industrial reconstruction, and for solid work. Boris Yeltsin is a populist, and populism in practice is nearly always a negative rather than constructive force, exalting the ordinary man's ideas and virtues over those of experts (''so-called experts'' is the usual term), professional managers, mainstream politicians.

In view of what mainstream communism has done to Russia, and to the rest of the Soviet Union, this populist reaction is amply understandable. Russian populism has a history, though. In 19th-century Russia the Narodniks advocated the reconstruction of society on the basis of self-governing peasant communes, where the ancestral virtue of simple Russians would have full play, with Holy Russia a loose confederation of these communes. This was an intellectuals' populism, and when it went nowhere the movement degenerated into terrorism. Logically so: If politicians and experts are usurpers of the people's power, they have to be got rid of one way or another.

Mr. Yeltsin is not an intellectual populist, although he is an intelligent man whom many have underestimated. However, while he rightly attacks the Communist Party and the Soviet political class, he has offered no very coherent program to substitute for what they have been doing. Two of the other Russian presidential candidates, Nikolai Ryzhkov, the former Soviet prime minister, and Vadim Bakatin, former interior minister, had stronger programs; but programs were not what counted in this election. Essentially it was a repudiation of communism: Anything that followed had to be better.

The result is a further blow to Mikhail Gorbachev. From the beginning, however, he has been trapped in the dilemma that communism is both the source of his legitimacy as ruler of the U.S.S.R. and the cause of all that has gone wrong. He is obliged to defend the principles of the system while trying to repudiate the practice, which simply is no longer feasible. Hence he is close to becoming a used-up man.

Democracy is no simple affair. Americans take it for granted, having had it so long, yet from the earliest American constitutional debates the recognized threats to democracy were not only a restored monarchy, or dictatorship, but also what later was called the tyranny of the majority -- the populist threat.

The United States possesses its multiple constitutional and legal checks and balances, and its Bill of Rights, because its founders feared kings on the one hand and the power of mass opinion driven by emotion and demagogy on the other. This was a preoccupation of Tocqueville's, writing on America three decades later. ''Despotism,'' he said, ''appears to be peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic times.''

Simply giving people the vote does not produce useful debate on coherently formulated issues, or serious programs of common national action. One reason democracy was not much of a success before the war in the Balkans and parts of Eastern Europe was that the parties there were concerned with partisan power, not compromise, and represented static forces in society: ethnic, social or economic blocs with inflexible interests, hostile to a general interest.

In place of American and West European-style parties, which, despite their ideological and social commitments and constituencies, usually debate issues on their merits, Eastern Europe had ethnic parties, peasant parties and middle-class parties, clerical and anti-clerical parties. Each stood for something uncompromisable.

A Slovak politician could yield nothing to a Czech because the Czech-Slovak relationship was considered a zero-sum game. Anything one gained, the other lost. It was the same thing between Serbs and Croats, Transylvanians and Romanians, Catholics and anti-clerical Liberals, property-holders and peasants, the defenders of agricultural interests and those of industry.

We now are seeing a return to this in parts of the ex-communist world -- even in Czechoslovakia and Poland, where resistance to communism had in recent years produced among the dissidents a moral enlightenment and level of personal abnegation that seemed to reproach those of us in the West who are mired in the often-petty quarrels and murky compromises of democracy.

The old partisanship has come back to an extent in Hungary. It certainly is apparent in Romania. It is the dominating political feature of Yugoslavia today, drawing that country toward civil war or partition. Ethnic partisanship threatens to tear apart the Soviet Union.

The election in Russia of Boris N. Yeltsin was a true act of democracy in a society whose experience is only of dictators and tsars. Debate was open and vivid, the candidates numerous, the vote free and decisive. That accomplishment, however, is only a start. What follows now is what will determine Russia's future.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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