Russia: Visions in Conflict

March 16, 1993

A few years ago, Mikhail S. Gorbachev's effort to revitalize the Soviet Union came to naught because so few could agree on the meaning of perestroika.

Many people around Mr. Gorbachev understood the term as a mandate to modernize communism and give it a human face. But a sizable portion of the party bureaucracy disagreed, wanting perestroika [restructuring] to be a policy that would make the Soviet empire work again through Marxist-Leninist purism and harsh discipline.

In the end, neither of those camps triumphed, of course. Russia came to be ruled by Boris N. Yeltsin, a maverick who forsook his communist past to preside over a vast Euro-Asian landmass sliding steadily into chaos. Now it is Mr. Yeltsin's turn to be victimized by the power establishment's inability to agree about the meaning of a political concept.

This time the quarrel is about democracy.

Through his innumerable transformations, Mr. Yeltsin has come to understand it as meaning political pluralism, free press, relatively unfettered free enterprise and the right of former constituent republics of the Soviet Union to choose their own national destiny. He is now being fiercely challenged by hardliners in Russia's parliament, who prefer the Marxist-Leninist concept democratic centralism to Western-style pluralism.

Democratic centralism, by its very nature, does not tolerate dissent. It imposes the will of one man or a collective leadership group on the people and the media. Many of Mr. Yeltsin's hardline opponents want to roll back the changes that followed the fall of communism. They want to curtail free enterprise, re-establish Moscow's hegemony over breakaway republics by grouping them into a new confederation with a single army. In foreign policy, they want to re-emphasize Russian status as a nuclear superpower and wrest the country away from its current pro-American course.

Mr. Yeltsin and Ruslan Khasbulatov, his nemesis in the current power struggle, once seemingly shared a vision. Parliament hardliners, on the other hand, have always hated Mr. Yeltsin. In 1989, he was almost excluded from that legislative body by unreconstructed communists who voted against him. He finally got in, but only after a Siberian university law lecturer gave his seat to Mr. Yeltsin.

Outside governments may not have any real way of influencing the outcome of the current political struggle in Moscow. But to Americans, the choice is clear. Unlike the dubiously rigged parliament, Mr. Yeltsin has an unquestionable and unique popular mandate. He is the only chief executive in his nation's thousand-year recorded history who has ever been elected by his people. He now needs this country's strong and clear support.

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