The buck never stops in Russian politics TURMOIL IN RUSSIA

March 26, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Like its command economy, Russia's old command political system has irretrievably broken down here, leading to the bitter battle that has paralyzed the government and worried the world.

Russia is being run by politicians who -- in general -- learned their trade as members of the Communist Party. In that political world, everyone knew how to succeed.

"You had to understand your orders," said one graduate of a political institute, "and then you had to carry them out."

Now, overnight, everything has changed. The entire society must be created anew, every institution rebuilt. Somehow, the political system must cope with a nearly unimaginable task. It must find a way for this nation to agree on what it wants to be, and then it must find a way to get it there.

This heavy burden has fallen on a generation of politicians uniquely unprepared for such demands.

The Communist Party -- the only party for 70 years -- is in wide disrepute, and its former members have scattered into countless factions, many unwilling to be tainted by membership in any party at all.

The politicians trained under the party system succeeded if they knew their Lenin and Marx and did what they were told. There was little incentive for compromise or negotiation when much could be accomplished by simply denouncing an unfortunate rival.

"Even the Russian press likes to give commands," said Vladimir Yusef, a disgruntled citizen. "They don't give us facts; they tell us what to think."

The old party system depended on the general secretary of the Communist Party deciding on the orders, then on everyone from politicians to reporters carrying them out without question. Today, the politicians are still giving orders, but no one has to carry them out.

The Russian parliament and its speaker, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, don't like President Boris N. Yeltsin's economic policy. Compromise is impossible, so they amend the constitution to block his orders.

Mr. Yeltsin threatens and rails at his tormentors and finally issues order giving himself special powers to ignore parliament.

Hearing the threat on television, Valery D. Zorkin, the nation's chief judge, accuses Mr. Yeltsin of staging a coup.

Mr. Yeltsin's opponents decide the problem can best be solved by impeaching him. And they don't think beyond tomorrow. Those who might replace him haven't the faintest idea what they might do with the power. None has offered a better way of leading the nation; none has figured out how to avoid the civil war each side accuses the other of precipitating.

For these politicians, no reward ever lay ahead for developing a sharp sense of strategy. There was no impulse to think ahead -- because there was no punishment for anything but disobeying orders.

"You [in the United States] have traditions," said Vladimir L. Novikov, a factory director. "We don't. We have many parties, but they're all weak. They don't have people who know how to lead.

"Those struggling for power did nothing but give orders. That is why they want power, so they can give orders again. There is no struggle for ideas, only a struggle to destroy."

And so the debate over the future is characterized by rhetoric rather than ideas.

On the rare occasion that a politician attempts to avoid confrontation through compromise, he is judged to be weak -- and targeted for attack.

Last December Mr. Yeltsin dumped two of his closest aides, Gennady Burbulis and Mikhail Poltoranin, to appease centrist deputies in the Russian Congress. The move weakened his political team and ultimately earned the scorn of those deputies it was supposed to please.

His error -- in Russian eyes -- was summed up by one newspaper this way: "The captain of a ship at sea in a storm doesn't improve his position by throwing members of his crew overboard."

That inward-looking, guarded outlook leads to another consequence: The typical representative feels little responsibility to his constituents. American politicians thrive on "being in touch."

Here, the whole point of being a politician is to get as far removed from the people as possible.

An American congressman gets a staff (with a public relations expert) and free mailing privileges to write to the folks back home; a Russian congressman gets a car, driver and a nice apartment in Moscow.

In the United States, complaining to your congressman is regarded by most people as a given right. Every congressman has a district office, ready to lend a sympathetic ear.

Here, hardly anyone knows his deputy. And there's no phone book, so you would have trouble finding him if you did know his name.

Parliamentary proceedings are often televised -- during the day, when everyone is at work, but there is not one seat for a citizen who wants to come in and see what's going on. A citizen can't even walk on the sidewalk next to the Kremlin when the Congress is in session.

All the votes are secret, so a Russian legislator never has to explain his actions.

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