Weakness In Russia

WILLIAM PFAFF

September 27, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- A new parliamentary election in Russia in December, as demanded by Boris Yeltsin, and a new presidential election as well, which Mr. Yeltsin has conceded to his rivals, will clarify Russia's political situation without solving it.

The struggle between Russia's parliament and president -- between old order and new, since the sitting parliament is a product of the Brezhnev constitution -- is reproduced at every level in the country. In all of the republics and regions of Russia there is a local assembly linked to the Supreme Soviet, and a ''chief of administration'' named by the Kremlin. The rivalry between them re-enacts the rivalries of Moscow -- but as they are more or less far from Moscow, neither president nor parliament possesses the means to impose their will.

The quarreling in Moscow has tended to transfer effective power to the regions and encourage local authorities to ignore Moscow. Vassili Lipitski, a party leader close to Alexander Rutskoi, the claimant-president nominated by the parliament on Tuesday, nonetheless says that ''no political force in Moscow is strong enough to impose its will on the provinces.''

Connections are weak between the power struggle in the center and the realities of the rest of the country. When Moscow is weak, the absence of central authority is felt everywhere. If new elections give a re-elected Mr. Yeltsin a parliament ready to work with him, central authority will be strengthened, certainly, but not decisively.

The country crucially lacks political traditions as well as the economic experience needed to establish effective democratic government and make reform go faster. The struggle still is to install democracy where it has never existed, as well as to develop an economic system that, at large, still is scarcely understood.

The contrast with Poland is instructive. There a real democratic tradition exists, and until 1940 there was a modern industrial and entrepreneurial economy. Reform policies have been consistent and relatively effective despite quarrels in the parliament and between parliament and President Lech Walesa.

The country's political difficulties are chiefly those of an excess of democracy -- an oversupply of small parties with an overdose of proportional representation. This is one reason people voted for the ex-Communist party in national elections this month; it was perceived as a party of order. The ex-Communists also got the votes of many who have been the victims of economic reform. But this is not expected to change the main lines of Polish reform.

In Poland, things work. A real eruption of small-scale private initiatives has transformed the economy from below. There are now some 1.7 million private businesses, most of them small, 90 percent of them with fewer than 10 employees, according to a recent RFE/RL Research Institute report. The Polish economy is the most rapidly growing in Europe.

All of this is because things worked in Poland before the war. Poland in 1989 was like the West European countries in 1945, economically devastated, by ruinous policies in the one case and by war in the other. But in both places the basic need was for investment and the time and opportunity to rebuild. People knew perfectly well how to do it. In Russia, the private entrepreneurs are overwhelmingly traders, not makers.

The optimism about Russia's development expressed to Congress last week by Strobe Talbott, the Clinton administration's man in charge of aid to the ex-U.S.S.R., and by Treasury and USAID officials, must therefore be seriously qualified. The development problem in Russia has certainly been worsened by the power struggle between parliament and President Yeltsin, but its sources are deep in Russian society and history.

There is something else to be said about Russia's history. Russians believe themselves to be a great nation and are accustomed to conducting themselves as such. Russia has been a European great power since the 18th century and, from 1945 to 1989, was treated by the U.S. and the international

community as one of the two powers dominating the world. If this was a role the country could not sustain, Russians nonetheless never expected to fall as abysmally as they have now done. This is a political fact of significance for the future.

Russia remains a country of immense resources and profound national consciousness, the latter incorporating a belief in a special destiny to redeem mankind from the predicament and tragedy of history -- something that the Leninist adventure articulated but did not exhaust. This is a frustrated society as well as a disappointed one: That, too, is a crucial fact.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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