Russian Vote Adds Up to a Backlash

December 17, 1993|By LEON ARON

Washington -- As the final tallies of the Russian parliamentary elections trickle in, the surprise victory of the populist nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky Liberal Democratic Party emerged as the most important result after the adoption of the constitution.

The message it has sent will dominate strategies and actions among the Russian political class for at least the next few months.

Societies undergoing a rapid political, economic and social change are bound to reach reflexively for the certitude and comfort of simple but firmly stated solutions.

In 1990, buffeted by a storm of change very similar to the one sweeping Russia today, a quarter of Polish voters opted for a populist demagogue of Mr. Zhirinovsky ilk, Stanislaw Tyminski.

Only a few weeks ago in Italy, the collapse of the old political order, dominated for the last 40 years by the Christian Democrats, resulted in the voters' reaching out to fascism and communism in municipal elections.

Mr. Zhirinovsky victory is likely to be placed at the door of the free-market ''shock therapy.'' There is truth to that, but not the whole truth.

The inevitability of a post-''therapy'' backlash is beyond doubt. In the last year, voters in Poland, Lithuania and regions of the

former East Germany turned to the left, to Communists and Social Democrats, for protection against an aggressive and not always civilized capitalism.

But that the main beneficiary of the backlash in Russia was Mr. Zhirinovsky, a vehement and open anti-Communist, is due to several circumstances virtually beyond anyone's control.

The key circumstance is the failure of the Russian left to create a credible and responsible left-of-center alternative to the free-market party of President Boris N. Yeltsin and Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar.

The ''human face'' of the Russian Communists was peeled off during the ''communo-fascist'' uprising last October, revealing -- to all of Russia -- Vice President Alexander Rutskoi's Stalin-like mustache, parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov's murderous 'smirk and fascist leader Viktor Barkashov's black Nazi shirt.

None of the parties whose positions could be called social democratic were energetic enough to stake out this key vacant spot on the Russian political spectrum. Some of the unclaimed electorate still went to the Communists, the quasi-Communist ''Women of Russia,'' marginal parties or independent candidates. Most voters, in search of a home, ended in Mr. Zhirinovsky lair.

The other component of Mr. Zhirinovsky success has even less to do with economic reform. No other post-Communist nation has lost an empire and ceased being a military superpower. None has had a military-industrial complex that consumed at least a third of the gross national product and employed every fifth adult.

The post-imperial trauma, the wound left in the Russian national psyche after the loss of its superpower status, the fear of unemployment by the many millions of workers in the formerly highest paid defense jobs and the dramatic reduction in power and status of the armed forces -- all these inevitable consequences of Russia's transformation from a closed militarized society to a democracy contributed decisively to Mr. Zhirinovsky success.

Not surprisingly, his most solid support comes from the military and workers at the state enterprises.

Inoculation by a dose of populist, even fascist demagogy is a frequent rite of passage of new democracies. Let us hope that all those who believe in a peaceful and democratic Russia manage to unite in the Parliament and isolate the Liberal Democratic bloc for the next two years until new elections, and that Russia will outgrow Mr. Zhirinovsky like a childhood disease that leaves behind only memories of high fever and fright.

The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.

Leon Aron is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He spent last week in Moscow observing the parliamentary elections.

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