A dark ghost haunts Russia But comparisons to pre-Nazi Germany may not stand up

January 14, 1996|By Gregory Freidin

Once again, the specter of Weimar Germany haunts Russia. If the outcome of last month's parliamentary elections is taken as a straw poll for the presidential race in June, one can easily imagine a nightmare choice between Communist Gennady A. Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, or between Mr. Zyuganov and a weak reform candidate like Grigory A. Yavlinsky. A less nightmarish choice would pit Mr. Zyuganov against an ailing Boris N. Yeltsin or Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a prime minister fatally damaged by his loyalty to an unpopular president. In short, a new authoritarian or even totalitarian regime may enter Russia, not through a coup, as in 1917, but through the ballot box and according to all the rules of Russia's democratic, presidency-oriented constitution.

Like Weimar Germany, Russia has experienced, by losing its superpower status, a national humiliation; like Weimar Germany, it has been gripped by an economic crisis, compounded by a rupture in its social fabric; and like Weimar Germany, Russia has sustained bloody political upheavals, most notably the dissolution of the soviets, in the fall of 1993, and the seemingly interminable war in Chechnya.

The Communists' success at the polls, raising their representation in the Duma to 35 percent from 10 percent, practically closes the Weimar analogy. Like Adolf Hitler's party comrades, Russia's Communists showed plenty of political savvy, running a miserly campaign in the face of lavish spending by opponents and relying on grass-roots support instead of garish advertising. They demonstrated, where their constituency was concerned, that promises of bread have greater voter appeal than the political circus served up to the people for their amusement by their heavyweight rivals.

A victory for what?

But was it a "victory of the Communists," or a "victory for communism"?

After all the bad press the Communists endured during "perestroika" and, especially, after the collapse of Soviet communism, Mr. Zyuganov's party is, indeed, a comeback kid. The Communist Party of Russia will be the largest single party faction in the new State Duma, the lower house of Parliament. But a closer look reveals a less sanguine picture:

* That 35 percent is "padded," enlarged by the peculiarity of Russia's electoral law. Had the seats been distributed according to the votes cast, the Communist bloc would not have exceeded 25 percent.

* More than one-third of the Communist deputies were elected from single-mandate districts -- meaning they owe their victories not so much to their party as to their local constituencies, a significant factor, given the growing autonomy of the regions.

* Even if the Duma deputies from the other "left parties" -- the barely breathing Agrarians and the microscopic old "nomenklatura" party, Power to the People -- are counted in, the total comes to 41 percent.

* Mr. Zyuganov is consummately dull. His dogged, unassuming manner and lack of charisma served him well in the parliamentary campaign by taking the edge off the harsh revanchist radicalism of his party's program. But a presidential campaign is made for candidates who have a fire in their belly.

* Gen. Alexander I. Lebed's recent offer to lend the Communists his charismatic appeal in exchange for the presidential prize is a bad deal for the Communists and is bound to be rejected. The Russian presidency is powerful enough to enable the president to forget who made his victory possible, and General Lebed, the hero of the war in Afghanistan, is unlikely to be obliging.

* Mr. Zhirinovsky will continue to draw the less-structured protest vote from the opposition to reform. Indeed, unless he under goes a personality change, submits to Mr. Zyuganov's questionable charm (he recently rejected such an alliance), and manages, at the same time, to bring with him his volatile constituency, the results of the Duma elections do not translate into a Communist victory in the presidential sweepstakes.

The Communists' presidential prospects dim further when the reform faction identifying with Mr. Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia -- Mr. Yavlinsky's "Yabloko," Yegor T. Gaidar's Russia's Democratic Choice and Sviatoslav Fyodorov's Party of Free Labor -- is factored in. This bloc, more than a quarter of the Duma, held its own or even gained, if marginally, compared to the results of the 1993 elections. More important, the government's party, now strongly represented in the Duma, is in a position to attract independent deputies. If, as some important indicators suggest, Russia has entered a period of economic recovery, Mr. Chernomyrdin's party may increase its ranks substantially, stealing momentum from the Communists in the six months leading up to the presidential vote.

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