Russia sweeps out the reformers: Will it sweep out the reforms?

January 22, 1996|By Jeane Kirkpatrick

WASHINGTON -- The Russian elections in December prompted little comment at the time they occurred, and that little was, as Peter Reddaway notes in the January 29 New Republic, ''remarkably sanguine.'' Most commentators suggested there had been no significant change from the previous election.

But, Mr. Reddaway observes, the final returns ''show unambiguously that hard-line forces made big gains; that democratic parties suffered heavy losses; that forces hostile to market reform advanced; and that both President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin were humiliated.''

Translating votes into seats in the Duma seems to make clear that Communists, nationalists, authoritarians, anti-Westerners

and socialists outnumber democrats, free marketeers and pro-Western deputies. The Communist Party alone won about 22 percent of the seats.

Russia's future

What does their new strength mean for Russia's future, and ours? What does it mean for Boris Yeltsin?

At the time of the elections, Mr. Yeltsin's intentions were as unclear as the status of his health. Now, however, his health has improved and his interest in running for re-election became progressively clear in the new year. He has begun his presidential campaign preparations with a series of quick moves to distance himself from his own record and from the men he appointed.

Dump the reformers

His first step was to dump his pro-Western foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, who resigned two weeks ago under continuing public criticism and was replaced by Yevgeny Primakov, the well known, Arab-speaking head of Russia's foreign-intelligence network with ties to radical Middle Eastern governments.

Next to go was Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, a great favorite of Russian reformers, who was replaced by Nikolai Yegorov, a man who has taken a very hard line on Chechnya and advocates harsh measures to put down the revolt. Mr. Filatov's departure left the president's personal staff without a high-level reformer.

The third major blow to reform came last week when Mr. Yeltsin forced out Anatoly Chubais, the deputy prime minister, who was also architect of Russia's program for privatization and economic stabilization.

His departure is widely believed to signal Mr. Yeltsin's intention to loosen the controls on Russia's fiscal policy -- though that would be a strange message to send the world on the eve of renegotiation of a $9 billion, three-year loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Apparently, however, Russians are tired of austerity and President Yeltsin is tired of his own unpopularity. That presumably is why, in the month since the Russian elections, we have seen the forced departure of the men who symbolized a reorientation in Soviet foreign policy as well as economic reform and economic cooperation with the international system.

Has the era of reform in Russia come so quickly to an end?

Will the reforms be abandoned? Will the Russian Communists, who emerged strongest in the last elections, regain power? Will they bring the fascist-style nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky to power in a coalition -- as German nationalists brought Adolf Hitler and his Nazis to power in the Weimar Republic -- not fully realizing who or what they were sponsoring.

The end of democracy?

And if the Communist Party alone or in coalition won the next Russian elections, would it mean the end of a democratic regime in Russia? Would it mean the end of a peaceful Russian foreign policy that respects its neighbors?

Mr. Primakov has already spoken of ''strengthening integrationist tendencies within the former Soviet Union,'' the very thought of which must seem threatening to the 15 republics that suffered for decades under Russia's ''integrative tendencies'' and whose independence Boris Yeltsin has recognized and respected.

But perhaps Mr. Primakov also will respect the independence of former parts of the Soviet Union. Russians have shown little appetite, so far, for war in Chechnya.

Then, too, Mr. Yeltsin's turn away from reformers does not necessarily mean that he has decided against reform or peace, and his opposition to the revolt in Chechnya does not necessarily mean he has decided against the independence of neighbors.

One thing is certain, however, the outcome of the December elections should be heard as a warning bell, reminding all that democratic elections do not always produce democratic outcomes. Russian democrats will need to learn to distinguish between democratic and nondemocratic parties, and to find ways -- legal, civilized ways -- to ensure that only democratic parties and candidates qualify to take part.

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Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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