Good news and bad in the Russian vote

June 19, 1996|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON -- The palatable result of Russia's presidential voting is that Boris Yeltsin ran slightly ahead of his principal rival, Gennady Zyuganov, a Communist, in the first round of a contest that will be settled in a runoff within 30 days.

The depressing news is that Mr. Yeltsin, assisted by foreign governments, his government and Russia's media, ran only 3 percentage points ahead of the candidate promising ''communism as the historic future of mankind.''

Many things caused communism's collapse, but most of all ignorance.

Ignorance is socialism's systemic problem. Mr. Zyuganov, promising ''a great empire and socialism,'' is ignorant of the fact that socialism must be ignorant of almost everything, such as: How much bread should cost. Socialism cannot know, because it cannot know what flour and other ingredients should cost, or what packaging, transportation or advertising should cost.

Markets are mechanisms for generating billions of bits of information daily. Markets produce George F. Will

reasonable allocations of wealth and opportunity. Make the market illegal in an industrialized society, and what you get is what the Soviet Union was: ''Upper Volta with ICBMs.'' That is, a Third World economy with pockets of modernity.

Communism's prodigious achievement was to keep a potentially rich nation poor. The Soviet economy remained substantially a hunter-gatherer economy based on extraction industries -- furs, oil, minerals. But eventually party officials, the vanguard of the proletariat, noticed that their nation was in the wake not only of Western industrial societies, which had had a head start, but also of Taiwan, Singapore and other Asian economies of the information age.

However, before mocking Russia's electorate because a significant portion of it would embrace systematic ignorance, consider the insecurities involved in dismantling the socialism that could give the individual the security of a fly in amber. Then consider how much of America's recent political discourse has been devoted to vehement complaints about, and politicians promising relief from, the relatively mild insecurities that come with capitalism's dynamic wealth-creation.

Russia is still experiencing declining life expectancy. For males it is now 59. Barron's reports that entire cities were built around factories that produced military goods for which there is now no market. Inflation is now ''under control'' at an annual rate of 30 percent. Agricultural and industrial GDP have been halved in five years. The economy has shrunk at least 25 percent. What is remarkable in Russia is not the Communist Party's limited electoral revival but the fact of elections.

In the runoff the man who finished third, Alexander Lebed, can be kingmaker and wait for the king to depart. It is said that Mr. Lebed, a stone-faced, 46-year-old former general, is Colin Powell without the geniality. He has joined forces with President Yeltsin, who is not a martyr to the rules of healthy living and may not last.

General Pinochet interested Soviet leaders because they assumed history's mechanism was a leftward-working ratchet: Socialism's sphere would never contract. Pinochet broke the ratchet when he broke Salvador Allende's grip on Chile. Today Chile's Pinochet episode interests some Russians because it combined ''social order'' with a market-driven economic growth. That resembles General Lebed's program, except that the general unlike Pinochet participates in elections.

Another general's example

It is said that the example of another general may be apposite. Francisco Franco, who was 44 in 1936 when he led a rising against Spain's disorderly republic, considered himself the defender of Spain's specialness against the West's homogenizing forces.

General Lebed appeals to many who fear that Russia's identity will be washed away by the strong solvents of imported capital and popular culture from the West. However, before anticipating ''Bonapartism in mufti,'' note that he has led not a military rising but a political quest for votes, praising private property and dismissing communism as imbecilic. He knows that yet another general, Charles De Gaulle, showed that ''authoritarian democrat'' is not an oxymoron.

And there is more good news. Writing in The American Enterprise journal about ''The Coming Russian Boom,'' Richard Layard and John Parker, two British students of Russia, note that Russia has an educated population and the world's largest reserves of natural resources. It has privatized faster than its East European neighbors, and its agriculture, which was crippled even more than industry was by communism, should experience explosive productivity growth.

And Russia's recipe for democracy and economic growth includes one other priceless ingredient -- a fresh memory of socialism.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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