In search of national identity Russian dilemma: Stripped of a forced ideological straitjacket, country lacks consensus.

July 01, 1996

AFTER BORIS N. YELTSIN came to power five years ago, he quickly instituted new state symbols for Russia. The red hammer-and-sickle banner of communism was replaced by the white-blue-and-red tricolor of the czarist times. The Stalinist national anthem was scrapped in favor of a pre-revolutionary patriotic song. But even as symbols of the old order were cast to the wayside, the new government failed to develop a clearly understood social contract to supersede the Marxist-Leninist ideological framework of Soviet times.

As Russia approaches Wednesday's presidential run-off, voters are asked to decide between President Boris N. Yeltsin's vaguely defined free-market system and Gennady Zyuganov's ambiguous platform to restore communism. Because neither is offering clearly stated political plans, many Russians are divided, confused and preparing to vote almost solely on the basis of the candidates' perceived personality. This type political decision-making does not contribute to stability.

In the case of the communists, their deliberately contradictory agenda at least can be reviewed against past performance and an ample reservoir of Marxist-Leninist dogma. Despite their claims to the contrary, they still seem to be stuck in the pre-Gorbachev ideology of anti-reformist socialist centralism.

Mr. Yeltsin, in contrast, presents a much more difficult case. He has earned credentials both as a democrat and an autocrat and it is not easy to always determine which one happens to be his operative mode on any given day. Adding to the confusion is his promotion of retired Gen. Alexander Lebed to be his No. 2 man. The latter is a tough-talking law-and-order advocate but his deeper political and economic beliefs are almost totally unknown.

Many in the West have recently compared General Lebed to Chile's Augusto Pinochet or Spain's Francisco Franco, both authoritarian figures. While no unified right-wing mass movement has arisen in the current election, nationalist sentiment in Russia cannot be dismissed. It is an ever-present factor. Right now, the only mass movement of any consequence is the reconstituted communist party. It may control only one-third of the fickle electorate but hopes to flex its muscles on Wednesday.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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