What is to be done? Russia's challenge: Country must develop a stable system of permanent political parties.

July 06, 1996

"WHAT IS TO BE DONE?" is the Russian equivalent of Hamlet's "To be or not to be." That question was the title of a novel by 19th century author and literary critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky, a book which had such an influence on Vladimir Lenin that the Bolshevik leader used it in one of his most influential theoretical tracts. Today the question is again asked -- this time in regard to Russia's political situation after President Boris N. Yeltsin's re-election.

As important as is the symbolism of free elections that now have been institutionalized as part of Russia's democratic reforms, that country's political system is woefully underdeveloped by Western standards. Real and permanent political parties do not exist -- except for communists, who are likely to experience increasing splits now that their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, has lost to Mr. Yeltsin.

A case in point is retired Gen. Alexander Lebed. While the Kremlin's No. 2 man has a considerable personal political following, the political party he led failed to win a single seat in last December's parliamentary elections. Similarly, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia party -- PTC which had the blessing of Mr. Yeltsin -- underperformed in the ballot that produced a communist-led majority in the State Duma.

Yet it is important for Russia's fledgling democracy -- and for the drafting of a unified national agenda -- that the country develop a stable and working multi-party system. This may be a daunting task because after more than seven decades of communism the mere word "party" has an evil connotation in many ears.

Little inspiration for building parties can be gained from Russia's pre-communist history. During a pseudo-parliamentary period in 1905-14, parliamentary politics were often chaotic, foreshadowing the crisis the country would experience in 1917.

In the United States, a two-party system exists because most Americans are in fundamental agreement about their country's goals and ideals. Such a consensus does not exist in today's Russia but must be developed. It is likely to take far more numerous political groupings than in America and will be difficult to achieve. Yet it has to be done. This task should be high on the agenda of all Russia's leaders.

Pub Date: 7/06/96

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