Opinion Section, Los Angeles Times (Sunday edition), November 14, 1993

 by Gregory Freidin

The specter of despotism haunts Russian politics, one born of incompetence.

Few would argue that much of the responsibility for the near total failure of Russian politics lies with Boris N. Yeltsin’s defeated adversaries. Blame for last month’s bloody confrontation must be shared by the Yeltsin govern­ment and the president himself. For more than two years Yeltsin has been Russia's preeminent ruler  and acknowledged as such by the majority of citizens. The time is ripe to take a closer look at his leadership and the myths that have grown up around it.

Myth #1: The only way Yeltsin could solve the country's problems was to disband the Parliament .

 While it has some basis in reality, this myth cloaks a sobering truth: Yeltsin is incapable of functioning in a democratic context. The Parliament he dissolved was the same body that elected him  speaker in 1991 despite Gorbachev’s strong opposition; amended the constitution to include a respectable bill of rights; founded the office of a popularly elected President; and following the failed coup of August, 1991, granted Yeltsin the powers to govern by decree.

 The political honeymoon went sour because Yeltsin, cleansed though he was by his break with the communist party, has never been able to transcend his limitation as a communist-style politician, a tough and abrasive secretary of the regional party committee. In short, a regional Soviet despot.

Yeltsin construed the early cooperation of the disbanded Parliament as its acknowledgement of his right to rule unchallenged, because his political experience was shaped by the communist script--a servile Soviet legislature bows and scrapes before the party’s First Secretary.

Myth #2: The upcoming elections to the new parliament and the referendum on the new constitution will solve the legitimacy crisis.

This is, at best, a partial truth. With the election commission run by Yeltsin’s appointees, free of any independent oversight, and with the television spewing out unabashedly pro-Yeltsin propaganda, the stature of the future parliament is bound to be diminished.

The long-awaited--for some 200 years!--democratic Constitution, though an improvement of the earlier draft, remains flawed. The constitutional lines separating regional and federal authority are blurred, with many governmental functions assigned to “joint jurisdiction.” The future Parlia­ment cannot promulgate budget-related legislation “without the Govern­ment’s prior approval.” And the principle of checks and balances is severely undermined: Government ministers are allowed to be elected to the lower house while the president-appointed regional governors can run for its upper chamber.

Rather than strengthening the presidency, these provisions, ultimately blurring the lines of authority, can only encourage confusion and arbitrary rule.

Myth #3: There is no one but Yeltsin, and but for him, the whole country, and with it the world, would go to the dogs.

Without detracting from Yeltsin's stature, his courage, and his charisma that have inspired trust in the majority of the Russian people and have held them together at the time of growing hardships and political crisis, a second Yeltsin presidency would be a dangerous proposition. By encouraging ideological and political polarization, Yeltsin has successfully created, especially in Western eyes, the impression of the absence of an alternative to himself.

Yet, the Russian public seems to understand both Yeltsin’s merits and failings. A recent survey, commissioned by U.S. News & World Report, showed that half of those polled supported Yeltsin in his standoff  with the Supreme Soviet while 61% considered another Yeltsin term undesirable. There is hope, then, among voters that a worthy replacement for Yeltsin may soon be found.

Such potential leaders exist, though they are overshadowed by Yeltsin because he prefers to have them inside his government as deputy prime ministers rather than outside gathering votes. Indeed, the array of Yeltsin's former and present deputy prime ministers looks like a who’s who in the next presidential race.When the parliamentary campaign started, these stars of Yeltsin's government quickly expressed their willingness to shift to the legislative branch--ostensibly to make the new parliament safer for democracy.

It was to stem this hemorraging and to insure their loyalty to the president that the separation of powers provision, prominent in the earlier draft of the constitution, was removed from the final draft. Similalrly, among the key reasons why Yeltsin renegged on his solemn promise of an early presidential election was the fear that, in the absence of strong parties, his government would simply disintegrate as his lieutenants meta­morphosed into presidential candidates. Yet, rather than encourage party-building, Yeltsin, as he told a group of newspaper editors, will spend the rest of his term “finding and grooming” his successor.

There are plenty of candidates. On the more conservative end of the spectrum are Yurii Skokov, former head of the Security Council, and Oleg Lobov, its current head. On the more liberal are the deputy prime ministers--Sergei M. Shalhrai, Vladimir F. Shumeiko, Yegor T. Gaidar, Anatoly B. Chubais--and the prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. It should come as no surprise that Gaidar, Shakhraim Shumeiko, and Chubais, all except Shumeiko under the age of 40, appeared at the top of the list of candidates from Parliament from the Democratic Bloc and now are busy campaigning for a seat in the state duma.

One of the most promising is Yeltsin’s chief legal brain and authority on provincial politics, Shakhrai. His Party of Russian Unity and Accord (Provincial), which he founded, collected more signatures than any other electoral bloc fielding candidates in the coming election, including Yeltsin’s Russia’s Choice. In truth, Shalhrai, 37 and a Cossack, is a conservative federalist in the best sense of these words. His program would harmonize relations among regions and stabilize the revolutionary reforms of Yeltsin by stressing the values of “family, property, labor and country.”

In early October, Interfax News Agency floated a report  about Shakhrai's dissatisfaction with "democratiz­ation at break-neck speed." A few days ago, he gave an interview to Moscow’s Independ­ent Newspaper, Yeltsin’s most exacting critic. Among other things, he said that the final draft of the constitution was top heavy and did not  grant enough autonomy to the regions. This and other similar statements made by Shakhrai as the election aproaches have the ring of sound bites fired by a politician running for an elective office and not one of the President’s chief aides. Indeed, a week ago, he, along with Gaidar,  took a temporary leave from government to devote himself fully to the campaign.

Shakhrai is a man to watch as he moves into the forefront of his country’s new presidential and, most important, civilized party politics. A man who can build a real political party in post-communist Russia will work steadily both with allies and opponents rather than stagger and lurch, however nobly and good-naturedly, from one “last and decisive battle” to another. God knows, the Russians have had enough of that. 

Copyright © 1993 by Gregory Freidin

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