Opinion Page,  January 7, 1996


Gregory Freidin

Once again, as in the first two years of Yeltsin’s presidency, the specter of Weimar Germany in demise haunts the imagination of Russia watchers. Looking at the result of the recent Duma election as a straw poll for the upcoming presidential race in June, 1996, one can easily imagine a nightmare scenario of the Russian voters having to choose between Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Ziuganov and a weak reform candidate like Grigory Yavlinsky. A less nightmarish scenario, though still frightening enough is that Zyuganov, riding the wave of popular discontent with the status quo, may be challenging weakened and ailing Yeltsin or a Viktor Chernomyrdin, fatally damaged, like Hubert Humphrey in 1968, by his loyalty to the outgoing and unpopular president. In short, the fear is  that the new authoritarian or even totalitarian regime may enter Russia, not through a coup d'état as in 1917 or as during Mussolini’s march on Rome, but though the ballot box, according to all the rules of formulae of Russia’s democratic and rather presidential-oriented constitution.

Indeed, the Weimar analogy is enticing. Like Weimar Germany, Russia has experienced a national humiliation as it lost its superpower status; like Weimar Germany, it has been gripped by an economic crisis, compounded by the breakdown in the social fabric of society, evident in the rise of organized crime and decline in basic social services; and like Weimar Germany, with its open violent street clashes between the Nazis and the Communists, Russia has experienced bloody political upheavals, most notably the dissolution of the Soviets in the fall of 1993 and the seemingly intermin­able, over a year-old war in Chechnya. The communists’ success at the polls, bringing their representation in the Second Duma to 35% from a mere 10% (or 22%, if one counts the now defunct Agrarian Party) should practically complete the picture (recall Hitler’s similar success at the polls in 1930). The finishing touches come from the ideological reorientation of the Russian Communists, who have swapped the ostensibly internationalist and proletarian Marxist-Leninist script for a sentimental National Bolshevism which wraps its vision of the paternalistic authoritarian state in the mystical aura of the Russian Orthodox nostalgia and the odious “blood and guts” nationalism. Like Hitler’s party comrades, Russia’s communists have shown plenty of political savvy. Running a miserly campaign, relying on the grass roots where other parties spent lavishly of garish advertising, the Communists of Russia have demonstrated that promises of bread have a greater appeal to the electorate, especially the segment courted by them, than the political campaign circus served up to the people for their amusement by their other heavy-weight rivals.

But was this really the "victory of the communists," or a “victory for communism,” as many observers have rushed to conclude in the wake of the elections? And does the analogy with Germany really hold or does the post-cold-war world invite a different comparison?

After all the bad press that the communists have been receiving during the perestroika and , especially, after the collapse of Soviet communism, Zyuganov's party is, indeed, a real come-back kid. The numbers, too, speak in the CPR’s favor: the Communist Party of Russia will be the largest single party faction in the Duma, controlling 35% of the seats. So far so good, but a closer look reveals what for the communists of Russian should be a less sanguine picture:

·        The 35% of the Duma seats is the figure "padded" by the peculiarity of Russia's electoral law: had the seats been distributed exactly according to the votes cast, the communist block in the Duma would not have exceeded 25%.

·        Over a third of the communist deputies (58 out of 158) were elected from the so-called single-mandate districts, which means that they owe their victory, not so much to the party as to their local constituencies, a significant factor, given the growing autonomy of the regions.

·        Even if one counts the Duma deputies of the other “left parties,” the barely breathing Agrarians and the microscopic old nomenklatura party, Power to the People, which made their way into the Duma by winning in the single-mandate districts, the total comes to 41%.

·        Zyuganov is the consummate dull politician. His dogged, unassuming manner and lack of any charismatic attributes have served him well in the Duma campaign, taking the edge off the harsh revanchist radicalism of the party’s program. But a presidential campaign is made for candidates who have a fire in their belly.

·        One such fire-and-brimstone communist, the leader of Labor Russia, Viktor Anpilov, was unable to take his party over the 5% threshold or send a single candidate into the Second Duma, which tells us that communism as such is pretty much dead.

·        General Alexander Lebed’s recent offer to lend the Communist Party of Russia his charismatic appeal in exchange for the presidential prize is a bad deal for the communists and is bound to be rejected. Russian presidency is powerful enough to enable the president to forget who made his victory possible, and Lebed, who has professed no love for the communists either in his campaign or his memoirs is very unlikely to be obliged.

·        Finally, the Zhirinovsky factor. Vladimir Zhirinovsky will continue to draw the less structured protest vote from the opposition to reform. Indeed, unless Zhirinovsky goes through a personality change, submits to Zyuganov’s questionable charm (he has recently rejected such an alliance), and manages, at the same time, to bring with him his volatile constituency, the results of the Duma elections do not automatically translate into the communist victory in the presidential sweepstakes.

Such an outcome is even less likely if one considers the reform faction in the Duma identifying with Chernomyrdin’s “Our Home is Russia” (OHR), Yavlinsky's “Yabloko,” Gaidar’s “Russia’s Democratic Choice”,  and Sviatoslav Fyodorov “Party of Free Labor.” This block, over a quarter of the Duma, has held its own or even gained, if marginally, compared to 1993. More important, the government’s party – being strongly represented in the Duma (12%), which was not the case in 1993 – is in a position to draw to itself the independent deputies. In a recent statement, the head of the OHR faction, Sergei Belyaev, boasted that his party had 100 supporters in the Duma, practically doubling OHR’s, original number of seats. If, as some important indicators suggest, Russia has entered a period of economic recovery – for one, after several years of precipitous decline, housing construction in the first eleven months of 1995 has increased 10% over the same period in 1994 – Chernomyrdin’s party may indeed increase its ranks substantially, stealing the momentum factor away from the communists in the next six months.

Prime Minister Chernomyrdin’s own story holds a key to understanding of Russia’s political dynamic in the post-communist era. The collapse of Soviet communism was not an accident; it was a structural phenomenon: both the ideological and natural resources that had kept Russia going as a superpower had been exhausted by the 1980s. Gorbachev’s resistance to radical economic reform had, in effect, bankrupted the country by the time Yeltsin took over in 1991: the state’s treasury was as empty as the shelves in food stores. At that time reform was the only option, and Viktor Chernomyrdin’s ascendancy in Yeltsin’s government (after Gaidar had to resign under the communists’ pressure), the ever-growing commitment of this communist apparatchik to reform demonstrate that the transform­ation of Russia’s economy stems not from a politician’s will, but from a structural need for change that cannot be avoided, not even by a Zyuganov. 

The centers most sensitive to this need are Russia’s major urban centers, and indeed, Moscow and St. Petersburg have voted overwhelmingly in favor of the reform politicians, while Zyuganov’s support came from the older, retired constituency, the stagnant, woefully inefficient coal mining regions, the conservative, primarily agricultural belt in Southern Russia and the regions of chronic dependency on central government, such as the Northern Caucasian republic of Daghestan. These constituencies can only represent Russia’s past, nostalgia for the simplicity and ignorance of the Soviet era, not Russia’s future, indeed, not even her present with its multi-ethnic composition, structurally weaker central state, increasing autonomy of the regions, dependency on raw material exports and economic integration with the West, emergence of powerful private economic conglomerates linked to the state in the center and the regions, and the utter unwillingness of the population to shed blood for one imperial dream or another.

In fact, given the massive economic dislocations brought about by the collapse of the communist system, radical economic reforms of the last four years, and the traditional Russian mismanagement and government corruption, the results of the parliamentary election should not be disheartening for anyone committed to a democratic Russia:

·        this was the second election of the democratic Russia and it was carried out successfully without – according to the international observers – any noticeable large-scale fraud;

·        the boisterous, gaudy  and well-financed campaigns by the major parties succeeded in bringing to the polls 65% of the eligible voters – a remarkable contrast with the still disputed 50.6% turnout in the apathetic December 1993;

·        the implacable opponent of reform, the communist party of Russia, collected only 22% of the popular vote – just enough to spur the government into a more active and, one hopes, more efficient mode of operation, but not enough to give some hot heads in the government the idea for making Russia safe for democracy through a state of siege;

·        reform has battered and disenfranchised economically a large segment of the population in Russia. According to the government statistics, close to a third of the population lives at or below the poverty line. In this context the communists’ 22% speak more in favor of the sobriety and maturity of the Russian electorate, than its gullibility before the communist sloganeering;

·        the reformers, whose favorite game seems to be the old-fashioned factionalism, have received yet another painful lesson in coalition building and can no longer escape the need for forming an alliance in the upcoming presidential elections.

·        Perhaps most important, the “party of power,” Prime Minister Chernomyrdin’s “Our Home Is Russia,” did well enough by clearing the 10% benchmark, set for it by President Boris Yeltsin, but not so well as to make every Russian voter terminally cynical about the democratic process; indeed, the result calls to mind not so much the Weimar Germany as lesson of the last elections in the United States, demonstrating that in a democracy, incumbency is not necessarily an advantage;

The Weimar outcome is all the more unlikely because of the foreign policy context in which Russia begun its move toward democracy. It has joined the trend that had been sweeping across Europe, Asia, and Latin America for the last decades and not, as was the case with the Weimar Germany, has been holding forth against a powerful countertrend toward dictatorship and international adventurism. The more recent foreign policy successes of democracy – in Haiti, in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and most recently and significantly, in the Balkans, affect Russia’s presidential politics by discouraging nationalist vitriol and encouraging international interdependence and cooperation. Even Zyuganov understands that fortress Russia there cannot be, and he has been trying to offer his assurances to foreign investors, articulating a fear of every major Russian politician that flight of capital from Russia may precipitate the country’s collapse and disintegration. If even Zyuganov understands the severe limitations on national sovereignty in the post-cold-war world, there is little place in Russian politics for a grandiose utopia and self-hypnosis that once led Russia, Italy, and Germany to the brink of national suicide. Washington, D.C., the fight to the bitter end between the two branches of a democratic government, or the stand-off between the unions and the in Alain Jupe’s government in France is a far better analogy for what has been going on in Russia – not a nighmare of democracy, just a democratic mess.  

Copyright © 1996 by Gregory Freidin