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Volume VI, No 3 (January-February 1996)

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The Fate of Russian Democracy

The results of Russia's December parliamentary elections could hardly be worse. Out of 450 seats in the Duma, 157 (35%) belong to the Communists for the next four years. This constitutes a gain of 112 seats for the Communists in comparison to their strength in the previous Duma. Fifty-one seats (11%) are controlled by Vladimir Zhirinovsky's extreme nationalist party and another 17 deputies belong to radical movements at either end of the political spectrum. The Agrarians, traditionally allied to the Communists, hold 20 seats (4%). This means that over one-half of the Duma advocates the full or partial restoration of the Soviet Union, reallocation or renationalization of property, and the reorientation of Russian foreign policy from West to East.

Furthermore, it is estimated that up to two-thirds of independent candidates from single-member constituencies (77 seats or 17.1%) and up to half of deputies of the government party "Our Home Russia," which is represented by 55 deputies, sympathize with the Communists and may support them on some of the most important issues. This brings us to a grand total of about 300 (out of 450) Duma deputies who can hardly be regarded supporters of Russia's democratic development.

Yet it is not the number of deputies who oppose liberal democracy that causes the greatest concern--after all, the Duma wields little power. Greater alarm is caused by the fact that a country which has suffered the horrors of a communist regime for over 70 years chose communism in the course of democratic elections. It was not that long ago when Russia's population lived in a climate of persistent paralyzing fear -- fear of arrest, imprisonment, and execution. Then it suffered the dissolution of the state, the discrediting of its ideals, the reconsideration of social values. As a preliminary to the presidential elections, the outcome of the Duma elections -- which constitutes the ultimate evidence of Russia's tortured psyche -- cautions that things can get worse. These results warrant three questions:


  • Why were the democrats beaten by the most extreme nationalist and communist parties?
  • How will this "reddening" of the Duma affect the executive branch of government?
  • What does the communist-nationalist victory bode for the presidential elections?

Why Did the Democrats Lose?
Of the 43 parties and blocks which participated in the Duma elections, five are typically equated with the ideals of liberal democracy; Grigori Yavlinsky's Yabloko, Yegor Gaidar's Russia's Democratic Choice, Boris Fedorov's Forward Russia, Irina Hakamada's Common Cause, and the Democratic Russia movement, which was founded during perestroika and had actively supported Boris Yel'tsin in his struggle against the Central Committee of the CPSU. Common Cause and Democratic Russia could not participate in the federal party list elections since they failed to obtain the 200,000 signatures necessary to register with the Central Electoral Commission. However, their leaders, Irina Hakamada and Galina Starovoitova, won mandates in single-member constituencies.

Forward Russia and Russia's Democratic Choice did not garner the 5% of the votes necessary to enter the Duma by party lists. Only Yabloko was able to overcome this barrier, winning 45 seats -- 20 more than it held in the previous Duma. Members of Russia's Democratic Choice won nine seats and Forward Russia obtained three seats in the single-mandate districts, while 55 Duma deputies from "Our Home Russia" were elected on a centrist platform (although many may support the communists on specific issues). This yields a total of 114 deputies elected on more or less democratic platforms.

Another roughly 36 deputies cannot be identified ideologically and may support either camp. Why did so few, only a fourth of the 64.5% of the electorate who voted, give their votes to the democrats?

Most often the economy is cited as the primary cause for the poor performance of the democratic parties. It is said that economic reform has eliminated social guarantees, has led to rapid polarization of wealth, and has caused widespread poverty. Indeed, real per capita income has declined by 13% in 1995 in comparison with 1994, but according to official statistics, the number of those living below the poverty line has decreased by more than 20 million people, from 33% in January 1995 to 20% in December.

Inflation has also declined to 4-5% monthly, whereas a year ago it ranged from 12-15% monthly. Finally, the 1995 rate of inflation is incomparably lower than in 1992 and 1993; when the first Duma elections were held, the prices of most food items were rising by 1,000%. Yet in the first Duma elections, democrats were able to hold the balance despite Zhirinovsky's electoral success. For better or worse, Russia has withstood shock therapy, but the economy, an admittedly important factor, is not the key element driving the electorate to reject democracy.

Another factor frequently cited is infighting among the democrats. Unable to unite, the democratic parties took one another's votes. As early as December 1993, a study by Timothy Colton of Harvard University found the Communist electorate to be more clearly defined and stable in its political attitudes than the electorate of the democrats or the centrists. In fact, the votes of the 3.86% of the electorate (mostly Moscow and St. Petersburg intelligentsia) who voted for Gaidar's party were wasted. However, if the democrats were not fractured, if Gaidar, Yavlinsky and Fedorov had found a common language, we would only be able to add another 20 seats to our count of democratic deputies. Since this is not a substantial number, we can not regard the disunity of the democratic camp as the pivotal factor.

Having discarded the two most frequently cited causes, we are left with the one most difficult to measure -- a political culture giving priority to the state over the individual. Political reform lagging far behind economic reform has perpetuated the political and bureaucratic culture that has formed over decades if not centuries of Russian history.

Despite all the seemingly democratic changes in Russia, the most powerful institutions: the KGB, renamed Foreign Counter-Intelligence Service (SVR); the Presidential apparat, which in its structure and functions is increasingly reminiscent of the Central Committee of the CPSU; and the Ministry of Defense -- have undergone only cosmetic adjustments. They have inherited the bureaucracy, culture and management style formed in the Soviet period.

As the renowned dissident and Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev put it, "where would Russia get Democrats?" In the absence of civil society, which remains at an embryonic stage of development, the old party-soviet bureaucracy has gradually grown stronger. As a result, the most noble ideas have emerged from the furnace of the apparat in a hideous form, discrediting the very idea of Russia's democratic transformation.

Privatization is one shining example of this process. Government property has landed in the hands of a small number of people, comprised in large part of the former party-government nomenklatura.

As paradoxical as it may seem, the Communist and nationalist electoral campaigns were aided by that segment of society that ought to fear them most--the business elite. Although exact numbers are unlikely ever to become available, with the possible exception of "Our Home Russia," Zhirinovsky's party and the Communist party had the strongest financial backing. In contrast to the democrats, they could afford to campaign aggressively and pay for television advertisement. This paradox is more apparent than real; most industrial enterprises and commercial banks are vitally interested in protectionism, since only protectionist measures can save them from foreign competition. Any illusions about Russian business competing on international markets have long since dissipated. Russian business interests must seek profit at home, or in countries like Iraq, Iran, and China in which direction the military-industrial complex (responsible for 90% of the Soviet production) is casting its eye. This type of protectionism the Communists are likely to deliver.

Western analysts mistakenly believe that the return of the Communists spells renationalization of property and a return to a command economy. On the contrary, Communist Duma deputies, for instance Vladimir Semago, one of the wealthiest men in Russia, are deeply involved in the free market and unwilling to part with its rewards. However, they do intend to protect themselves from competition from Western businesses. Having secured their domestic profits, they will expand the government's role in the economy, redistribute privatized property and bring the process of political reform to a speedy and final conclusion. As world history has amply demonstrated, a market economy does not require democracy -- it can function quite well without it.

Parliament vs. the Executive Branch
Those who are preoccupied with the question of who will prove stronger, parliament or Yel'tsin, are busy calculating whether the Communists can muster enough votes to block the executive or perhaps initiate impeachment procedures. That is not at all the issue -- the Russian Duma, which has meager powers in comparison to the US Congress or the English Parliament, can scarcely balance the executive power and can hardly hope to control it. Impeachment procedure, for instance, is so complicated that it is virtually impossible to accomplish.

More to the point, the results of the Duma elections substantially influence the government's policies. Just as the war in Chechnya could be linked to Zhirinovsky's electoral success in the first Duma elections, today Yel'tsin again rushes to fulfill the wishes of the current set of victors. Without any pressure from the newly formed parliament, which has hardly begun functioning, the President has done exactly what the enemies of democracy propose. He has swiftly removed the last reformer in the government, First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoli Chubais, the person credited with privatizing Russia's industrial sector. Then came the appointment of the former head of intelligence and informal employee of the KGB since 1959, Yevgeni Primakov, as Russia's new Foreign Minister. Zhirinovsky praised the appointment, calling it "the best possible solution."

Indeed, we have already seen an expansion in the role of the political police; the replacement of the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Filatov, with Nikolai Yegorov, one of the people most responsible for unleashing the Chechen war; the increased brutality in Chechnya; greater pressure on the media; and populist legislation in the social sphere, which threatens to ignite hyperinflation, etc. These steps, as if by command from the Communists, were carried out by the Yel'tsin administration.

Presidential Elections: June 1996
The result of the Duma elections suggest that the democrats have no hope of winning the presidential election. The news from Russia offers little encouragement. Yel'tsin negotiates with Zhirinovsky; Yavlinsky offers cooperation to the nationalist Congress of Russian Communities, led by retired General Aleksandr Lebed', and refuses to form a coalition with other democratic parties; the effort to unite the few democrats in the Duma into a single block fails.

The hope that the democrats will be represented by a single leader appears far-fetched; there is no such leader and none seems forthcoming. Considering that his party captured only seven percent of the Duma vote, Yavlinsky has no chance at the presidency. He harbors no illusions on this point, telling journalists at the Davos forum that, though the Communists are likely to win the June elections, he will become the leader of a democratic opposition and recapture the momentum in four years.

The chance to regain the momentum may not come so quickly. One recent survey asked a country-wide sample of 1648 respondents, "Will you support the Communist candidate in the June 1996 elections?" Thirty-six percent answered in the affirmative and 47 percent in the negative. Thirty-eight percent would like to see a Communist as head of the government and 44 are opposed.

Regardless of the fact that Yel'tsin is in fifth place among presidential hopefuls and Gennadi Zyuganov holds the first place, Yel'tsin may still have a chance to hold on to the presidency. But can Yel'tsin still be considered a desirable candidate? He may have led the country to reform in 1991 and 1992, but since then he has given the order to unleash the war in Chechnya and allowed the air force to bomb a peaceful population. He has resolved the hostage crisis in Pervomayskoye in the manner of his predecessors -- with fire, blood, and complete disregard for human life. Therefore, to create any illusions on the basis of Yel'tsin's previous image would be utterly naive.

Copyright ISCIP 1996
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