Building a Democracy : Is This a Russian Government, or Just a Fight Between a ‘Donkey’ and a ‘Fool’?

Gaddis Smith is the Larned Professor of History at Yale University and the director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies

In his classic study, “Democracy and Its Critics,” Robert A. Dahl describes the democratic ideal as “a political process in which the members regard one another as political equals, are collec tively sovereign and possess all the capacities, resources and institutions they need in order to govern themselves.”

Mindful of this, listen to a comment made last week about the situation in Russia by a citizen of St. Petersburg: “The people are now guided by their instincts rather than by knowledge. They can’t explain why this is all taking place, except to say that Yeltsin is a fool, and Khasbulatov is a donkey.”

The contrast between these two quotations touches the essence of the struggle between President Boris N. Yeltsin and Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, speaker of the Parliament. The crisis they have manufactured is over personal power, quite empty of any vision of how the Russian people can develop institutions through which to influence their future. Neither antagonist appears committed to encouraging the growth of “the capacities, resources and institutions” the people need to govern themselves. Until the Russian people can acquire hope of acquiring these things, of truly pursuing the vision on which democracy must be based, the crisis will worsen.

The first step toward a more hopeful future should deal with political institutions--and specifically elections. Yeltsin and Khasbulatov both proclaim the legitimacy of the political institution each leads, the presidency and the Parliament. The accuse each other of horrific intentions. Khasbulatov says Yeltsin seeks to establish a dictatorship and is ready to sell out the country to greedy Western capitalists. Yeltsin shouts that he alone represents the people while Khasbulatov wants to impose “the former Bolshevist, anti-popular rule” and restore the Cold War.


There is mindless hyperbole on both sides and a negative harping on personalities to the neglect of a larger vision of what Russian society should become. No wonder most Russians seem to react to the spectacle--the combat of the fool and the donkey--with a mixture of sadness, apathy and disgust.

In one sense, Yeltsin and Khasbulatov are both right and both wrong. Right in questioning the legitimacy of the other’s institution, and wrong in claiming legitimacy for themselves.

The Parliament, with its Supreme Soviet and large Congress of People’s Deputies, was created under the influence of the Communist Party in 1990, long before anyone imagined that the party--and the Soviet Union--were less than eternal. The opportunities for participation by new political actors, unaffiliated with the old Communist nomenklatura, were limited and obstructed.

But Yeltsin was also a product of the old system. He was, it is true, popularly elected in June, 1991, but only as President of the Russian Federation at a time when the Soviet Union still existed and Mikhail S. Gorbachev was its leader. His resistance to the failed coup of August, 1991, testified to his courage and gave him the temporary power to abolish the Soviet Union and send Gorbachev into the exile of the international lecture circuit. But the pace and magnitude of change since 1990-91 have made ancient history of the recent past. Old mandates have little legitimacy.


Yeltsin and Khasbulatov agree in principle on elections. How could they do otherwise? But they are constantly maneuvering for personal advantage. Yeltsin’s call for a referendum on his own popularity is reminiscent of old one-candidate elections. He presents the choice as between himself or chaos. Khasbulatov invokes the murky provisions of the old constitution to say a referendum can have no validity. Only a lack of votes stopped him from trying to oust Yeltsin last week through so-called “impeachment.”

Khasbulatov suggests simultaneous elections in 1994 for both the president and members of Parliament. But Yeltsin wants the referendum first, then elections for the Parliament (because the current Parliament was formed a year before he became president), followed a year later by presidential elections. Meanwhile, the majority of the Russian people appear singularly dismissive of the fool and the donkey, or entirely unengaged.

No outsider can tell the Russians how or when to have elections, but outsiders can lament the way Yeltsin and Khasbulatov personalize and misrepresent the issues and thereby impede the institutional development than can flow from fresh elections--elections in which people see themselves as political equals, collectively sovereign, capable of debating and choosing among alternative ideas.

Some pundits argue that the problem is economic, not political--as if economic and political conditions could be put into the intellectual equivalent of a cream separator (the phrase is Dean Acheson’s). Indeed, there is a deteriorating standard of living for most Russians, falling production, extreme inflation, collapsing public services and much lawless profiteering.


Former President Gorbachev harps on this theme, claiming that 80% of the Russian people are at or below the poverty line, and blaming Yeltsin’s “shock therapy” derived from disastrous advice of “Harvard economists.” Other critics blame the United States and the industrial democracies for failing to provide Russia with sufficient and timely economic aid. Margaret Thatcher, for example, has called for the equivalent of a Marshall Plan.

But the Marshall Plan succeeded in reviving the economy of Western Europe because of the strength of underlying institutions in the recipient countries. Economic aid cannot create a democratic process, and without democratic institutions, aid is not likely to be used for the benefit of the society as a whole.

There are political pessimists who argue that a thousand years of Russian history have created a “mentality” incompatible with democracy. A better use of history would emphasize how much has changed to break the hold of old cliches. The difference between past and present makes rather than invalidates the case for democratic elections.

Of course, elections will not solve all problems, but without them, the day of the fool and donkey could be followed by a new age of criminals and monsters. If Yeltsin and Khasbulatov cannot resolve their differences sufficiently to bring early and meaningful elections, we must hope that others in Russia will find the will to overcome the widespread political apathy and lead the country in a more positive, democratic direction.