Uncertain Road to Democracy: Can Yeltsin Get There From Here? : Russia: Authoritarian crackdown appears to run counter to earlier aspirations and casts a shadow over elections.


Can President Boris N. Yeltsin achieve democratic ends by authoritarian means?

A stern Yeltsin on Wednesday guaranteed equal opportunity to compete in December elections to "all politicians, parties and movements that have not stained themselves with direct involvement" in what he called an "armed mutiny" by extremists holed up in the White House.

But with the Russian constitution in shambles, the Parliament in ashes, the Constitutional Court discredited and the opposition media muzzled, who will decide what constitutes a free and fair election campaign--and what powers the newly elected legislature will have?

And is it possible for Yeltsin to set Russia on the road to democracy without setting dangerously undemocratic precedents?

"Yeltsin didn't save democracy in Russia," said military analyst Alexander A. Konovalov. "He only saved the chance to build democracy in Russia. It's not a chance that comes very often.

"If we miss one, two chances, the next chance may never come."

Russia may remain on the brink of civil war for months or years, historian Constantine V. Pleshakov said.

"I'm afraid that for some time a kind of enlightened authoritarian regime might be necessary," he said. "The question is how to make any Russian authoritarian regime enlightened."

For centuries, Russian czars answered only to God and history. For 70 more years, the ruling Communist Party answered to the Politburo, and the Politburo answered only to itself.

In the chaotic two years since the Soviet Union crumbled, many Russians have come to long once again for a strong hand at the helm of their storm-tossed nation. Despite the tragedy at the White House, plenty are still willing to trust Yeltsin with nearly unlimited powers to set things right.

But many who long for democracy remain skeptical that a crackdown followed by new elections will resolve Russia's deep political and ideological schisms.

Others doubt that a political culture based on mass indoctrination and command-and-control tactics can be reformed by more decrees.

"We were told to build socialism; now we have been ordered to build capitalism," constitutional law professor Boris M. Lazarev said. "When shall we start building something without being pushed?"

As Russians sift through the physical, psychological and political wreckage of Yeltsin's mortal struggle with Parliament, the most thoughtful have many more questions than answers. Among the issues being argued in Moscow:

1. Who is to be banned from elections? And who decides?

Yeltsin's TV speech Wednesday left plenty of wiggle room about who exactly is "stained" by the Parliament's rebellion.

"Nazis and Communists merged in this damnable cause; the swastika joined the hammer and sickle," Yeltsin said, adding that some former people's deputies had "used their deputy immunity as a shield from behind which to incite violence, stimulate mass unrest, organize full-scale bloody rioting and unleash civil war."

It was unclear whether lawmakers had been automatically stripped of their immunity from prosecution when Yeltsin dissolved Parliament, or whether they could be prosecuted only if they advocated violence. That decision would presumably be made by Russia's judiciary, which has a notorious tradition of subservience to those in power.

What is clear is that the threat of prosecution could be used by pro-Yeltsin forces to keep hostile former lawmakers from running for reelection.

Yeltsin critic Nikolai I. Travkin, leader of the conservative Russian Democratic Party, said the Yeltsin camp is unlikely to be attentive to constitutional niceties while busy squelching an armed insurrection.

"The Constitution does not provide for the speaker and the vice president being taken prisoners of war," Travkin said. "This opens up immense opportunities and room to maneuver for the president."

2. For those allowed to run, who will guarantee a fair campaign?

Though many believe that quick elections offer Russia the only hope of political salvation, there is concern that the brief two-month campaign period favors the Yeltsin government--the only organized and well-funded political force in the country besides the now-banned Communists.

"The pro-Yeltsin parties will be put into a hothouse for the duration of the election campaign, and with help from overseas they will find a way to get a couple of billion dollars . . . to make sure they get a majority in the Parliament," Travkin complained.

Yeltsin's decision Wednesday to lift censorship on the mainstream press came as a huge relief to many democrats--even though about 50 publications deemed extremist remain shut down.

Two journalists groups protested the closures, but there was little sympathy from liberals. Many are sickened by the right-wing press's anti-Semitism, rabid anti-democratic rhetoric and advocacy of violence.

"You do not provide democratic freedoms to those who are very keen on overthrowing democracy by force," said Alexei G. Arbatov of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow think tank.

The real question is whether centrist and democratic opponents of Yeltsin will be given access to state-controlled television, Arbatov said.

Nor is it a foregone conclusion that all the regions will hold national parliamentary elections in December as Yeltsin has decreed--particularly now that the president has demanded that local legislatures also dissolve themselves and submit to the voters.

"We will either have a crippled election, and if this is the case then the new Parliament will lack authority and legitimacy, or the elections will have to be postponed," historian Andrei V. Kortunov said.

"There is nothing to worry about," countered political analyst Viktor P. Kiselev. "There will be normal elections without extremists, and Russia will be a presidential republic. Maybe this is what it needs for the transitional period."

3. What stops the army now from stepping into politics?

Nothing, Arbatov said.

Since the failed hard-line coup of August, 1991, the Russian army has been lectured endlessly--and has come to accept--that in a democratic country, the army should stay out of domestic politics.

By calling on the military to rescue his government, Yeltsin has shattered that precedent.

"Political control over the military from now on will be even weaker than before," Arbatov said.

"It will be very hard to continue what was planned in the way of military reform, budget cuts, conversion of military industries, withdrawal of troops from outside Russia--because from now on, the vested interests of the army and the opinions of the army will be (taken) much more seriously," Arbatov said.

Others, however, argued that the army is too politicized and divided to press its advantage against an ascendant president.

"I don't see any military leader capable of saying to Yeltsin, 'We are strong and you are weak,' " Konovalov said. "Yeltsin is a hero now. It would be hard to oppose him."

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