Signal Our Support for Democracy : *Russia: The U.S. must clearly back fair and free elections, even if it means Yeltsin’s loss.

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Michael McFaul, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, is in Russia to monitor the election this month on behalf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of which he is a senior associate

The increasing prospect of a communist and nationalist victory in Russia’s parliamentary elections this month has fueled doubts about whether Russia’s presidential election, scheduled for next June, will take place.

Even before President Boris Yeltsin’s latest heart attack, the odds were only 50-50 for a democratic transfer of power, which has never occurred in Russia or the Soviet Union. There is a determination to preserve the status quo on the part of those who have prospered under Yeltsin’s reign--whether Russia’s new banking tycoons, gas and oil executives or the entourage of Kremlin aides that surrounds Yelstin--including his mysteriously powerful bodyguard, Gen. Alexander V. Korzhakov. Reelecting Yeltsin, of course, has been their preferred strategy.

Given Yeltsin’s single-digit approval rating for more than a year, however, Moscow’s rumor mills have been churning out scenarios for keeping him in power by other means, ranging from rigging or postponing elections to such outlandish schemes as initiating the reunification of the former Soviet Union, a process calculated to be too important to be interrupted by a presidential election.


If Yeltsin cannot run or cannot run and win, the current regime has one other democratic option: rallying behind Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as a presidential candidate. Personal differences between Yeltsin’s entourage and the prime minister, however, combined with the likely mediocre showing of Chernomyrdin’s party in the upcoming parliamentary election, complicate this possibility. And there is no guarantee that Chernomyrdin could win a free and fair presidential election. If elections were held tomorrow, retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, champion of the patriotic right, would defeat him easily. Given these circumstances, the temptation to abort the democratic process must be great.

Before antidemocratic plots begin to unfold in Russia, the Clinton administration must signal to potential putschists that the United States will not accept any tampering with the electoral schedule. Presidential elections, whether in June as scheduled or earlier if Yeltsin becomes incapacitated, must be a precondition for future cooperative relations between our two countries.

Before Yeltsin’s heart attack, an argument (though not mine) could have been made for keeping quiet about Russian elections. If, as Yeltsin’s advisors have warned, economic reforms might be in jeopardy without Yeltsin in the Kremlin, then the United States might have looked the other way one more time, as it did during the shelling of the Russian parliament in October 1993 and the invasion of Chechnya in December 1994. Stability can sometimes be more important than democracy.

Now, that argument makes no sense. Especially with Yeltsin in poor health, a move to derail the presidential election would keep in power the nastiest of Yeltsin’s team, a group that has no love for the West.

On the other hand, doing everything possible to ensure that the election is held serves long-term American interests. Granted, a political figure more hostile to the West is likely to win a free and fair election. But if a nationalist or communist assumes power by democratic means, he would be more likely to abide by the democratic process than if he seized power after the collapse of a Kremlin coup. Even under Russia’s super-presidential system, democratic rules of the game will help to constrain the most militant of new leaders. While often underestimated, American statements and reactions concerning Russian reform, whether rightly or wrongly interpreted, are still taken very seriously within Russia’s elite. For instance, Kremlin officials told me that Clinton’s warm embrace of and jovial laughter with Yeltsin during their meeting in October was perceived as “signals” of Clinton’s personal commitment to Yeltsin. Kremlin officials are watching American signals carefully--perhaps too much so.

The United States needs to send a strong signal to Russia that America cares about the future of Russian democracy. The signal needs to be sent now as a way to deter anti-democracy ploys. Punishing coup leaders already in power would be a much more difficult task.