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Forget glasnost

First they said Russia had too little democracy; now they say it has too much. Theresa Clarke reports

Until recently Boris Yeltsin was held up as the hope for democracy in Russia, and praised for his one-man crusade against communism, corruption and conservatism. Commentators insisted that only when Russia had fully embraced democracy could it join the civilised world, and urged the Western powers to come up with more aid to allow Yeltsin's democratic reforms to continue.

However, of late a different message has been coming from the Western camp. Now it seems that some countries are just not ready for democracy. Democracy in Russia may be causing too many problems. Glasnost may no longer be such a good thing after all.

This change of heart reflects a growing Western unease about the failure of capitalism in Russia, and a recognition that the Russian government will have to force through even more drastic measures to shore up the market economy. Western commentators have tried to explain these developments away by blaming 'communist hardliners' for trying to reverse Yeltsin's reforms. Worse, the hardliners are said to be using Russia's new democratic institutions to block further reform. So it is understandable, Western experts say, that Yeltsin should seek an authoritarian presidency to drive through reform and safeguard democracy in the long term.

Comparisons are often made with China, where the introduction of the market has attracted foreign investment and created the fastest growing economy in the Far East. For the West, what marks China off from Russia is its political system. China is still a repressive, undemocratic regime. Which means that Chinese rulers can impose drastic economic change on their people. Some Western observers even suggest that suddenly giving the vote to 1.2 billion Chinese would be downright irresponsible. Maybe, they argue, Russia needs to adopt the Chinese way in the future.

Today it is widely assumed that Russia needs a more dictatorial leadership if economic reform is to continue and collapse is to be averted. The implication is that, if Yeltsin cannot reform the economy within a democracy, then democracy must go.

The abolition of the Russian parliament is now being seriously considered. Yeltsin has sounded out possible US responses, and has found a relatively sympathetic audience. The Financial Times reported Senator Richard Lugar saying that the 'US could "conceivably" accept the temporary use of military power, but only if it was invoked as an explicit prelude to proper elections in Russia' (15 March 1993). One unnamed Washington official went further. According to the Sunday Telegraph, he argued that the Clinton administration 'would not oppose a suspension of parliament, or the abolition of the constitution, provided the bloodshed was kept under control and the troops did not run amok' (14 March 1993).

At each stage of the economic transition, the West has come up with different excuses for the failure of capitalism to regenerate Russia. First it was not enough democracy, now Russia suffers from having too much. Not so long ago, the West gave the excuse of waiting for visible political reforms before it would give more financial aid. In 1991 the Institute of Strategic Studies recommended that, since the Soviet Union was moving towards a more authoritarian regime, it was unwise to invest in the region. Now it is seen as being in the interest of Western investors to support a repressive regime in Russia. Reality has been inverted.

America and the rest of the Western world know that in the uncertain world of the 1990s, stability must override democracy. Western leaders are keen for Russia not to disintegrate. America, in particular, wants a US-Russian alliance. It wants to use Russia as a counter to German and Japanese expansion within the old Soviet bloc. Most importantly for America, the very existence of Russia symbolises the continuation of the bipolar world of the Cold War era, when US leadership of the West was unquestioned. The concern now is that if Russia goes, so, too, does America's pretensions to world leadership.

Just before Yeltsin held the referendum on his reforms, Edward Mortimer summed up the Western outlook:

'The West's interest clearly lies in the successful conversion of the Russian economy to market principles, so that it can engage intensively in exchanging goods and services with the rest of the world. Whether they can be reached by a purely democratic road is less certain. We may have to accept that some corners will be cut, so long as the overall direction of change is clear' (Financial Times, 24 March 1993).

Yeltsin is certainly prepared to cut corners. Before the referendum, he imposed special rule by decree, suspended parliament, and outlined a programme for authoritarian reform. He now has the power to overrule laws which contradict his economic policies and has banned local elections for over a year.

The Kremlin guard has been renamed the presidential guard, and brought under Yeltsin's direct control. He has banned demonstrations and virtually outlawed strikes in key industries. The militia, the KGB and riot police are portrayed as the new defenders of democracy. After a recent anti-government demonstration the Special Purpose Militia Team, the new riot police, were commended for their bravery and praised for the 'impermissible' moderation they had displayed. Under Soviet rule, the same riot police won notoriety for the brutal suppression of opposition in the Baltics. Last summer, the militia expressed support for a military coup.

Even before the referendum votes were cast, Yeltsin announced that he would ignore the results if they went against him. In the event he won, although he received less than a quarter of the available votes. A recent poll showed that over 70 per cent of the Russian people see current political events as irrelevant to their lives. Support for Yeltsin has been replaced by cynical disillusionment.

Some US officials have warned that Bill Clinton may well regret giving such full support to Yeltsin. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger sees a strong possibility of Russia relapsing into Pinochet-style authoritarian rule - not necessarily under Yeltsin's control. Senator Bill Bradley argues that it is 'important to keep open all lines of communications with other centres of power, including the parliament, the army and the Russian Orthodox church' (Financial Times, 15 March 1993). If there is a Chilean-style crackdown within Russia, America needs to be able to do business with whoever is in charge.

The message is: forget democracy. America will support Russia if it follows the Chinese or Chilean road to capitalist reform.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993

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