Democrats in Disarray

Hopes that the December elections would resolve Russia's political crisis have been frustrated. In fact, the crisis has deepened. In pre-October days one could entertain the illusion that the Supreme Soviet was merely a holdover from the days of communism and did not reflect the aspirations of Russian electorate; after the elections, it is evident that close to half of Russia's voters support opposition parties.

The credibility of the government and its policies has been severely undermined. The authority and prestige of the president have been weakened. A new, more aggressive and dynamic opposition has emerged: Legitimized by the elections, it has new leaders and a nationalist ideology.

The poor showing of Russia's democrats -- pro-Western liberal intellectuals grouped in several parties and blocs -- has marked the beginning of a new stage in their attitudes toward democracy, the Russian people, and their own political role. Until December they lived in the belief that they represented the majority of the Russian people, and were its natural leaders. They represented the future -- capitalism, prosperity and democracy -- while the opposition represented the dark forces of the past.

Now, during the post-election fallout, the democrats cannot come to terms with the fact that the myth they created was nothing but wishful thinking.

Trying to rationalize their defeat, the democrats blame everyone except themselves. The press is to blame because supposedly it gave favorable coverage to Zhirinovsky. Other democrats are to blame, those who chose to form their own parties instead of rallying around Russia's Choice. Zhirinovsky is to blame and those who financed him. The Russian people are to blame. They are naive, it is argued. They can be easily deceived. They are not ready for democracy.

The democrats must draw serious conclusions from their defeat. They must understand that in the public eye the government is increasingly perceived, not as a team of reformers who know what they are doing, but as a conglomeration of competing cliques. They failed to convince the people that market reforms would bear fruit. They failed to explain when and why the economic situation would improve. They must admit that they have not formulated a coherent program of how they intend to lead Russia out of its social, economic and political crisis.

But the post-election pronouncements of the democrats do not show a willingness to admit to their own failures. They have formulated two responses. First, they are talking of creating a broad anti-fascist front, and second, they intend to rely increasingly on the president, who can continue reforms regardless of the parliament. Some democrats go further and propose creating a rule of enlightened authoritarianism.

Talk of an anti-fascist front amounts to a refusal to admit that there was anything wrong with the democrats' economic policy. It is a posture of self-righteous affirmation: "Either you are with us or you are a fascist."

The democrats' desire to hide behind the president's broad back is another self-destructive policy. It is an admission of their own impotence.

Yeltsin's own reaction to the election results is even more confusing. On the one hand he is trying to project an image of a dynamic, hands-on president. He is going to found his own political party. He is going to continue economic reforms. But it remains unclear how his new party is going to differ from Russia's Choice or any other blocs and parties staffed by his entourage.

Yeltsin's actions in the aftermath of elections show the old instincts of a regional party secretary. Bad comrades have to be replaced with good ones. The names of agencies will be changed, but will the substance change as well? Yeltsin's reliance on decrees and personnel changes will not and cannot create a government based on clearly defined legal procedure. On the contrary, it may increasingly slide toward a personal authoritarian government in which a telephone call will play a much larger role than law.

Yeltsin's decision to create his own political party is also unlikely to stem the tide of discontent. And it potentially threatens his own political survival. If in December he had the luxury of distancing himself from Russia's Choice, he would have to face the consequences himself if his party is defeated in local elections.

The policy choices of the democrats and the president in the aftermath of the elections are self-defeating. They show a certain degree of disillusionment with democratic process and reliance on authoritarian methods.

What the democrats must do is to reshape economic policies in accordance with the wishes of the electorate. This means, in practical terms, to put an end to corruption, stop mafia control of retail trade, create a functioning banking and credit system and regulate privatization in the interest of common people rather than mafia bosses. Politically, they must open up prominent roles in their parties to young dynamic leaders who know how to speak to the common people.

These new leaders should plunge into politics, which means into the persistent struggle for people's support. They have to explain their policies to their constituencies. They must try to explain why they believe these policies would work and why Zhirinovsky's will not.

The democrats must prove to the Russian people that they really are what they claim: those who listen to and express the aspirations of the electorate. If they fail, or abandon the field, the consequences may be catastrophic. The majority may opt for dynamic, autarchic, and aggressive Russian nationalism.

Vladimir Brovkin is Associate Professor of History at Harvard University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.