Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A New Weimar Russia?

Once again, the specter of Weimar Germany haunts Russia. If the outcome of last month's parliamentary elections is taken as a straw poll for the presidential race in June, one can easily imagine a nightmare choice between Communist Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or between Zyuganov and a weak reform candidate like Grigory Yavlinsky. A less nightmarish choice would pit Zyuganov against an ailing Boris Yeltsin or Viktor Chernomyrdin, a prime minister fatally damaged by his loyalty to an unpopular president. In short, a new authoritarian or even totalitarian regime may enter Russia, not through a coup, as in 1917, but through the ballot box and according to all the rules of Russia's democratic, presidency-oriented constitution.

Like Weimar Germany, Russia has experienced, by losing its superpower status, a national humiliation; it has been gripped by an economic crisis and by a rupture in its social fabric; and it has sustained bloody political upheavals, most notably the dissolution of the Soviets, in the fall of 1993, and the seemingly interminable war in Chechnya.

The Communists' success at the polls, raising their representation in the Duma to 35 percent from 10 percent, practically closes the Weimar analogy. Like Adolf Hitler's party comrades, Russia's Communists showed plenty of political savvy, running a miserly campaign in the face of lavish spending by opponents and relying on grass-roots support instead of garish advertising. If the Duma deputies from the other "left parties'' -- the barely breathing Agrarians and the microscopic old nomenklatura party, Power to the People -- are counted in, the total comes to 41 percent.

But was it a "victory of the Communists,'' or a "victory for communism''? After all the bad press the Communists endured during perestroika and, especially, after the collapse of Soviet communism, Zyuganov's party is, indeed, a comeback kid. The Communist Party of Russia will be the largest single-party faction in the new Duma.

Had the seats been distributed according to the votes cast, however, the Communist bloc would not have exceeded 25 percent. More than one-third of the Communist deputies were elected from single-mandate districts -- meaning they owe their victories not so much to their party as to their local constituencies, a significant factor given the growing autonomy of the regions.

General Alexander Lebed's recent offer to lend the Communists his charismatic appeal in exchange for the presidential prize is a bad deal for the Communists and is bound to be rejected. The Russian presidency is powerful enough to enable the president to forget who made his victory possible, and Lebed, the hero of the war in Afghanistan, is unlikely to be obliging.

The Communists' presidential prospects dim further when the reform faction identifying with Chernomyrdin's Our Home Is Russia -- Yavlinsky's Yabloko, Yegor Gaidar's Russia's Democratic Choice and Svyatoslav Fyodorov's Party of Free Labor -- is factored in. This bloc, more than a quarter of the Duma, held its own or even gained, if marginally, compared to the results of the 1993 elections. More important, the government's party, now strongly represented in the Duma, is in a position to attract independent deputies. If, as some important indicators suggest, Russia has entered a period of economic recovery, Chernomyrdin's party may increase its ranks substantially, stealing momentum from the Communists in the six months leading up to the presidential vote.

Chernomyrdin's own story holds a key to understanding Russia's political dynamic in the post-communist era. Both the ideological and natural resources that sustained Russia's superpower status were exhausted by the '80s. Mikhail Gorbachev's resistance to radical economic reform had, in effect, bankrupted the country by the time Yeltsin took over in 1991. Reform was the only option, and Chernomyrdin's ascendancy in Yeltsin's government and his ever-growing commitment to reform shows that Russia's economic transformation stems not from a politician's will, but from a structural need for change that cannot be avoided, not even by Zyuganov.

Russia's major urban centers recognize the need not to return to the past. Indeed, Moscow and St. Petersburg voted overwhelmingly in favor of the reform politicians, while Zyuganov's supporters were older or retired and clustered in the woefully inefficient coal-mining regions, the primarily agricultural belt in Southern Russia and in areas like the northern Caucasus republic of Dagestan, which are chronically dependent on the central government. These constituencies represent Russia's past, a nostalgia for the simplicity and ignorance of the Soviet era, not Russia's future -- not even its present with its multi-ethnic composition, weak central state, increasing autonomy of the regions, dependency on raw-material exports, and the emergence of private economic conglomerates linked to the state.

Even Zyuganov, the spokesman for a sentimental national Bolshevism, understands this, eagerly offering his assurances of forward economic movement to foreign investors, articulating the fear of every major Russian politician that capital flight from Russia may precipitate the country's collapse and disintegration. If even Zyuganov understands the severe limitations on national sovereignty in the post-Cold War world, there is little place in Russian politics for a grandiose utopia and self-hypnosis that once led Russia, Italy, Germany and more recently Serbia to the brink of national suicide. The budget fight in Washington between Bill Clinton and Republicans in Congress, or the standoff between the unions and the government of Alain Jupp? in France -- all of this unappealing mess of a democracy -- offer a far better analogy to contemporary Russian politics than the twilight of the Weimar Republic.

Gregory Freidin is the author of "Russia at the Barricades." He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.