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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Democracy Put to Test




President Boris Yeltsin once again traveled to his favorite spot -- the brink of disaster -- and once again returned triumphant. Now he faces what has always been a far more painful challenge for him: the everyday routine of governing the ungovernable.


First the good news. In the month since Yeltsin fired his long-serving, loyal prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and nominated a young technocrat, Russia's young democracy has faced another in its series of periodic tests. Once again, it passed.


Despite everything you may have heard or read about constitutional breakdowns, mafia oligarchs and unbridled tsarist ambitions, the system worked more or less as it was supposed to, and as it would in other democracies. Politicians in parliament bargained and bluffed and blustered. They checked and rechecked polls from back home. And, at the last minute, they confirmed Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, thereby averting dissolution and early elections.


Why did Yeltsin do it? His March 23 order dismissing his Cabinet came as a shock to almost everyone. Many saw the move as irrational, and were quick to attribute motives: boredom, impetuousness, a thirst for unchallenged power.


There's some evidence for all three.


Yeltsin's history shows a propensity to shake things up from time to time. His initial announcement that he would name himself acting prime minister, which he repudiated once he was told that such a move would be unconstitutional, suggests, at the least, the move hadn't been fully scrubbed in a comprehensive interagency Kremlin review.


Yeltsin consistently has slapped down aides who grew too uppity.


Chernomyrdin for most of his half-decade in office was self-effacing to the point of obsequiousness. Lately he had been puffing himself up and acting like a presidential candidate.


But those explanations aren't necessarily sufficient, nor do they mean Yeltsin's act was totally irrational. The president offered reasoning that merits attention. Chernomyrdin was "solid and reliable," he said, but lacked "dynamism, initiative, new viewpoints, fresh approaches and ideas."


Yeltsin is looking toward 2000, when his second term ends. If his health holds up until then, he either will wriggle through a loophole in the constitution and seek a third term -- which would be a grave setback to democratic development -- or he will promote a candidate to extend his legacy.


A minimum requirement will be a successor who does not seek to put him in jail. But the president understands that no liberal, pro-reform candidate is likely to be elected if Russia's economy does not improve during the next two years. And that will require, as Yeltsin said March 23, "making economic reforms more energetic and effective."


Chernomyrdin wasn't up to that task. Yeltsin's critics said he will miss Chernomyrdin's stability and his good relations with the communist-dominated parliament. But Chernomyrdin's stability was merely an avoidance of reform, and he got along with parliament because he rarely pushed important legislation.


Will Kiriyenko -- ex-Komsomol, ex-banker, ex-oilman -- do any better? Can a bland provincial with only a year's experience in Moscow and now in line to become acting president should Yeltsin die in office jump-start reforms?


Some early signs are encouraging. Kiriyenko handled himself deftly during his month-long confirmation fight, consulting respectfully with opposition leaders without, apparently, giving too much away. For economic advice he has turned to Yeltsin's battle-tested reformers -- Boris Nemtsov and Yegor Gaidar. He turned to them, moreover, even before his confirmation, not kowtowing to the communists, to whom these reformers are anathema.


But no matter how deft and principled Kiriyenko proves himself, and even if Yeltsin now departs from his usual pattern and remains fully engaged and supportive, Russia will not break through into the daylight of clear economic reform and rapid growth. Russia is not Poland: It is more vast and more isolated, its communism was more deep-rooted, its economy more militarized and centralized.


Not coincidentally, its people are far more divided. Many Russians want the right to buy and sell farmland; many Russians view that as a violation of all that is sacred. Many want to reach out to the West; others remain deeply suspicious. Those deep divisions are reflected in parliament, which has shown the muscle to block land reform, tax reform, arms treaties with the United States and more.


Russia's functioning democracy, in other words, is one reason its reforms will not be swift and unchallenged. Playing by democratic rules and modest, uneven progress toward a liberal economy -- for anyone not expecting miracles, these together would constitute success in Russia today. Now it's up to Yeltsin and his new prime minister to give at least a modest boost to long-stalled reforms.


Fred Hiatt is a member of the editorial page staff of The Washington Post.