Will Russia Be Crushed by Its History?

By Zlobin, Nikolai V. | World Affairs, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Will Russia Be Crushed by Its History?


Zlobin, Nikolai V., World Affairs


Following the recent Russian elections, Western media rushed to predict how well suited the new president was to address the country's most acute problems in a newly democratic society. But what many "analysts" failed to realize is that the majority of these problems find their roots not in the recent, but in the remote, past. If we refuse to analyze these problems in this fashion, or accept the principle of their deep historical roots, then we run the risk of investigating only the most apparent consequences: the superficial, not the origins or key elements of those phenomena.

It is obvious that Russia cannot simply copy the Western model of democracy, even generally. Western civilization is modern; non-Western civilizations are trying to modernize without becoming Western.(1) The countries of Western Europe have all followed their own difficult paths to democracy; America has also. Richard Nixon, in one of his speeches, agreed with the opinion of Andre Malraux that the United States is the only country in the world to become a superpower without having to put forth any effort. Similarly, it was much easier for America to obtain its independence than most nations. Clearly, the path of Russia won't be quite so quick and direct. To meet her goal, Russia must distance herself from certain Russian characteristics.

The reelection of Yeltsin in 1996 cast a calming effect on the West. President Clinton said this victory means that Russians, "turned their backs on tyranny." This may be true, if he speaks of "communist tyranny." Clinton continued, "Russians are turning the corner toward freedom. They and their leaders cleared another important hedge in building a new and daring democracy."(2) But this is not necessarily the case. "I play a game where there are rules," said world chess champion and Russian politician-democrat Garry Kasparov about Yeltsin's leadership. "But this is something entirely different. If there are rules to this game, then they are rules made and understood by one man only."(3)

In 1991, Boris Yeltsin was elected as president of one of the republics within the USSR. Now he presides over a huge, strong, and independent Russian state. According to the Russian Constitution, this makes him an individual with nearly unlimited political power. He can govern directly by decree or move through the government system, which is at his disposal, to rule the colossal Russian state property. Yeltsin is a president with vast economic powers as well, incomparable to any other power in world history. Despite public suspicion that Yeltsin's poor health and frequent lapses from public view signal the end of his political career, he has proved to be an accomplished political hunter, hiding in the bushes when necessary, but always keeping an eye on his prey.

There is no doubt that in this situation Yeltsin proved the best choice for the country. He has initiated many political and economic reforms, but this does not mean that he is ideal. He is the same person who signed the secret agreement with Belarussia and Ukraine that was designed to destroy the Soviet Union. The day before Yeltsin left Moscow to sign this agreement, he deceived Gorbachev by assuring him that his purpose was to retain these two republics within the USSR. Ironically, in the recent referendum, the majority of Russian people voted to save the USSR. Yeltsin's military attack on Parliament in 1993 was decidedly undemocratic.

During the last five years, 40 percent of the population has fallen below the poverty level. Crime, corruption, and political terror have overtaken Russia. Two powerful monopolies now exist: the oil-gas monopoly, operated by government officials, and arms sales, operated by the presidential team. Both are consumed with in-fighting for control of these economic interests. Russia, formerly a great superpower, has seen its status plunge. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Russia is not even in the forefront of free-market economies or any other type of economy. …

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