Can Russia Survive Democracy?

By Bonner, Yelena | USA TODAY, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Can Russia Survive Democracy?


Bonner, Yelena, USA TODAY


Russia has been going through a critical stage of development in the difficult transition to democracy, one that is cause for both optimism and pessimism. In April, 1993, key members of the Congress of People's Deputies did their utmost to ruin the national referendum that, in essence, was meant to determine the fate of the policies and presidency of Boris Yeltsin. Specially, they attempted to rig the questions on the referendum ballot so as to ensure a vote of no confidence. Their efforts failed spectacularly, as the Russian people unequivocally demonstrated their loyalty to Yeltsin and the cause of democracy.

So much for the good news. The serious problem of deteriorating relations between the Congress of People's Deputies and Yeltsin remains. The majority of deputies elected in March. 1990, when the Communist Party still was in power, were old Party functionaries and members of the nomenklatura. Sixty-two percent - 639 out of a total of 1,033 - consistently opposed democratic reforms. Just before the referendum, 618 voted to impeach Yeltsin. Only 38% - 394 deputies - consistently supported him and the policies of reform. Each group spent most of its time battling to win over wavering deputies. In this environment, it was highly unlikely that the Congress of People's Deputies could achieve any substantive reform.

The December, 1993, elections reduced the communists' share to about 12%, but brought new headaches for Yeltsin. The ultrantionalist Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, captured almost 23% of the votes. This left the reformers with the largest single bloc (30%), in the new Parliament, though well short of a minority, thus requiring formation of a coalition with centrists.

Russia desperately needed the new written constitution approved in the December election. Without it, the possibility of massive street violence - such as the May 1, 1993, outburst incited by anti-referendum deputies that injured more than 500 people - would have become more prevalent. While it gives too much power to the president, this can be addressed.

The first and primary chapter in the Yeltsin constitution guarantees the civil rights of all citizens. The second outlines a federalist system whereby autonomous republics, regions, provinces, and local government retain a large degree of independence. (Anti-reform elements in Congress strongly opposed this provision. They would rather have followed the old Soviet model of centralized power, but Yeltsin was adamant that the only way to save Russia is to allow decentralization.) In addition, the Yeltsin constitution calls for a new structure for the national government, featuring a two-chamber Parliament with wide representation and four-year limits. It also guarantees the inviolability of private property rights, including land ownership.

Nuclear disarmament

An issue still to be resolved is that of nuclear disarmament under the START agreements. Until Russia becomes a stable democratic state with leaders who pledge to abide by such pacts, no weapons should be transferred to its control from the other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Just imagine what could have happened if the people behind the May I violence had total political power backed up by sole control of the entire CIS nuclear arsenal. …

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