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Friday, 3 December, 1999, 15:06 GMT
The doubts over Russia's democracy

Moscow market Russians' wages are miserly, if paid at all

By Moscow Correspondent Rob Parsons

It is not yet a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But Russians are already convincing themselves again of one of their oldest shibboleths - that this huge, unwieldy country can only be governed by a firm hand.

Russia at the Polls
What's at stake
Who's who
Russia's regions
Democracy here is getting short shrift these days. You might well ask: What democracy?

Take the elections to the State Duma: a triumph of liberty over totalitarianism? Hardly. Rarely can an electorate have become so disillusioned so quickly by the promises of liberal reform.

Parliament itself must take much of the blame. Its members - with some notable exceptions - are regarded by the public with contempt.

Can one blame the public for seeing it that way? At the height of last year's financial crisis, as millions faced the prospect of destitution, members of the lower house were calling for increases in their already substantial parliamentary privileges. Accusations of corruption and venality abound. The passage of legislation has been painfully slow.

The electoral debate has insulted the intelligence of ordinary Russians.
Little distinguishes the rival parties one from another. Ideology in Russia is dead. The fight is over individual and group interests.

Try to grasp what policies separate the Fatherland All Russia bloc of Yevgeny Primakov from the pro-Kremlin Unity bloc, or, for that matter, from the Communist Party. It is not easy.

The electoral debate has insulted the intelligence of ordinary Russians. In truth, there has been no debate - not because there is no freedom of expression - there is - but because television and the press have become the tools of the Kremlin and its rivals.

Truth has been the first victim of a relentless campaign of mud-slinging.

Russians are crying out for order again.
And all around there is chaos. There is no strategy for economic recovery, corruption eats into the heart of the state apparatus, wages are miserly if they are paid at all, crime goes unsolved, mobsters operate with impunity, billions of dollars leave the country every month, and a human rights' report says torture has become routine in police stations.

Little wonder that so many say they won't vote at all. This could also be a record year for spoiled ballot papers.

As in 1995, the chances are that no single party or bloc will gain an absolute majority. The Communist Party will again do well but not well enough to dominate. Fatherland-All Russia will occupy a sizeable place in the middle ground and the liberals will creep in with Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces.

soldier A Russian soldier in Chechnya: The war has overshadowed the elections
But how much does it matter? Whatever the outcome, few expect the earth to shake. The balance of power in Russia is still heavily weighted in favour of the presidency.

The parliamentary elections already feel like a sideshow to two more important developments - the war in Chechnya and the rise and rise in the opinion polls of the prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

The two are inextricably linked. The prime minister owes his popularity in large part to the success of the Russian armed forces.

'Traitors' condemned

But what makes Mr Putin's popularity so important is that he is the Kremlin's chosen candidate for June's presidential elections. Boris Yeltsin could be about to triumph again - albeit by proxy.

Mr Putin is tough, he's a patriot and he's promised to restore Russia's pride in itself - if needs be, through the demolition of Chechnya.

He's also tapping a rich seam of popular discontent. People are tired of politics. Russians are crying out for order again - even the normally fractious intelligentsia. Hence the extraordinary consensus forming around Mr Putin.

Putin Mr Putin says he will restore Russia's pride in itself
Noone dares criticise - not the Communist Party, not his rivals for the presidency - at least not yet - and not even the liberals who lambasted the Kremlin for the last war in Chechnya.

Extraordinarily, one of them - Anatoly Chubais, architect of Russia's market reforms and darling of the West - has described critics of government policy in Chechnya as traitors.

It's easy to understand the yearning for order, less easy to discern what sort of society Mr Putin would like that order to serve.

What sort of Russia is taking shape as we enter the third millenium?

Western hopes for a smooth transition from Soviet rule to a liberal democracy sharing the same values as our own are fading fast.

There are new doubts: is Russia too vast for Western-style representative democracy? A member of parliament in Krasnoyarsk, for instance, is expected to represent the interests of people within the region who live thousands of kilometres away.

A new nationalism is taking shape, built on the disappointments and defeats of the last decade.
Perhaps Russia's political culture is too authoritarian and too deeply scarred by the experiences of the twentieth century, perhaps crime and criminality are too deeply embedded in its structures to be rooted out.

Certainly the notion that Russia, if only freed from the Soviet yoke, would become a natural ally of the liberal West already looks hopelessly naive.

Russia is a huge country with borders in Europe and Asia. It will always have its own interests to defend.

That in itself is no reason for alarm. Of more cause for concern is the growth of anti-western feeling.

A new nationalism is taking shape, built on the disappointments and defeats of the last decade. The West is accused of meddling in Russian affairs and seeking to impose its diktat on the world.

The danger must be that the state - perhaps for electoral advantage - will seek to exploit the mood for short-term gain.

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26 Nov 99 |  Europe
Russia's elections: Do the voters care?

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