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A Win for Democracy

After Chechnya, many analysts predicted that Russia's flirtation with democracy was over. However, the process leading up to the parliamentary vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's government last week suggests that the future of Russia's fragile democracy may not be so bleak. In fact, the so-called governmental crisis of the last two weeks has demonstrated that respect for the democratic process by Russian politicians is greater now than perhaps at any time in Russian history.


Beginning last week with the first vote of no confidence against the government, elected parliamentarians expressed their disdain for the government's handling of the hostage situation in Budyonnovsk by voting. Opposition leaders in the parliament did not call for armed insurrection against the state; instead they turned to their greatest weapon -- a vote of no confidence -- as guaranteed by Russia's new constitution. Even Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who blamed the Budyonnovsk crisis on the West's remote-control manipulation of Boris Yeltsin's mental faculties, nonetheless opted to vote in parliament rather than incite insurrection on the streets.


Also, Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin in turn chose to respond in accordance with the democratic process. Unlike October 1993, the Russian executive branch did not threaten or use force to resolve its differences with the legislature. Rather, Chernomyrdin, again exercising his constitutional right, asked for a second vote of confidence in his government.


Further, and perhaps most encouraging for supporters of Russian democracy, this so-called governmental crisis precipitated negotiation and compromise, not confrontation and exacerbation, between executive and legislative officials. Elected party leaders from the parliament -- not Soviet apparatchiks, military generals, or factory directors -- met behind closed doors with their party colleagues to discuss how their pending vote on Chernomyrdin's government would effect their electoral prospects in the fall. In other words, Russian leaders were making calculations about their actions based on assessments of the will of the people.


After these deliberations, all party leaders (except Grigory Yavlinsky) met with Yeltsin to discuss what changes in personnel and policy by the government could avoid a second vote of no-confidence on July 1. Russia's parliament effectively altered the course and composition of the Russian government through peaceful, democratic means.


Russia's democracy is far from perfect. Yeltsin still wields inordinate executive power; most local executives are still appointees, not elected officials; political parties are still nascent; rule of law is still a concept, not a practice; and, of course, the Chechen tragedy is not yet over. The manner in which this latest governmental crisis was resolved, however, demonstrates that democratic institutions in Russia are consolidating, not weakening. The real winner in this Moscow crisis was not Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin, the reformers or the opposition. The real winner was the democratic process itself.


Unfortunately, American foreign policy-makers, both in the Clinton administration and Congress, are likely to miss the importance of this triumph of Russian democracy. Judging by the discourse of the recent congressional debate on aid to Russia and the language used by members of Vice President Al Gore's delegation last week, American policy-makers are still trapped in a silly search for bad guys and good guys in Russia's tumultuous transition. American officials will feel compelled to declare the resolution of this crisis a victory for the "reformers" or the "democrats" rather than a victory for reform or democracy. Chernomyrdin, just as Yeltsin and Gorbachev before him, will soon be crowned America's favorite democrat in Russia.


This personalization of Russian politics paints an inaccurate portrait of contemporary Russian politics while at the same time tying U.S. relations with Russia to the fate of individuals rather than principles. The divide between pro- and anti-reformers simply no longer makes sense.


For example, on the second vote of no-confidence last Saturday, over half (18 out of 33) of Yavlinsky's faction voted against Chernomyrdin again. Does this mean Yavlinsky is not a reformer? Conversely, Zhirinovsky supported the 1995 budget and backed Yeltsin's Chechen invasion. Does this make Zhirinovsky a reformer?


Or what about the confusing behavior of the Agrarian Party, a party which emerged directly out of the Soviet Communist Party. As an effective lobby both in the parliament and in the government, the Agrarians have managed to block privatization of agricultural land while at the same supporting Chernomyrdin's economic stabilization plan. On the first vote of no-confidence, they cast 44 votes against Chernomyrdin's government. On the second vote, after securing new subsidies from the government, the Agrarians split their vote, ensuring that the second vote of no-confidence would not pass. Are they reformers or conservatives?


When evaluating the state of Russia's market economy, Western policy-makers do not worry about which individual entrepreneur is getting richer and which one is going out of business. Rather, they look for signs that markets and market-supporting institutions are emerging, irrespective of which particular economic actors win and lose. A similar logic should apply when evaluating the health of Russia's democracy.


Almost all serious political forces in Russia today, as demonstrated by last week's events, want to practice politics within the democratic process. Rather than worrying about the success or failure of individual politicians, Western policy-makers should instead be more concerned about the process by which these individuals win and lose. The democratic process -- not Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin or the "democrats" -- is the best security against a new authoritarian regime in Russia.





Michael McFaul is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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