January 22, 2020
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Red Straws In The Wind

Despite the West's knee-jerk reaction, the communist win is not bad news for democracy or reforms

Red Straws In The Wind
Communism is dead. Long live communism. That seems to be the theme song being played across most of Eastern Europe, much to the consternation of the better-dead-than-Red die-hards in the West, particularly the US. "Communism II, it's alive...just when you thought it was safe for democracy,'' screams a cartoon on the cover of The Economist , which conveniently ignores the fact that it was democracy itself that brought the communists back to power in these states.

As in Poland, Slovakia, Romania and some former Soviet states, most Russians voted for the Left in the recently concluded elections to the lower house of Parliament, or Duma, making the communists the single largest party with nearly 30 per cent of the votes. To balance it off, voters also rallied for the far right represented by Vladimir Zhirinovksy, who is known in certain circles as Moscow's court jester because every time he opens his mouth, the standard response is, "What? You must be joking!'' But his Liberal Democratic Party has come second in the polls after the communists with about 12 per cent of the votes, an indication of the rising nationalistic fervour in the country. The losers, figuratively, included those who rallied for reforms or for status quo—like Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia party (which actually managed to get to third place with about 10 per cent). Former prime minister-turned-radical reformist Yegor Gaidar's Democratic Choice trailed far behind, struggling to get the five per cent votes necessary for representation in the Duma. The Congress of Russian Communities, a bloc led by retired General Alexander Lebed, which offered itself as a softer alternative to Zhirinovsky's extreme nationalism, also found few takers. Lebed, who was high on the pre-poll popularity charts, was left alleging election mal-practices. Yabloko, the largest of the reformist parties, did not fare much better.

As per Russian election laws, half of the 450 seats in the Duma are proportionally allocated to parties which get over five per cent of the total vote. The other 225 seats go to those who win in first-past-the-post single mandate constituencies. But if one ignores the biased ranting of the pro-western media, what exactly does the election mean to Russia, particularly President Boris Yeltsin and his much-castigated reforms? How is it likely to affect Moscow's dealings with the West, with Asia, with India?

Immediately after Yeltsin shelled his rebel parliament to heel in October 1993, he transferred most of its powers to the presidency. This means the Duma can make laws, but cannot enforce them, and that it has only nominal powers over the budget and major appointments. Only if a united coalition were to emerge with more than two-thirds majority would the Duma actually have some teeth, since it could then overturn presidential vetoes, implement its own laws, and even amend the Constitution. Since the current hotch-potch of communists, rightwingers and liberals is unlikely to have much in common, what Yeltsin really has to worry about is the presidential elections set for June. In fact, Zhirinovksy has made it clear that he is averse to a coalition, saying he would rather "help those parties...that will strengthen the state and the economy''. His party will thus play a key role when it comes to votes that pit the communists against the pro-reformists in the Duma.

Yeltsin himself says he will decide in February on whether he wants to contest at all or leave it to Chernomyrdin to take up his mantle. If he does decide to participate, it needs to be seen whether a man who has suffered two heart attacks (in July and October) can take on the gruelling campaign in the cold and the snow, and, in case he wins, take the continuous strain of presidency for another four years.

As in the other former communist states of Europe, the main reason for the revival of the Left in Russia is disenchantment with the reforms. Or rather, its effects so far. Poverty, unemployment and crime are on the rise, and standards of living are on the decline. The government is unable to pay most of its staff wages and pensions. Add to that a still smouldering ethnic war in Chechnya and the fact that the elections were held in mid-winter, when the absence of power and heat is felt by everyone and you know that whatever government is in power is history.

But rejecting the government is not the same as rejecting reforms. Nor can it be equated with the rejection of democracy, no matter what the western doomsayers say. What it really means is that democracy is still alive and kicking in Russia. And that though the communists are back, they know it would be suicidal to try and revive the Stalinist version of dictatorship of the proletariat.

Besides, the reforms—which have already brought over 60 per cent of the economy into the private sector—have gone much too far to be really reversed. At most, it can be slowed down or brought to a halt. But that too is unlikely since it would mean an almost complete stoppage of desperately needed aid from the IMF and other international financial bodies. However, the Russian leadership has also realised lately that reform is a double-edged sword. More reforms mean less central control. And central control is what both Yeltsin and the communists want to maintain for as long as possible.

What do the elections mean to Moscow-Delhi ties? According to Dr O.N. Mehrotra of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, the victory of the communists and the rightwingers is good news for India. Granted they do not have much say in foreign policy, given the hamstrung Duma, but communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and Zhirinovksy, who have both visited India, have emphasised special relations. Yeltsin too has plans to better ties with India, but domestic worries have prevented him from doing much about it.

Mehrotra also discounts the possibility of the communists and righwingers forging an alliance with a few other groups just to bring down Yeltsin. Apart from their divergent views, both Zyuganov and Zhirino-vksy are likely candidates for the presidency, and cannot afford to lose their individual identities in a merger of this sort.

The man to watch out for is Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, a known India-baiter who has won a seat in the Duma and has to decide whether he wants to continue as minister. His differences with Yeltsin seem to have been shelved for the moment, but if he does decide to quit, a lot will depend on who replaces him as foreign minister.

Professor Devendra Kaushik, chairperson, department of Soviet and East European studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, concurs. The win by the communists and ultra-nationalists is good news not only for India but for the entire Third World, he says. Yeltsin will be forced to ease out Kozyrev, he feels, and whoever replaces him will be forced by the new government to pay particular attention to the Third World. "The shock therapy of reforms introduced by the unrepentant westernisers will be affected, but they are likely to continue in a more practical version," he says. Another view is that Yeltsin will now turn his attention to Central Asia and former Soviet republics at the expense of ties with India. His recent tough stand against NATO's expansion eastwards and against the rising fundamentalism in some ex-Soviet states are given as reasons for this view.

As for the West, Yeltsin also has to take into account the general anti-American view gaining ground in his country. A supposedly secret report leaked from a Moscow-based military think tank recently, said the US and its allies should be viewed as Russia's "principal potential adversaries", and argued the need for Russia to vehemently reject any NATO move to include the Baltic states. It also recommended more production and deployment of nuclear missiles, since that was the only thing the West fears about Russia. Moscow could also counter western pressure by selling nuclear technology to Iran, Iraq and Algeria. The recommendations are endorsed by a growing number of Russians who feel aping the West has only brought more misery, and that Yeltsin has sold out the country to western interests in the name of reforms.

If Yeltsin has been paying attention, one can expect a more distant and firm position on western policies that affect Russia's sense of self-esteem from the president over the next few months. Whether that will translate into votes during the June presidential elections remains to be seen.

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