Russian Elections: Reluctant voters face uncertain democracy

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - 'These elections interest me about as much as last year's snow,' said Vladimir, a Moscow musician. 'But yes, I went to vote. You have to, don't you? I asked my friends who they were voting for and then I did the same. We voted for Russia's Choice (the reformist party led by present cabinet ministers).'

Reluctant and confused like Vladimir, millions of Russians participated yesterday in the nation's first proper multi-party poll since the Bolshevik Revolution, an election seen as crucial to bringing stable democracy to a country that just over two months ago was on the brink of civil war. More than 1,000 foreign observers, including Britain's Kenneth Baker, visited polling stations to make sure ballot boxes were not tampered with or voters intimidated.

But even if the monitors conclude there was no single abuse yesterday, the election - and an accompanying referendum on a new constitution increasing presidential powers - can hardly be said to meet democratic ideals. The vote was arranged in a hurry, giving candidates, many of them unknown, only a month to make an impression. President Boris Yeltsin, desperate for approval of his constitution, told the 13 parties running that they could only use their television air time to promote their programmes, not to campaign for a 'no' vote in the referendum. And the Press and Information Minister, Vladimir Shumeiko, tried to have the Communist Party excluded from the poll, although the Election Commission declared him out of order.

Mr Yeltsin's critics say nothing good can come of the elections since they proceed from the bloodshed of October, when the President sent tanks to crush the resistance of the Soviet-era parliament that he had dissolved in September. Those prepared to give the Kremlin leader the benefit of the doubt say the elections have been about as fair as you can expect in view of the acute tension under the misleadingly smooth surface of society.

The President, whose market reforms were hampered by the old parliament, hopes the new assembly will be dominated by his supporters so that executive and legislature can move forward with a common purpose. But the Federal Assembly could turn out to be as chaotic as the Supreme Soviet, especially if the Communists and other hardliners benefit from a split among democrats and take a large bloc of seats.

Many politicians see the new bi- cameral parliament, which will sit for only two years, as a transitional body. The modest Yuri Markovin, a teacher of ethics and aesthetics standing for Russia's Choice in the city of Yaroslavl, believes elected deputies should set themselves two tasks: to provide a legal framework for reforms that have been made, so that they become irreversible, and to lay firm foundations for the next parliament, which will be elected for a full four years. Sergei Abdurakhmanov of the Constructive Ecology Movement (Cedar) agrees. 'This will be an embryo parliament. The next parliament will be a real one.'

But more ambitious politicians see the Federal Assembly, with its upper house of two elected representatives from each region and its lower house of constituency MPs plus a proportional number of deputies from the parties, as a springboard to greater power. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the extreme Russian nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, has used the election to raise his profile and makes no secret of the fact that his sights are set on the presidency. A 'yes' vote in the referendum would suit him as it would mean he inherited a constitution easily bent to the purposes of a dictator if the electors chose him to succeed Mr Yeltsin.

In drafting the constitution Mr Yeltsin, who says he will retire no later than 1996, was perhaps not looking far enough ahead. He argues that adoption of the text is the only way to save Russia from further political infighting and even civil war. And it is certainly true that tremendous wrangling will ensue if the document is thrown out. But the new constitution, despite its clauses protecting human rights, will not in itself guarantee that Russia stays on the democratic path.