Russian Crisis: Democracy hit by the crossfire

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The Independent Online
IF IT is a victory for Boris Yeltsin, then it is a victory achieved at a high price, for himself and for Russia. For the second time in his stormy career, the Russian President has defeated putschists intent on restoring a hardline Soviet state. But his bloodstained triumph leaves question marks over the prospects for democracy in Russia, the stability of the country's post-Communist institutions, and the integrity of the state.

It was a grim but predictable end for Alexander Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov, whose actions and statements in recent months have been little short of treasonable. Visiting the Amur region in July, Mr Rutskoi called for civil disobedience and a boycott of tax payments to Mr Yeltsin's government. Visiting Kursk in August, he demanded the restoration of the Soviet Union, saying that former Soviet citizens would 'once again acquire the lofty title of Soviet people'. For his part, Mr Khasbulatov accused Mr Yeltsin of acting 'in the strategic interests of the international intelligence community'.

The character of Russian politics will long be shaped by the rebellion of October 1993 and Mr Yeltsin's explosive response. Who now would confidently predict that Russia is on course for stable, pluralist democracy?

'In the absence of political parties whose influence is determined by the latest elections, Russian politics is rent daily by shrillness, irresponsibility and unrestrained self-promotion,' the writer Leon Aron commented before the violence in Moscow. 'Unchecked by voters and unattached to parties, the Russian political class incessantly forms and breaks ephemeral alliances, shadow-boxing and bluffing its way through uncertain and ever-changing goals.'

Russia's failure to develop a coherent political party system increased the chances that the confrontation between Mr Yeltsin and his opponents in parliament would end in bloodshed. It encouraged the use of belligerent and inflammatory rhetoric: the President denounced his foes as 'Communist fascists', his foes labelled him a 'dictator', and both sides laid exclusive claim to the title of patriot.

Ultimately, there proved to be no middle ground, no solid moderate centre, in the Russian political spectrum, just as there is no thriving middle class in Russian society. Instead there were two armed and furious extremes, fighting for the right to govern tens of millions of apathetic or disgusted Russians.

Mr Yeltsin contended that the time for compromise had passed and he had no choice but to put the sword to the rabid beast of Communist nationalism. But the first lesson many Russians will draw is that military force, not political argument or electoral legitimacy, is what counts in their country.

Having pummelled the enemy into surrender, Mr Yeltsin wasted no time yesterday in banning three newspapers opposed to his policies: Pravda, Sovetskaya Rossiya and Den. Russian television obediently supported the President throughout the drama and, assuming he keeps his promise to hold elections in December, can be expected to weight its coverage heavily in his favour.

That factor, coupled with voters' awareness of which way the wind has blown in Moscow, seems certain to produce a decisive electoral victory for Mr Yeltsin and his forces. The President will be tempted to interpret the result as a mandate for strong personal rule with a subservient parliament.

The sight of Mr Yeltsin's tanks and paratroopers turning central Moscow into a war zone may frighten the Russian regions into toning down their campaigns for self-rule, but the process of fragmentation is too deep-rooted for the problem to disappear entirely. Earlier this year, St Petersburg, the northern city of Vologda and the diamond-rich region of Sakha (formerly Yakutia) each demanded the status of a republic.

On 1 July, Mr Yeltsin's home region of Yekaterinburg in the Urals mountains declared itself 'the Urals Republic'. A week later, the Far Eastern maritime province of Primorsky Krai followed suit. Tatarstan has even announced its full independence from Russia. Each region, from Karelia on the Finnish border to the Chechen Republic in the Caucasus, wants control of its industries and natural resources and the right to levy taxes.

These issues ought to be open to peaceful solution. But the clashes in Moscow mean that, less than two years after the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin, the reborn Russian state that trumpeted itself as a historic experiment in democracy already has a tradition of ghastly political violence.