Leading Article: Yeltsin's version of democracy

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN and some of his aides have been suggesting in the past few days that he may cancel the presidential elections at present scheduled for June next year, and continue in office until 1996. This is not, at first sight, the action of a convinced democrat. But there are good grounds for affording Mr Yeltsin the benefit of the doubt, now as so often before.

His opponents, mostly former Communists, but with some liberals among them, have accused him of breaking promises made to the Russian people. Mr Gorbachev, too, who fits both descriptions, has urged him to stand for election next year. There is an element of obvious special pleading in this. Many of Mr Yeltsin's opponents are enemies of democracy. It does not, alas, follow from this that Mr Yeltsin's friends, or even he himself, are all devoted to democracy. But he certainly stands closer to the side of the angels than many other former Communists.

He, anyway, has a good democratic case for not standing for election next year. As his supporters point out, he has two clear mandates to continue as President until 1996. He was elected for that term in 1991, and the election was reconfirmed when he won the referendum in April this year. The idea of seeking election for a third time only arose in the course of his negotiations with the hard-line forces in parliament before the final showdown in October. When he was trying to reach a compromise with parliament, it seemed reasonable that he should offer to stand for re- election if they would do so, too. But compromise proved impossible. Parliamentary elections will now take place in December, but only because Mr Yeltsin shelled the old parliament.

The circumstances leading to December's parliamentary elections highlight the complexities involved when trying to judge current Russian politics by reference to pure democratic principles. In emergencies, even democratic governments may reach for special powers. The tests applied to Mr Yeltsin must take some account of the peculiar conditions of crisis in which he is operating.

Even so, the omens are mixed. Yesterday, 300 former Communists were bundled away from their proposed demonstration beneath a vast statue of Lenin. Yet they were only consigned to the Metro, not to Siberia; and another 1,000 were free to meet and express their opinions in the woods outside Moscow.

A more important test will be how much freedom the parties and the media will have during the remainder of the election campaign. An obviously unfair election will undermine the credibility of the new parliament and of Mr Yeltsin himself.

However, the main danger to democracy is probably not Mr Yeltsin's authoritarian tendencies, but the apathy and anarchy into which the country is sinking during its transition to a free market. Russians will be asking whether even a democratic president and parliament can find the answer to these problems.