Leading Article:Russia's opportunity for democratic reform

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Western governments are understandably relieved at the results of last Sunday's presidential election in Russia. Although nothing can be taken for granted, President Boris Yeltsin seems likely to see off his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, in the second round of voting in early July.

Mr Zyuganov's nostalgia for the Soviet Union, his past involvement in hardline Communist and Russian nationalist causes and his obvious lack of enthusiasm for private enterprise would make him, from a Western point of view, a less suitable occupant of the presidency than Mr Yeltsin, the devil we know and, as often as not, get on with. If it should turn out that Russian voters share this assessment, that would be a welcome sign of maturity from an electorate that received its first taste of free political choice only seven years ago.

There were other positive features to Sunday's elections. Although a strong pro-Yeltsin bias in the state-run media marred the campaign, the voting and ballot-counting went smoothly and fairly. This was a big improvement on the parliamentary elections and constitutional referendum of December 1993, when extensive ballot-rigging probably took place.

Also on the plus side was the poor performance of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the foul-mouthed extreme nationalist who came fifth with less than 6 per cent of the vote. It remains disturbing that more than four million Russians thought that he should be made one of the most powerful men on earth, but at least this particular dog seems to have had his day.

Finally, it may be no bad thing that the election has created an overnight political star in the shape of Alexander Lebed. A retired army general who is little known in the West, he was appointed yesterday as Mr Yeltsin's top national security adviser and secretary of the powerful presidential Security Council. He quickly made it clear that he viewed his responsibilities as covering not just defence, foreign affairs and internal security, but economic policy areas such as privatisation and the problem of capital flight.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion, from that weighty agglomeration of portfolios, that Mr Lebed has just become the second most powerful man in Russia. No doubt the president's loyal Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, would disagree. But Mr Lebed now has a proven base of electoral support - more than 10 million votes - whereas Mr Chernomyrdin was humiliated in last December's parliamentary elections. Mr Yeltsin even hinted yesterday that he regarded Mr Lebed as a suitable successor as president. That is not surprising, given Mr Lebed's age (he is only 46), his status as Russia's most popular general, and the similarities between the two men's political views and instincts.

As the pivotal figure in a second Yeltsin term, Mr Lebed should have much to contribute. His main difference with Mr Yeltsin is over Chechnya: he has been one of Russia's most outspoken critics of the botched military crackdown. With the intransigent Pavel Grachev kicked out yesterday as defence minister, that provides grounds for hoping that the Chechen war will be brought to a swift conclusion - and not before time.

Like Mr Yeltsin, and unlike Mr Zyuganov, Mr Lebed does not suffer from nostalgia for the Soviet command economy. Though a soldier rather than an economist, he recognises the virtues of the free market and would broadly support Mr Yeltsin's reforms. With continued help from Western financial institutions, there is no reason why Russia's transformation into a successful market economy should not be complete by 2000.

Mr Lebed will also want to clamp down on tax evasion, racketeering and other forms of illegal self-enrichment by Russia's new classes of businessmen and gangsters. Many Russians would argue that it is high time the government got to grips with this problem. But the political temperature will zoom up in Moscow if Mr Lebed investigates the privatisation of some of Russia's biggest state companies and confirms the truth of rumours that there is corruption in high places.

The main problem thrown up by the election and its immediate fall-out lies in the impact on Russia's political system. If Russia can be considered a constitutional democracy, it is an imperfect one with authoritarian features. By giving a man of Mr Lebed's immense, if suddenly acquired, political weight the job of steering the Security Council, Mr Yeltsin is strengthening an institution over which parliament and the courts have no oversight.

The council's far-reaching powers and lack of accountability go a long way to explaining why the Russian intervention in Chechnya has so badly blundered. Perhaps Mr Lebed can help to correct the Chechnya mistakes, but the heart of the problem will remain: parliament and the law are too weak in relation to secretive presidential organs of authority. Matters are made worse by Mr Yeltin's propensity to take political advice from insiders such as his personal bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov, as much as from his government ministers.

If Mr Yeltsin defeats Mr Zyuganov by a convincing margin, he would have an opportunity to democratise Russia's political institutions. To judge from his recent record, however, it seems doubtful that he will choose this path. That will be a missed opportunity, because we need a more democratic Russia as much as the Russians do.

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