The fruit and peril of democracy

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The Independent Online
IN A WAY, the losers in the battle for the Russian White House got what they wanted. Those of them who waved the flag of the former Soviet Union, and those who waved the flag of the Tsarist empire, had one thing in common: nostalgia for a strong ruler, whether Nicholas I or Alexander III or Lenin and Stalin. And they got their strong ruler, the hard way.

This week's storming of the Russian White House has more in common with the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square than most outside observers would like to think. In both cases, the message to the peoples of the empire concerned was: 'You have a strong emperor who cannot be defied with impunity.' And in both cases, it is clear that millions of the subjects of the empires concerned received that message with sombre satisfaction. The threat of anarchy receded.

It is not agreeable to have to choose between anarchy and autocracy. But if anarchy seems to be looming, many will settle for whatever autocrat looks like averting it. Yugoslavia under Tito was a more agreeable place than it became after Serbs, Croats and Bosnians all became 'free'. The peoples of the former Soviet Union, including those of the Russian Federation, have been acutely aware that similar versions of freedom might be in store for them. In some parts of the former Soviet Union - Georgia, for example - freedom has already taken such forms.

In this week's power struggle it does not seem that any significant number of Russians backed either Boris Yeltsin or Alexander Rutskoi. Whoever emerged as the winner would rule Russia, and that was that. It was a form of natural selection, accepted as fate. It had nothing to do with democratic process, on either side, and the democratic forms that are about to ratify it will be guided by the autocratic hand of the victor in the trial of strength: Mr Yeltsin.

The American welcome for Mr Yeltsin's victory in the battle for the Russian White House has been understandably queasy. Spokespersons for the Clinton administration have let it be known that the President is worried about Mr Yeltsin's decision to suspend some opposition groups and halt the publication of Pravda and other newspapers. The spokespersons said that they recognised Mr Yeltsin's need to assert control during turmoil but worried that it could reflect 'an inclination to repress dissent'.

It could indeed, but it has yet to be shown that a person without an 'inclination to repress dissent' is capable of ruling Russia. Mr Yeltsin is at present governing by decree, and copiously. He is dissolving opposition parties, calling regional organisations to order, and - above all - asserting his control over the media. Glasnost is out the window, probably unmourned by most Russians. Freedom of expression, in a multi-ethnic empire, produces in many places equivalents of the cry of 'Fire]' in a crowded theatre. It looks as if Mr Yeltsin is about to reverse Mikhail Gorbachev's order of priorities and go some distance down the Chinese road: towards full capitalism, but with a minimum of democracy and freedom of expression.

I have just read a report by a Chinese scholar, Xiao-Huang Yin, who is attached to the Department of History at Harvard and also has recently revisited China. His report, so far unpublished, is the most illuminating thing I have read on contemporary China, in both its negative and positive aspects. I mention it here because it contains the following pregnant sentence regarding Chinese views of the Russian experience: 'For many Chinese, the Russian lesson appears to be that only after a nation achieves a relatively high level of economic prosperity can it afford the fruit and peril of democracy.'

I believe that Mr Yeltsin and his advisers have already reached similar conclusions. But they are not about to say so. Paradoxically, the greatest international asset of the man who is at present governing Russia autocratically is that he is regarded, especially in America, as the White Hope of Democracy. Americans are still assuming that the collapse of Communism must soon be followed by the universal triumph of democracy. That assumption is increasingly battered by events but is extraordinarily tenacious. Americans seriously discuss such utopian concepts as the 'reconstruction' of democracy in Somalia through the United Nations.

At a somewhat more realistic level, it is particularly important to them that democracy should be seen to prevail in the former Soviet Union. If Russia, in particular, should overtly relapse into some form of autocracy, that would not merely be deeply disappointing to most Americans (as well as other Westerners), it would be specifically damaging to the Clinton administration, which is therefore sending urgent signals to Moscow to get on with democratisation.

Mr Yeltsin cannot afford to disregard such signals, nor can he afford to be literally guided by them. There is a saying of Alexander Hamilton's that the Americans might bear in mind in their talks with Boris Yeltsin. Hamilton said: 'Nations have to find their own way, not have their way found for them by other nations.'

Mr Yeltsin has been lucky in the international context - in that his most dangerous opponents, on the national scene, have been blatantly anti-democratic: a repulsive mish-mash of Communists and fascists. Who can weep for the suppression of Pamyat? This enabled him to stage an internationally accepted version of Tiananmen Square: similar, in that it sent an essentially autocratic message to his own people; widely different, in that it appeared to the outside world as a defence of democracy. Different also, of course, in that Mr Yeltsin's opponents, unlike the Chinese dissidents, had resorted to armed force.

If there were a liberal mass protest against his rule, Mr Yeltsin would have to treat it with great patience: a literal equivalent of Tiananmen Square is not on the cards. He will certainly get on with elections, but they will take place under conditions exceedingly discouraging for the opposition. He may not actually have to rig them in order to win them, but he may rig them as much as he feels he has to. The fact that he has to look over his shoulder at Washington will produce a lot of make-believe, but also some salutory restraint.

Russia under Boris Yeltsin will be basically an autocracy, not a democracy, except in outward forms. This fits the conditions of Russia today better than real democracy could yet do. And with luck, in the economic sphere, this autocratic phase can eventually lead to a Russia that can 'afford the fruit and peril of democracy'.

(Photograph omitted)