The Christian Science Monitor, Monday, September 20, 1999
The "who lost Russia" debate reveals more about US electoral politics than it does about Russian realities. Russia is midstream in a social revolution. In only a few short years, the borders of the state, the nature of the economic system, and the organization of the polity have undergone fundamental, simultaneous change. Our current focus on Russian corruption obscures our understanding of this triple transition.
To be sure, Russians have endured an economic depression of unprecedented length and depth. Likewise, crime and corruption have flourished in post-Communist Russia. We should have a real debate about the causes of these negative developments in our search for solutions. Yet, corruption and economic hardship aren't the only outcomes of the transition.
Russian reformers achieved their greatest success when they destroyed the Soviet empire and the Communist dictatorship that held it in place. This is taken for granted today, but 10 years ago, the fate of the USSR was uncertain. Remarkably, only seven years since the Soviet collapse, no major political force in Russia today advocates re-creating the Soviet empire through military means.
This outcome seems so permanent now that it gets virtually no mention in the "who lost Russia" debate.
A second achievement of Russia's transition also rarely mentioned in the Western press is democracy. Analysts frequently declare that market democracy in Russia has failed, and their discussion focuses almost exclusively on economic setbacks.
Russia's transition to democracy has been protracted, violent, and incomplete. Its political system still lacks many features of a liberal democracy. Superpresidentialism, a poorly organized civil society, an ineffective state, a slowly developing commitment to the rule of law, and a weakly institutionalized party system are serious flaws in the new democratic polity. But the political system does meet the standard definition of an electoral democracy - a system in which competitive elections are the only legitimate means of assuming political power.
In the December 1993 national referendum, Russian citizens ratified a new Constitution. Though this vote was probably falsified, all major political actors in Russia nonetheless recognized the results, believing that some rules were better than no rules at all.
Since 1993, all major political actors have continued to abide by the new Constitution. Likewise, all political individuals and organizations of consequence participated in the 1993 and 1995 parliamentary elections, the 1996 presidential election, and dozens of regional elections that have occurred since 1996. Shortly after the presidential vote, Communist leaders complained - with just cause - that President Boris Yeltsin had violated campaign-spending limits. But neither Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov nor anyone else officially protested or rejected the results.
Elections largely have been competitive and consequential - two-thirds of Duma deputies elected in 1993 did not win reelection or compete for reelection in 1995, and nearly half the regional chiefs lost reelection bids. US incumbents are much more likely to win reelection than are Russian incumbents.
As Americans debate who lost Russia, the "lost" Russians are debating whom to elect to Parliament in December and to the presidency in July. The list of potential candidates has narrowed since the last electoral cycle in Russia (a positive development), but it remains uncertain who'll win either election. Such uncertainty is the hallmark of competitive and meaningful elections.
How free and fair elections will be in 1999 and 2000 will vary across regions. In some, local authorities influence both the voting and vote counting.
Moreover, the Russian press still discusses the possibility that Mr. Yeltsin and his allies - in an act of desperation to hold onto power - might try to cancel or postpone the presidential vote, although this seems increasingly unlikely and almost certain to fail if attempted. The very discussion of such scenarios is a sign Russian elections still can't be taken for granted.
To date, however, the rhetorical attention devoted to the collapse of Russian democracy has outpaced the real threats to the current system.
There is little positive news to report on the third leg of Russia's triple transition. Market reform in Russia has been less successful than most suspected. Yet it's striking that no major political actor today, including even the Communist Party, advocates a return to Communism. The consensus among political leaders amid the nation's economic hardship has been a search for new ways to make markets work, not to abandon them.
Russia is plagued by corruption, crime, economic hardship, and a new wave of terrorism. We should welcome the new attention to these issues and do what we can to assist Russia in fighting these evils. But the singular focus on this set of problems should not crowd out the much more complex story that is the ongoing and unfinished revolution in Russia today.
The next time you read a story about another corrupt Kremlin official, remember that Duma Deputy Svetlana Orlova also lives in Russia. As a candidate for governor in the far eastern Maritime Territory, she is running on an anticorruption platform to oust the incumbent. The next time you read about another Russian gangster, remember that Duma Deputy Viktor Sheinis also lives in Russia. Rather than believing Russia is doomed to dictatorship, he is busy drafting constitutional amendments to limit presidential powers.
Though you'd never know from reading the Western press, there are literally tens of thousands of other unknown people like Ms. Orlova and Mr. Sheinis still fighting to make it a better place to live. If they still do not believe that Russia is lost, then why should we?