Russia Steps Toward...?

SUNDAY'S elections in Russia are another important step away from the Soviet system. Russians are voting for two new houses of parliament, and up or down on a new constitution. What the elections are a step toward, however, is unknown.

The essential themes of this election, brought by Boris Yeltsin's forceful abolition of the old Soviet parliament this fall, are economics and nationalism. How these two issues play out will determine the character of the new parliament and shape a future direction for Russia. The elections are not a move toward democracy in any Western sense. The decision is roughly between modernizing reformers who feel ``shock therapy'' is needed to revitalize the Russian economy - and ex-communists who are offering a softer economic palliative, ``therapy without the shock.'' About 95 percent of the candidates are nationalists of a kind.

The former group is typified by Mr. Yeltsin's economic reform czar Yegor Gaidar, who wants to whip the Russians into shape, privatize rapidly, and meet IMF and World Bank criteria for aid. On the other side are a host of ``go slow'' reformers using the recent winning election strategy of the former communists in Poland: ``Yes, we want reforms, but we must first take care of the people.''

Going into the elections it appears either side could win. The Gaidar camp probably offers a more honest assessment of the economic picture in Russia. It appears the ``go slow'' camp is surging, however. This is not surprising. As the former communists in Poland found out, offering voters less pain can be popular. Yet should the former communists in Russia win, the postscript to the Polish elections might be instructive: Having now entered office and looked at the books, the Polish communists are beginning to renege on their promises of generous social safety nets.

Perhaps the saddest part of the Russian elections is its increasingly nationalist flavor. Unlike the Moscow of even two years ago, there is less and less space to mention liberal values. Former ``liberals'' around Yeltsin are adjusting themselves to a harsh climate in which loud assertions of Russian unity and ethnicity become a test of a candidate's mettle. Even Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev is making nationalist sounds. That Yeltsin seems to be decreeing himself president for two years doesn't help.

Battle lines may soon form between assertive ``state-building'' nationalists and the masked chauvinist-extremists who are a real danger.

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