Russia's Door to Prosperity

A deeply divided Russian electorate gave democracy and market reforms a second chance last week. But both still have a long way to go before Russia joins the democratic family of nations.

That the elections even took place is a remarkable victory for the Russian people. About 67 percent of Russian voters - a figure that should humble Americans - cared enough to cast their ballots. No serious vote fraud occurred, and the opposition Communists accepted and respected the result. True, President Boris Yeltsin made shameless use of the government's television monopoly to deny Gennady Zyuganov full use of the media, and his campaign used other strong-arm tactics reminiscent of the 19th-century New York Tammany Hall Democratic Party machine. But Russians have never before had so much say in who their leader will be.

Yeltsin's incredible political comeback also deserves notice. After last December's parliamentary elections, his public-opinion ratings were in single digits. His political resurrection testifies to the volatility of the electorate, the ineptitude and inflexibility of Yeltsin's noncommunist rivals, and Russians' repudiation of the communist past.

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But no respite lies ahead in the struggle to cement democracy and the free market in Russia. Economic problems, administration infighting, and foreign-policy challenges will continue to confront the Yeltsin team.

On the economic front, the first tender shoots of prosperity are in danger of being uprooted by insufficient reform, serious corruption, and Yeltsin campaign promises. The federation budget deficit is growing alarmingly, reaching 9 percent of gross domestic product in April. Tax collections fell markedly during the election, especially as subsidized factories paid wages instead of taxes. Many workers wait months for their wages, sometimes because corrupt factory directors bank their payrolls to earn interest instead of paying employees.

What Russia needs now is more economic reform, not less. Not until the market economy is able to pick up the slack from dead-end state enterprises will progress be made. Yeltsin has hesitated to remove the remnants of state involvement in the economy, but delay has only made things worse. Those ex-communist countries that have made the most radical reforms - Poland and the Czech Republic - are those that have had the most economic success.

Whether reform can progress will depend mightily on the power struggle that Yeltsin has touched off with the inclusion of a rival, Gen. Alexander Lebed, in his administration. While the move was politically smart and may have been crucial in helping Yeltsin win the second round, General Lebed has been a loose cannon during his short stint as national security adviser. He has boldly grabbed for turf, asserted that Russia needs a vice president (the Constitution does not provide for one) and that he is the man for the job, made his own nominations for the Cabinet, and unjustly excoriated minority religious groups.

Yeltsin appears to have begun to rein Lebed in, asking Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to form a new Cabinet. Mr. Chernomyrdin, who has pushed market reforms and counseled peace in Chechnya, has indicated he has no intention of playing second fiddle to Lebed. Either the general will have to throttle back - a direction not naturally in Lebed's repertoire - or Yeltsin will have to make a clear choice between the two. What role democrat Anatoly Chubais or dismissed national-security aide Alexander Korzhakov and other hard-liners might play in a new administration will be important signals of the direction Yeltsin will move.

The foreign-policy implications are enormous. Yeltsin faces the historic Russian choice of cooperating with the West and becoming a real part of Europe, or chasing the chimera of Russian messianic "third way" isolationism. The first option means working with the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Union and accepting NATO's outstretched hand of partnership. The second means adopting a narrow Russian-nationalist stance that, while it will feel good to some, will alienate Russia's neighbors and bring no dividends to Russia's economy or people.

Russia wants to be respected as a "great power" and to be an indispensable player in the world order. The best way to get there is by deepening democracy, extending economic reform, ending the bloodshed in Chechnya, and working with the West to solve problems in the Middle East and the Balkans. The dead-end route is to turn away from market economics, continue to meddle in the affairs of ex-Soviet republics - threatening Estonia and Latvia, encouraging unification with Belarus, using Russian peacekeepers to muscle the Moldovan and Georgian governments - and encourage the likes of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic to resist UN Security Council directives.

Yeltsin's reelection leaves the door open to the path of peace and prosperity. Now the world waits to see if Russia will walk through it.

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