US Can Help Reformers in Russia's Elections

Dec. 12 polling date is fast approaching; technical aid to reformist political parties is critical to help strengthen races against hard-liners

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin succeeded in his attempt to abolish the communist-dominated parliament, which had systematically blocked his reform efforts. The elections for a new legislature, scheduled for Dec. 12, 1993, can provide the opportunity for democracy and reform to move forward. If hard-liners were to win a majority, however, the election could be a decisive setback for Mr. Yeltsin and the interests of the United States.

Although time is short, the Clinton administration can make a positive, perhaps decisive contribution to helping the pro-democratic political parties as they prepare for the coming electoral competition.

In the April 1993 referendum, Yeltsin received support from 58 percent of the Russians who voted. But fewer than half of the population voted, and the hard-line communists and ultranationalists have shown determination and cunning during the last two years as they have maneuvered to recover from a series of setbacks.

Having lost another round in October, they will see the coming parliamentary election as an opportunity to obtain a working majority and thereby relegate Yeltsin and the reformers to mere figureheads.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has retained about 500,000 members. Whether or not it is allowed to participate officially in the elections, its members will work for their objectives through other parties.

By contrast, though many pro-democratic parties exist, in a country of 160 million people none has a membership approaching that of the Communist Party; most other parties have only a few thousand members.

Besides the self-identified communist parties that demand a full return to the old system, the hard-liners have also formed political parties and groups that profess a much more moderate course, calling themselves the ``center'' between the old-fashioned communists of the past and the ``heartless and ineffectual capitalism'' they say Yeltsin represents.

Their main vehicle most likely will be the existing coalition, Russian Unity, headed by Sergei Baburin.

The hard-liners assume that they begin with a core of support from about 30 percent of the voters, who backed their position in the April 1993 referendum. In addition, hard-liners know that they are supported by most of the communist managerial class in the government ministries, the state factories, the military-industrial complex, as well as by most of those who were in political authority at the state, regional, and local levels.

As with the now-dissolved Russian legislature, virtually all of these regional and local legislatures consisted of people who also were chosen in 1989 and 1990, when the Communist Party still determined the outcome of elections in the former Soviet Union.

The antireform forces might well support their candidates by using all of their organizational resources: jobs, money, printing presses, transportation, communications, and the like.

Further, they could use their connections with regional and local governments throughout Russia to make it difficult in many places for pro-democratic groups to function at all.

It also is quite possible that some hard-liners will be planning secretly to rig vote-counting in the thousands of polling places where their political allies could have control.

On the other side, many pro-democratic leaders and parties gained their first electoral experience in the June 1991 Yeltsin campaign for the Russian presidency and during the April 1993 referendum. It is good news that a number of pro-democratic parties have decided to establish a coalition, Russia's Choice, which will support one candidate in each electoral district.

Yeltsin should and most likely will give all major political parties - including hard-line Communists - reasonably equal access to the national radio and television that he controls. That would be fair and that would give the Russian public a chance to assess the various parties and their leaders.

Such access, however, puts a premium on having an effective campaign strategy: If numerous pro-democratic political parties spend much of their time criticizing each other, Yeltsin, and hard-liners, and if the hard-liners are represented by a few moderate-sounding parties, the hard-liners could gain support at the reformers' expense.

RUSSIAN Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has publicly invited the US and other democracies to monitor the fairness of the legislative elections. On Oct. 10, he said that ``assistance by Western nongovernmental organizations to the development of the democratic movement in Russia would be very useful.''

Given this invitation, the Clinton administration has a range of feasible, open, and relatively inexpensive actions it could and should take immediately to encourage and assist the pro-democracy movements within Russia.

First, it must identify the leading pro-democratic parties and understand their programs and leadership.

Second, pro-democratic political parties that request it should receive practical assistance so that they can become more effective in conducting a political campaign throughout Russia. Such assistance might include training, communications equipment, funding, advice on modern campaign and fund-raising techniques.

Every election can be unfairly rigged at any of three stages: during the campaign; during the actual voting process; or during the vote count and tallying. The Clinton administration has acted wisely in responding to the invitation of the Russian government to provide technical assistance in monitoring and administering the coming elections. Now, it is important to assure that this effort has enough people, expertise, resources and mobility to achieve its intended purposes.

The US has a great deal of experience in conducting activities of this kind. But the election is only slightly more than a month away.

It will require the personal involvement and leadership of President Clinton to assure that a program of practical political assistance helps the genuinely pro-democratic parties in Russia turn the tide in a fair and free election. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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