Zhirinovsky's Crude Appeal

Despite late shifts toward reformers, vote for parliament and Constitution in Russia is a defeat for Boris Yeltsin

FOR everyone who had a chance to watch Moscow TV in the month prior to the election, it was easy to predict the loser: Yegor Gaidar and Russia's Choice. It was not so easy to predict the winner.

Russia's Choice, whose leaders were mostly a part of the Yeltsin government, was under attack from all the other parties - not only the communists of Gennadi Zyuganov and the nationalists of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but also the reform economist, Grigory Yavlinski, and the pro-Solzhenitsyn Democratic Party of Russia. The real target of the attacks was not Mr. Gaidar but President Boris Yeltsin himself.

Mr. Yeltsin's policies were defended only by Gaidar and the other representatives of Russia's Choice, and very poorly at that. Gaidar, as Yeltsin's proxy in the election, was not only extremely boring but arrogant in his TV appearances. This arrogance was manifested in his remarks that he and his colleagues were too busy with government work, so they did not have time to answer the accusations of the opposition. Underlying the impression of arrogance was the image, repeatedly shown by the opposition on TV, of the shelling of the Russian parliament by Yeltsin's tanks.

So it came as no great surprise to those who were able to watch Russian TV that Russia's Choice lost the election. What did come as a surprise was the extent of Mr. Zhirinovsky's victory.

But, to do credit to Zhirinovsky, it is necessary to emphasize that his appearances were the most interesting of all the candidates'. He was the best speaker. He entertained the audience instead of speaking like a professor. In some respects, he seemed more like a Western politician than any of the other candidates. Probably he lost himself a few million votes with his racist remarks, such as his call for blond, blue-eyed speakers on TV, which only alienated the non-blonds and the non-blue-eyed without adding anything to the readiness of the nationalists to vote for him.

In spite of some improvements in the position of Russia's Choice after counting the votes for individual deputies, the Dec. 12 elections are still a terrible defeat for Yeltsin. To be sure, he concentrated on putting all of his authority behind the project of the new Constitution. However, the Constitution only barely passed. Zhirinovsky also strongly supported the new Constitution and told his supporters to vote for it. Without their votes, the Constitution would probably have failed; its opponents included not only the communists, but moderate-reformist blocs such as Mr. Yavlinski and Nikolai Travkin.

Zhirinovsky supported the Constitution, not because he supported Yeltsin, but because he had it in mind to replace Yeltsin and become president, with all the powers that the new Constitution gives the office.

The world press, including the democratic press in Russia, has concluded that a huge portion of the Russian people have rejected freedom and democracy in their first free choice and have instead chosen slavery and imperialism. This, however, is a misreading of the situation.

There are two main reasons for the heavy vote for Zhirinovsky and Mr. Zyuganov, that is, for the ultra-nationalists and communists.

First, the country is experiencing an economic disaster that makes even the Brezhnev era look like a period of plenty. Over the last three years, industrial production has dropped 40 percent. The monthly inflation rate has exceeded 20 percent. Overnight, a low-level but very secure existence for millions of people turned into a world of desperate insecurity: more beggars, criminals, rackets, prostitution, and homelessness, while a few dozen people became millionaires sporting BMWs and Porsches.

No matter what one thinks of economic ``shock therapy,'' the ordinary citizen saw no improvement. Just the opposite. Someone can sincerely support the goal of a free-market economy and at the same time doubt that rapid reform can lead a socialist economy to change quickly into a normal free-market economy. We have to keep in mind that, as yet, there is no precedent for a successful transformation of a former socialist economy into a normal free-market economy. We also have to keep in mind that a socialist economy could be and was built from above, but a free-market economy cannot be. In Eastern Europe there is an adage: ``It is easy to transform an aquarium into fish soup, but it is much more complicated to reverse the process.'' When Russian workers voted against the Yeltsin-Gaidar shock therapy, it was not because they liked slavery. Freedom from hunger is also a very important freedom.

Second, the disintegration of the Union of Soviet nations helped fuel the Zhirinovsky and communist vote. This compounded the economic disaster. It divided people from friends and even family. In this respect, the ex-Soviet situation has much in common with the situation in the former Yugoslavia. To travel by car or train from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad, it is necessary to pass through two independent states, Belarus and Lithuania. Yet these are at least relatively calm areas. Far more serious is the situation for travel to the new states along the southern frontiers of the Russian Federation, where there are already widespread Yugoslav-style conflicts.

In addition to his vote within the Russian Federation, Zhirinovsky probably had the support of most of the 25 million ethnic Russians who find themselves minorities in the new states. The 2 million who have fled back to within the shrunken borders of Russia were already a strong source of support for him. In most of the new states, the same old nomenklatura remains in power, having only exchanged its communism for nationalism.

IT was a comic aspect of the electoral campaign that nearly all the parties accused one another of being communists or Bolsheviks. ``Today you can find communists only in the Kremlin,'' declared the movie producer Govorukin, one of the leaders of the pro-Solzenitsyn Democratic Party of Russia. ``Who but communists would be capable of bombarding the parliament with artillery?''

Probably the best explanation for the current tragic situation in the former Soviet Union appeared in the pro-Yeltsin weekly, Novoe Vremya (New Times). In a September 1993 issue of this weekly, an article by a former Georgian dissident Tengiz Gudava appeared under the title, ``The Union Which We Lost.''

``My Father is Georgian and my mother Russian,'' Gudava says. ``I was born and raised in Georgia. I studied in Moscow. I was imprisoned in a KGB prison in Tbilisi. And I was a prisoner in the Perm prison camps.... In the USSR I was labeled `anti-Soviet.' In the West they called me a `Soviet dissident.'... In short, I am a real `Soviet man.' As Gorbachev once stated, there were between 50 million and 60 million people born of such ethnically mixed marriages in the USSR. This means we constitute a nation much bigger than many of the independent states. Why should we not proclaim our sovereignty?''

Further, Gudava writes: ``The Soviet Union wasn't an empire. It was fiefdom of the communist mafia, which almost remained unharmed by the breakup, unlike the Soviet Union itself.... The division into separate states with a still-living communist system is the best recipe for civil war.... Vladimir Bukovsky was absolutely correct when he said that nationalism is not the enemy of communism but its supporter, because it prevents the unification of democratic forces.... The Soviet Union really was an evil society, but not because different nations lived together in it, but because they were under an evil power.''

Gudava's article describes well why the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated. It also explains why so many Russians voted for parties that promised the reunification of the Soviet Union. Zyuganov's communists, however, were crippled because they are attempting the hopeless task of reuniting the Soviet Union on the basis of a dead ideology. Zhirinovsky, too, cannot possibly unify the peoples, and can only bring on a Yugoslav-type civil war, thanks to his idea of unification on a basis of Russian nationalism. However, this is enough to give him a crude appeal within Russia itself. Yeltsin, who had to destroy the Soviet Union in order to get rid of Gorbachev and come to power himself, was until now reluctant to talk about reunification and so indirectly supports the nationalism of the local former communists in the outlying areas.

No one voluntarily chooses slavery. When people vote for communists or Nazis, this only means that they see no other real choice. Unfortunately ``Russia's Choice'' was not such a choice. Zhirinovsky is like a shadow of the present government, which follows in its wake.

The Western world is in an extremely difficult situation. To embrace Yeltsin, without real financial or other practical support, may actually promote Zhirinovsky's rise. This could bring a civil war in the former Soviet Union ten times larger than in the former Yugoslavia - and a hundred times more dangerous because of nuclear weapons. We may need to avert a World War III. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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