Democracy in Russia: a Work in Progress

From the perspective of the United States, the campaign leading up to the election for Russia's parliament, the Duma, on Dec. 19 looks like a ''Saturday Night Live'' parody of democracy.

Take the populist buffoon, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for example. Having recently thrown a punch at a female Duma member, he now competes against the Women of Russia Party with a TV ad featuring a sexy nightclub entertainer who unzips her blouse while listening to him declaim. The Party of Beer Drinkers presents itself to a vodka-swilling nation as a choice, not an echo. And Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, worried that his Brezhnev suits and slicked-back hair gave him too staid an image, hires American rappers Hammer and The Gang to rally young voters to a privatization program that has enriched mainly Soviet-era managers like himself.

The Western press responds with mock horror and the kind of condescension a ballet master from the Bolshoi might bestow upon a dance recital in Shreveport. When it comes to democracy, our experts say, the Russians just don't get it. In a self-flagellating editorial, The New York Times blamed it all on the US. ''There are some American customs that the Russians can live without,'' it intoned. ''Vacant political campaigns are one.''

Before dismissing Russia's elections as clear proof that democracy will never take root in that country, a few specifics might be noted.

Tired of politics

First, after living through one of the century's great political and economic revolutions, Russians today are tired of politics. Only 25 percent of eligible voters are expected to go to the polls. Younger Russians, immersed in building the new market economy, are especially turned off by what they see as haggling among relics from the past. Given this, appeals to youth - even crude appeals - make good sense. In a situation where a candidate claiming only 15 percent of the vote could emerge victorious, younger voters can shape the outcome simply by showing up at the polls.

Second, Russians come to democracy with none of the baggage of the 19th-century political parties that still influence Western practice. Theirs is a media democracy in which conventions, tidy party programs, and ward organizations count less than the impact of television. Mr. Zhirinovsky was the first to realize this and claimed 23 percent of the vote in the 1994 elections. Other candidates are now scrambling to get on the media bandwagon. If their appeals still seem primitive, they are willing to experiment with every technique in the book and are quick to learn from their successes and failures.

Third, as is common in post-revolutionary situations, today's Russia claims few strong political leaders. Voters realize that the problems facing them aren't simple and that many of their most talented compatriots have chosen careers in business, banking, and the media instead. But as the Russian proverb says, ''When there are no fish in the pond a minnow can look like a whale.'' Russian parties are therefore working desperately to present their candidates as being in tune with the national mood, even if they aren't capable of shaping it as Gorbachev and Yeltsin did.

Fourth, unlike the US but similar to Israel and Germany, the Russian system is based on proportional representation. In Russia, this has led to a proliferation of small parties, all of which must scramble to attract enough support to cross the 5-percent threshold that puts them into the second round of voting and gives them access to federal election funds. The current posturing reflects this constitutional reality. After Dec. 19, it will give way to more familiar forms of electioneering as the victorious parties negotiate to form a few large coalitions or ''blocs.''

Fifth, Russian campaigns are already being shaped by practical experience. The message so far is that Russian voters aren't fools. Numerous polls reveal that the large vote for Zhirinovsky was a mass protest by millions of disaffected voters who knew full well that their candidate was a clown but wanted ''to send a message to Moscow.'' Politicians of all stripes fear the electorate could trip them up again.

They are, therefore, making every effort to get in touch with Russians' unarticulated feelings. If in the short term this means pandering to some unsavory fears and prejudices, in the long run it will make for a more responsive political dialogue - no mean achievement in a country where for three-quarters of a century political values were formed from the top down.

Sixth, amid all the apparent craziness of the current campaign, Russians are working out the ground rules for democracy. When the Election Commission recently disqualified several parties for hanky-panky in connection with the electoral petitions, democrat Grigory Yavlinsky was quick to denounce the Commission as Yeltsin's pawn for harassing informers. Yet it turned out that the Commission is not in Yeltsin's pocket and that the abuses were real and not confined to pro-reform parties. In the end, the Commission's judgment prevailed, but the offending parties were enabled to participate after all - a reasonable compromise.

What isn't happening

Seventh, all the televised ballyhoo on the Duma campaign may cause us to lose sight of what is not happening. Russia in its present form is a new country. Ethnic groupings and regional interests generate powerful centrifugal forces that could still threaten the fragile federal system that has replaced the centralized Soviet state. Yet for now this is not happening. The 13 main parties contending in Pskovskaya Oblast (region) in the West are the same ones fighting it out on Sakhalin Island in the Pacific or in the other 86 oblasts, districts, republics, and autonomous regions that make up the new Russia. So far, the elections are providing a much-needed brake on disunion.

These various factors, whether singly or together, do not change the reality that this year's Duma elections are proving extraordinarily messy and even bizarre. Yet all chaos is not equal. Sometimes it is a pathology that presages a system's complete demise. At other times it represents the yeasty moment just before new ways of doing things crystallize. To which category does Russia's electoral circus belong?

Evolving democracy

Whatever its faults, Russia's democracy is not static. Over its brief existence it has successfully addressed many basic issues, including the structure of its proportional system of representation, the role of parliament in a presidential republic, and the powers of the Election Commission. Other problems are yet to be faced, including the role of the media, controls over campaign finances, and restrictions governing conflicts of interest. In light of its dynamism and proven capacity to evolve, is it too much to expect that Russia's democracy should in time be able to reckon with these issues as well?

By their very existence, the practical tendencies observable amid the present confusion should caution Western observers - and many Russians as well - against rushing to judgment. Many of the problems facing Russia's fledgling democracy are the same ones that threaten more-developed democracies elsewhere. The absence of leaders in Sweden's elections, the unchecked influence of the media in Italy, corruption in Korea, the uncertain fate of the main parties in Germany, the role of extremist parties in France, separatist movements in Britain, and voter alienation in the United States suggest that democracy everywhere is a work in progress.

Why should Russia's democracy be an exception?

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