- An Uncertain Prognosis
I would like to begin by reminding everyone that Russia’s 1996 presidential election represents a tremendous success in the country’s historical development. This is especially so in light of all the concern expressed during the campaign period about how there might be violence, about how the elections might not actually go forward, and so on. Yet we did hold orderly presidential balloting, the first election of any kind for a head of state since 1613. (Yeltsin’s election in 1991 does not count, since he was chosen head of the Russian Republic of the old Soviet Union, and not of an independent Russian Federation, which did not yet exist.)
Not long ago—here in Washington as in other world capitals—it was an everyday question whether the Russians, who in the course of a thousand-year history had never had democracy, could ever understand or genuinely aspire to this type of government. Now the answer is absolutely, unconditionally clear: The vast bulk of Russians are prepared to live under democracy, to govern themselves, and to try to improve their lives through democratic procedures. They turned out in large numbers to vote on the basis of the 1993 Constitution. All this is of great historic moment, and makes me proud and happy for my fellow countrymen.
Another reassuring aspect of these elections is the conclusive evidence [End Page 3] they provided that noncommunist elements are the strongest political force in Russia. The majority of the Russian people do not support the communists or ex-communists, however renamed or repackaged. Within Russia, serious analysts recognized early on in the electoral process that the communists were facing limited prospects and had little hope of expanding their narrow voter base. The elections proved the accuracy of this assessment. So here is another matter of historic significance. The Russian people uttered a clear “no” to the notion of turning back toward communism, however modified in form. They said plainly: “We don’t want all that.”
Turning to the economic front, I can add that recent days have brought another unequivocal, though perhaps less epochal, achievement: inflation has been tamed. At present, in fact, Russia’s rate of inflation is zero. Our central bank is no longer printing empty currency, in large part because that bank is no longer making stupid loans to the government to cover the budget deficit. This is a major step forward in Russia’s economic transformation, because it means that a confrontation with the budgetary problem can no longer be put off or evaded by means of inflationary expedients like deficit financing. No one can deny that the process of economic reform involves some painful adjustments, but the Russian people have borne the resulting hardships with great patience, and will not allow them to become the basis for a threat to democracy.
The War in Chechnya
Having offered these observations about “the big picture,” let me now turn to some of the concrete (and less comforting) details of Russia’s journey toward democracy. After all, it is often true, as the French say, that “the devil is in the details.” One of these devilish details is the growing gap between the Russian people in general and the political elite in Moscow. Nowhere is this gap more evident than in the matter of the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. This war, which began with a Russian invasion in December 1994 and turned genocidal within months, is a genuine, inexcusable crime. The most credible estimates indicate that more than 100,000 people have been killed, about 70,000 of them Russian. Even the most cynical of Moscow politicians looking at these figures (whose basic accuracy they must sooner or later admit) should be able to see that something terribly wrong has been going on here.
Retired general Aleksandr Lebed, President Yeltsin’s security advisor, signed a cease-fire agreement with the Chechen insurgents on 31 August 1996, and was immediately attacked by the Moscow political elite. 1 This is a signal that Lebed’s effort to make peace did not reflect the government’s real policy or the president’s ultimate goal. Lebed...