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  • Toward Presidential Rule
  • Vladimir M. Lysenko (bio)

Democracy requires an independent legislature that can represent the opinions and the interests of the people, but history shows that parliamentarism does not easily take root in Russian soil. Recall the first four State Dumas, which came into being after the Revolution of 1905. These Dumas were not even true parliaments, but rather legislative advisory bodies to the monarchy. The Czar changed the electoral rules at his pleasure (giving them an increasingly corporatist character), and banished recalcitrant deputies to Siberia. Nonetheless, even this limited representative organ did not last long; each of the first four State Dumas [End Page 9] wound up being dissolved by the autocratic Nicholas II, the last of them in 1916 on the eve of Czarism's overthrow.

In 1917, following the February Revolution, the Provisional Government called for a Constituent Assembly to be elected by universal suffrage. By the time this body met, however, Lenin had already seized power through the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks, who had received only about a quarter of the popular vote, forcibly dissolved this first democratically elected parliament in Russian history after a single day, thus precipitating a brutal civil war.

The representative organs dating from the 1980s, the period of Soviet perestroika, did not fare much better. The Congress of People's Deputies (CPD), which had been elected in a process with some democratic features in 1989, was dissolved along with the Soviet Union itself after the failed August 1991 putsch. The Russian parliament (elected in 1990), which inherited the CPD's role on the territory of the Russian Federation, was terminated by the September-October 1993 uprising.

It would be nice to think that the new Russian Federal Assembly elected this past December might have a happier future than its predecessors, but there is little ground for optimism. After the tragic events of September-October 1993, the legislative branch can have a stable existence only if it becomes a rubber-stamp parliament, regularly approving the decisions of the president and his government just as the parliaments of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan do. That is exactly what President Yeltsin was hoping for when he issued his infamous decree of 21 September 1993 dissolving the old parliament. But he miscalculated. The people no longer believed Yeltsin's promises, and they elected a parliament irreconcilably opposed to radical economic reform of the Yeltsin-Gaidar variety. For the first time since 1985, the opponents of reform now enjoy greater support than its advocates.

In the December elections, more than half the votes went to procommunist and national-patriotic forces who are even more staunchly opposed to reform than were their predecessors in the old parliament. Animated by a spirit of rejectionism and revanchism, such forces are organically incompatible with the president, the current government, and the new Constitution. They are very different in this respect from the left-wing forces in Lithuania or Latvia, which have recently come to power by parliamentary means and accept the rules of the democratic game. The nationalist-communist opposition in Russia, which has wide support throughout the society, is addicted to the slogans of the past ("all power to the Soviets," "the restoration of the empire," etc.), It wants to use the parliament to achieve these revolutionary (one might [End Page 10] more accurately call them counterrevolutionary) goals, and to thwart President Yeltsin's attempt to carry out a reformist "revolution from above."

In a normal civilized society, parties of this extremist type gain the support of no more than 5 to 10 percent of the electorate, and generally occupy the fringes of the political process. But in chaotic transition periods, amidst plummeting living standards, a weakening of state authority, and immature democratic institutions, they may find the opportunity to come to power, as happened in Russia in October 1917 and in Germany in 1933.

Russia today has not yet reached the point where various political parties could succeed one another in power through the electoral process without causing a cataclysm and the destabilization of the country. Extremism still reigns supreme, and centrist forces remain very weak. Especially under conditions of an ever-deepening economic crisis, this points to...