Russia's Ominous Void

Friday, January 30, 1998

For two years, opponents of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion have warned that inviting former Warsaw Pact countries into the alliance would bolster Russia's nationalist and communist opposition forces. In Moscow, however, the extension of invitations to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to join NATO came and went this past summer without producing any visible reaction from Russia's opposition.

Everyone from the neonationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky to the neoliberal deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais opposes NATO expansion in principle. But in practice, the issue has played little or no role in Russian domestic politics. Russia's opposition was weak before NATO expansion and remains weak afterward. Put another way, the expansion of NATO gave no boost to the opposition because no true opposition exists.

In the short run, this keeps Russia stable and works to the West's advantage. But in the long run, this power vacuum may give rise to forces that are more, not less, resistant to reform in Russia.

Opposition factions control a majority of seats in the Duma, the national legislature. Yet they have had virtually no impact on policy making.

It is striking how ineffective and marginal the Communists have become in Russia, especially when compared with Eastern Europe, where several former communist parties have regained some political power.

Moreover, the power the Russian Communists and other opposition parties have accrued has not been used effectively. Opposition factions control a majority of seats in the Duma, the national legislature. Yet they have had virtually no impact on policy making. The Communists and their allies in the Duma have approved every budget proposed by President Boris Yeltsin's government since 1994, even though the government has pursued an economic strategy that has benefited few and caused pain to many. Even Zhirinovsky has voted with progovernment groups on all important issues.

Locally, Communists and nationalists successfully elected several gubernatorial candidates in 1996. But after assuming power, most "opposition" governors quickly pledged their loyalty to the Yeltsin government and distanced themselves from their original supporters.

In part, the constitutional organization of the Russian state has made opposition difficult. The system gives most powers to the presidency and assigns few powers to the opposition-dominated parliament.

Economics also has stymied the emergence of an effective opposition. The Communists have relied primarily on poor pensioners for electoral support. Pensioners lack both the financial means and the organization to create a threatening opposition. A middle class--complete with modest economic resources and frustrated expectations--has been slow to emerge. Without a middle class, there can be no real opposition.

Most important, the Communists have failed because they are still Communists. After 1989, Communists in Eastern Europe quickly transformed themselves into left-of-center parties. Although critical of aspects of capitalism, these parties nonetheless endorsed markets and democracy. In contrast, Russian Communists have championed a nostalgic vision, and the party's rank and file have resisted efforts by their leaders to modernize.

In the short term, the Yeltsin coalition has benefited tremendously from this weak opposition. The staying power of Yeltsin and his government is due more to the incompetence of their enemies than to their achievements.

But the lack of a loyal opposition in Russia is potentially dangerous. Polls show that most Russians are dissatisfied with the status quo. Some person, idea, or movement not loyal to the current system may rise up to fill the opposition void.

In 1996, Aleksandr I. Lebed began to fill the void. His efforts to end the Chechen war, combined with promises to fight crime and end corruption, made him a populist hero. A lack of money, organization, and media access has stymied his ability to build a national party. But Lebed remains a threat precisely because he has refused to play the role of a loyal oppositionist. Instead, he is a potential catalyst for authoritarian forces.

What might finally emerge is an opposition that has the potential to be genuinely menacing to Russian reform and Western interests.

Recently, Lev Rokhlin, the former commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, has created a political organization of military officers. More subtly, Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has begun to position himself as a new kind of candidate by combining nationalist slogans with promises of state support for ailing industries.

Paradoxically, the Communists' inability to transform themselves into a social democratic party supportive of the market and democracy may pave the way for a more right-wing, authoritarian opposition in Russia loyal to neither open markets nor liberal democracy. Lebed, Rokhlin, and even Luzhkov foreshadow the emergence of this new breed.

Although absent today, Russia's emerging opposition has the potential to be genuinely menacing to Russian reform and Western interests in the future.