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SPECIAL REPORT: Seeking a New World : 2: Can Universal Democracy Work? : Freedom hasn't brought instant prosperity and contentment. Now some say that the Western mode of government needs renewal.

December 11, 1990

MOSCOW — By all rights, Yuri Shchekochikhin, a 39-year-old Russian playwright, should be a very happy man. His plays are winning wide acclaim; the newspaper column he writes is avidly read. He has even been elected to the new Soviet Parliament. Most important, his ardent cause--the advent of democracy--is closer to fruition than ever before.

Yet Shchekochikhin, like many of his countrymen, is deeply depressed.

"The situation is terrible," he declared, chain-smoking his way down Kalinina Prospekt, one of Moscow's tree-lined boulevards. "I am worried about a right-wing coup, a military coup. . . . We are heading for terrible trouble."

Russians simply are not ready for democracy, the new Parliament member complained. His constituents besiege him for help in getting jobs, or apartments, or telephones. "People here still want a good czar to fix everything," he said.

These should be heady days for Moscow's democrats. The city is a madcap bazaar of new political movements, from Liberal Democrats, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Constitutional Democrats to Monarchists, Pacifists, Greens and even Blues ("the color of outer space," an official explained).

But when Shchekochikhin and his wife, Nadia, welcome friends to their cramped apartment for a dinner of lamb stew and endless bottles of vodka, their conversation returns time and again to the same discomfiting paradox: Their hopes have never been higher, and they have never been more afraid.

And the Russians aren't alone. Around the world, from Prague's Hradcany Castle to the Royal Palace of Katmandu, an extraordinary uprising of popular will has swept communist and other authoritarian governments from power, seemingly resolving the central political struggle of the 20th Century in favor of capitalism and democracy. But instead of a golden age of stable, humane politics, most newly democratic countries find themselves beset by insecurity and fear.

In Latin America, rightist dictatorships have given way to popularly elected presidents, only to see democracy's luster dimmed by economic stagnation. In Eastern Europe, a string of communist dictatorships have fallen, but some countries are already feeling what a leader of Poland's Solidarity movement called "the totalitarian temptation."

"The tide is coming in now; I think the tide will go out," said Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security adviser. "A lot of (the new democracies) will not survive the strains of societies trying to cope with very difficult problems."

The worldwide move toward democracy is beset by three major challenges:

* Where prosperity seems beyond reach, as in Eastern Europe and Latin America, citizens may despair of elected governments. Empty grocery shelves and unemployment tempt some to trade freedom for promises of order and security--whether a return to military strongmen in Latin America or a resurgence in Eastern Europe not of Stalin-style communism, but of authoritarian populism.

* From the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, democracy's tolerance for pluralism and diversity often collides with religious beliefs and other traditional values--sometimes bending democratic principles into almost unrecognizable shapes. Russia, for example, appears headed down a zigzag path toward a Slavic combination of democracy and authoritarianism; other Soviet republics may invent their own variations, too. One consequence: ideological friction among nations, while less acute than during the Cold War, is unlikely to disappear.

* Even in the stable and prosperous West, there's a growing consensus that democracy needs renewal, but no agreement on how to go about it. In parts of Western Europe, the radical right and the radical left have shown worrisome bursts of strength. And in the United States, polls find Americans troubled by the shortcomings of their own political system. On both continents, new movements and pressure groups are seeking to make government more responsive.

In the 1990s, all these prospects may become sources of concern for Americans, who have long believed that the spread of democracy helps ensure world peace because democratic governments rarely go to war with each other. The promotion of democracy around the world was a major goal of U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s. Now, as democracy is being threatened, Americans may find themselves debating whether--and how--to step in and help.

The turn of the 1990s marked a political epoch: the collapse of Marxism and the virtual dissolution of the left-vs.-right spectrum that defined Western politics for more than a century. But the change may not be over yet.

The old political alignments are taking new forms, from Russia's Democrats, Greens and Blues to Israel's Zionists--from South Africa's white minority to the Arab world's Muslim majority.

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