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Why White House Is Right in Embracing Boris Yeltsin : Referendum: Russian authoritarianism has always been hostile to the development of a civil society. Reform thus becomes embodied in one man.

April 25, 1993|Steven Merritt Miner | Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of history at Ohio University, recently returned from Moscow, where he did research in the Russian archives.

ATHENS, OHIO — The White House has made it as clear as possible that it hopes to see Boris N. Yeltsin receive a renewed mandate from the Russian people in today's referendum. Now that the electoral rules have been changed so that he can win by gaining a simple majority of votes cast, as opposed to a majority among all eligible voters, it appears as though the Russian president will attain his desired result.

There are several good reasons why Washington wants him to triumph. Yeltsin is the most consistent--and powerful--voice emanating from Russia in favor of furthering democracy, of moderation in international relations and of continuing market reforms. His opponents are, by contrast, a varied and, in large part, unsympathetic lot seen through Western eyes. They range from average people who have been hurt by market reforms to die-hard communists and nationalist anti-Semites.

Washington's strongly expressed support for Yeltsin has worried a number of prominent foreign-policy specialists who fear the United States is linking itself too closely to the political fate of a single individual. U.S. support of Yeltsin might even backfire, it is argued, giving additional ammunition to his domestic nationalist critics who already claim that he has sold out to Western--and especially U.S.--interests.

There is some ground for such concerns. As a general rule, it is unwise in foreign relations to take sides so visibly in another country's internal politics. Nor is it good policy to support one individual or party too openly when it might become necessary in the near future to do business with the opposition should events take an unexpected twist.

As sound as such general rules might be in dealing with most countries, however, those who argue that Washington should distance itself from Yeltsin misunderstand the specific peculiarities of Russian history and the current political situation in Moscow. Throughout Russian history, liberalism and reform have always been fragile, and they have almost always depended on the fate of a single leading individual.

A great deal can be learned about the current problems dogging the Russians by looking at the reign of Alexander II (1855-1881), a period known in Russian history as the era of the "Great Reforms." During this period, the czar abolished serfdom, eased press censorship, brought an end to a hopeless war in the Crimea, moderated Russian foreign policy, introduced elective local government, reformed the army and introduced the jury system into Russian courts.

Despite such sweeping reforms, problems that had existed for too long in Russia boiled over just as Alexander worked to deal with them. Peasants were dissatisfied with the limitations of their emancipation; intellectuals used their new-found freedom to call for violent revolution and nationalities within the Russian empire rose in revolt. Only the firm commitment of Alexander himself kept the reform process on track, though one of his liberal advisers worried aloud that "a single pistol shot" could end reform in Russia.

That is exactly what happened. Alexander was assassinated in 1881, and his two successors to the throne did what they could to reverse his liberal changes. The Russian Revolution of 1917 can be traced, in large part, to the unwillingness of Russia's last two czars to sustain Alexander's reformism.

There are many other instances in Russian history when the fate of reform hinged on the political fate of a single leader. The reasons for this have more to do with the inherent difficulties of trying to reform an authoritarian state than with any supposed Russian yearning for a strong leader.

The key feature of Russian authoritarianism, whether of the czarist or Soviet variety, was always its hostility to what is generally called "civil society." That is, the Soviet state always sought to prevent the emergence of social organizations that might exist beyond the control of the state. Thus, throughout the Soviet period, private clubs, church organizations, charities and especially political parties were strictly banned. Those who violated this ban found themselves quickly arrested. The Soviet state and Communist Party commanded a monopoly power over all social, as well as all political and economic, organization.

When the crust of the seemingly monolithic Soviet state began to crack in 1989-91, it soon became clear that a vacuum existed under the surface. Because the communists had been so effective at stamping out even embryonic non-governmental groups, no organized force was prepared to replace the dead Soviet apparatus.

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