- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 1999

The good news is that someday soon maybe the bad news won’t be so bad.
The Communists won the most votes in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Russia, the third such national election since Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, but only barely. Their 25 percent of the vote will translate into at best a small plurality, nothing close to the totals the so-called “centrist” parties will send to the Duma.
Some shady characters got themselves elected, and “reform” in Russia doesn’t mean what “reform” means in Minnesota, but on the first morning after it was difficult not to conclude that if, as Western analysts speculate, the elections will change the face of Russian politics, the change might go deeper than merely Russia’s dirty face.
The big individual winner appears to be Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is to Boris Yeltsin what Al Gore would like to be to Bill Clinton. Mr. Putin’s party is basking in the prime minister’s tough line on Chechnya and his promise to restore Russia’s battered national pride.
For the rest of us, the results suggest but do not necessarily shout that a lot of the Russian people are willing to stay the course with democratic and market reforms. The radical back-to-the-miserable-future nostrums of the Communists and the ultra-rightists (i.e., the ultra-leftists) don’t seem so attractive after all, even in the face of the thugocracy that dominates Russia today.
“For the first time in 10 years the Duma will not be controlled by the Communists,” says the former premier, Sergei Kiriyenko, leader of the Union of Right Forces, one of the four centrist groups. “This victory is hard to overestimate.”
So we’ll try not to overestimate it. Nevertheless, the centrists look to take half the vote, and maybe a little more, if the trend in the early counting holds. Their candidates are also leading in nearly half of the races for the 225 individual constituency seats. Half the Duma seats are determined on party lists and half on results in the individual constituencies. This is a remarkable result.
Lydia Alexeyeva, a retired economist, is typical of the Russian who, like Dr. Johnson’s famous example of the man marrying for the second time, cast a vote as a triumph of hope over experience. She backed the Unity Coalition of centrists in the hope that it would revive the economy and ensure stability, despite the dashed promises that reformers had raised in the past. “These are healthy young people who always strive for victory.”
Mr. Putin (pronounced POOT-in), who could gain the most from Sunday’s results if he can use them to mount a successful campaign to succeed Boris Yeltsin next year, has been the strongest advocate of the brutal offensive against Chechen militants. The campaign has exposed the Red Army as weak, disorganized, poorly led, and dangerously vulnerable to a well-armed, well-trained and battle-ready foe. Still, the Chechens are regarded by most other Russians as swindlers, mountebanks, hoodlums and worse, and Mr. Putin is a hero for his brutal advocacy of a hard line.
Sergei Shoigu, the leader of the centrist coalition, is nevertheless widely admired for his work in relieving some of the suffering unleashed by the war against Chechnya. The Russians, some of them, anyway, may not be as heartless as they have seemed to outsiders over these past few weeks.
“Wherever Shoigu is, there is order,” says Yevgeny Ishchenko, a Cossack leader in the southern city of Azov. “Wherever people suffer, he comes to help.”
For the West, there’s a lot to worry about. Many of us were lulled to contented dozing by the crash of the Berlin Wall hitting the paving stones. The clatter resonated with the sweetness of a Mozart concerto to everyone who loves freedom. So we traded a president who understands foreign affairs for a president whose understands only affairs, and the opportunity hard won had seemed to slip away from us as Russia slipped into ungovernable chaos.
But maybe the situation, hopeless as it may be, is not so serious as to be irretrievable. The “new” Russia may not be ready for an autopsy, after all. If Sunday’s results are an omen, perhaps the omen is a hopeful one. There are still millions of Russians who are obviously not ready to trade freedom for the full belly which is all that the old left regards as relevant.
The Communists complain that the centrists have not, in the words of the party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, “answered a single question in any field put forward by the electorate, beginning with the economy, social issues, pensions, supports, taxes, and all the rest.” Perhaps. But now they have a second opportunity to do so. The news, such as it is, is good.

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