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Stanford scholars see 'creeping authoritarianism,' imperialism in Russia

STANFORD -- The Russian empire and its authoritarian past have reasserted themselves in the proposed Russian constitution published Nov. 10, several Soviet scholars told world leaders at Stanford University on Friday, Nov. 12.

"There is more and more evidence that the empire hasn't broken up," said George P. Shultz, former secretary of state, now a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor emeritus at Stanford, during a session of the third annual meeting of the advisory council of the university's Institute for International Studies. The council is made up of prominent world business, academic and political leaders who give the university advice on its international research programs.

Paul Volcker, former chair of the Federal Reserve Board, initiated the discussion by saying that he had heard rumblings of concern in Washington and New York about the re-establishment of the former Soviet Union, and wondered what the Stanford scholars thought.

"Ukraine was recently put in its place. Georgia has said 'uncle,' " Shultz responded. In addition, he said, the Russian foreign minister recently declared to the United Nations that Russia's sphere of influence would be the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, and President Boris Yeltsin warned old members of the Warsaw Pact not to join NATO. Shultz said he has been "astonished" that Western leaders have had little public response to these declarations.

Now, Yeltsin's proposed constitution, prepared without any public discussion and scheduled for a vote in December, has removed all references to the sovereignty of the other republics, which had been painfully negotiated with them, said Michael McFaul, an expert on Russian politics affiliated with Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control and the Hoover Institution.

'Troubling aspects' of new policy

Stanford Provost Condoleezza Rice, former special assistant to President Bush for national security affairs related to the Soviet Union, added that the Russian military doctrine issued since Yeltsin's bloody White House showdown with the Congress of People's Deputies also states that Russia has a military role protecting Russian minorities in other parts of the former Soviet Union. "There are some very troubling aspects" to the new military policy, Rice said.

People in Russia are talking about "restoration" of the Russia of 1917, which is a bad omen for democracy, said Alexander Bessmertnykh, the 1991 foreign minister of the former Soviet Union. Russia was once a capitalistic empire, he said, and "psychologically, [Russians] are 50 percent monarchists already. They love the emperor, the emperor's family and so on."

Coincidentally, U.S. scholars were meeting on the Stanford campus with scholars from the Russian Federation to discuss the rise of ethnic and religious conflicts within the federation and its implications for democracy there. One issue that came up was whether part of the Russian ethnic identity was a belief in their superiority to other ethnic groups and destiny to rule them. The workshop was sponsored by the Stanford centers for International Security and Arms Control, and Russian and East European Studies along with the joint Berkeley-Stanford Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies.

"Russia always has been a great power and always will be," McFaul meanwhile told the meeting of world leaders. "That why it's all the more important that we think about the kinds of institutions that will govern Russia."

Recently returned from a Department of Defense trip to Russia, McFaul said he saw signs of "creeping authoritarianism." He and Bessmertnykh agreed that the newly published constitution places far too much power in the hands of the president.

"A good czar, with the kind of institutions to be put in place, is not bad, but Boris Yeltsin is not going to be around forever," McFaul said.

Both he and Bessmertnykh reminded their audience that Russia had a brief fling with democracy once before in 1917, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson prematurely assumed it would be a lasting change.

Bessmertnykh criticized current leaders of democratic nations for not being more insistent on democracy in Russia. He predicted Russia will wind up with capitalistic authoritarianism "because of our inclination to law and order" unless American and European leaders apply more pressure.

Under the newly proposed constitution, the president of Russia could disband the new congress at any time, and a congressional vote of no confidence in the president is not binding, McFaul said.

Yet "a bad constitution is better than no constitution at all," he said, and the proposal at least creates private property rights, which will lead to one type of check on government power.

December election 'hurried'

The December election for the new congress is "hurried and a mess," he said, but it's important because "it is the first multi-party election in Russia in 75 years." Real parties are not likely to emerge until the next congressional election in two years, he said. (McFaul recently co-authored a book on Russian political parties and is widely regarded as one of most experienced U.S. scholars on Russian domestic political activity. He also is doing many interviews for a Hoover Institution project on the oral history of the Communist Party.)

Political party development is beginning to emerge, with the groups running candidates taking differing views of inflation, McFaul said. A lasting political opposition cannot be sustained until the civilian society begins to express such differing self-interests through parties.

The Russian democrats have made "a bad mistake by splitting themselves into eight blocs," which will allow more centrists or rightists to get elected in the new congress, Bessmertnykh said. Russian Choice, Yeltsin's faction, will get no more than 25 to 28 percent of the congressional seats, he predicted.

McFaul suggested Russian Choice was moving away from its democratic roots. The party's new platform for the elections, he said, "varies little from the Communist Party's." It strongly gives the impression, he said, that Yeltsin and his followers are saying, "We're tired of negotiating with these minorities, with the other republics and with the West."

Bessmertnykh, however, said McFaul may be underestimating the rise of political power of "elites" in the outlying regions of the Russian Federation. He said he has met with a number of young millionaires in the outlying regions - young men who have made a fortune off their region's resources in the last few years and who are "indifferent to what's happening in Moscow." He predicted they will demonstrate their economic power in the new congress.

One surprising result of the September showdown, Bessmertnykh added, is that "the press is now more important than the military." He speculated that editors are less willing to follow Yeltsin's line than before the storming of the White House because they don't want to be associated with the bloodshed.

McFaul said the military had consolidated its power since the showdown, but Bessmertnykh said the army is strongly divided at regional levels. He agreed with Rice that the new military doctrine calls for dangerous army involvement in civilian peacekeeping.

Russians are rapidly losing interest in their government, McFaul said, which is, in some ways, a good sign that they no longer expect the state to provide them with jobs or welfare. Most of the people he talked to on his recent visit, he said, expressed little or no opinion about Yeltsin's showdown with the Chamber of Deputies.

"Most people didn't care what happened at the White House, because they are worried about their own lives."



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