By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — When a country's parliament has been abolished, the Constitutional Court suspended and the constitution overturned, it is hard to argue that a coup d'etat has not taken place. Accordingly, the more brave of Western liberal journals have acknowledged that the blows which Russian President Boris Yeltsin struck in the weeks after September 21 against the legislative and judicial branches of the country's government were illegal and unconstitutional.
Unconstitutional, yes, but not necessarily a bad thing: after all, Yeltsin's coup was carried out to enable free-market reforms to proceed, and the declaration of one-person rule was to be followed swiftly, in little more than 11 weeks, by elections for a new parliament. What could be more democratic than that?
Yeltsin's economic reforms, it should be said, cannot serve as justification for anything except perhaps the president's resignation. Since they were launched in January 1992, the "reforms" have cost Russia nearly 30% of the value of its industrial output.
As for the elections — well, what kind of elections would you expect to be organised by the former long-time Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk province, who had just called in army tanks to blast the old parliament into surrender?
The conditions in which elections for Russia's proposed new State Duma are to be held now threaten to become a serious embarrassment to Western leaders who have championed Yeltsin as Russia's sole hope for democracy.
On the main criteria normally applied to determine whether elections are free and fair, Yeltsin's December 11-12 polls rate dismally. The criteria involved include the general legal and human rights situation in the country; the character of electoral legislation and the organisation of polling; the provision of adequate time for campaigning; the ability of opposition political parties to nominate candidates; the freedom allowed to opposition mass media; and the regulation of state-run television and radio.
The general principle which now dominates in Russia is that there is no law higher than the president. Meanwhile, the president is quite prepared to sanction violation of existing laws by his ministers and officials. This situation is especially alarming in circumstances where the suspension of the Constitutional Court means that normal avenues of legal appeal are blocked.
What are political parties to do if they consider their rights in the elections have been infringed by acts of ministerial lawlessness? Appeals to Yeltsin would not seem to offer much hope.
Some of the best-informed commentaries on the human rights situation today could be provided by the opposition Party of Labour. On the evening of October 3 three leaders of the party — the Moscow City Council deputies Boris Kagarlitsky and Vladimir Kondratov, and the trade union official Alexander Segal — were plucked off a street far from the White House, held incommunicado for 25 hours in police cells and systematically beaten. This has not been a typical experience for opposition political activists, but the others, to say the least, have not found the example encouraging.
The electoral legislation which is to govern the December 11-12 poll was proclaimed by presidential decree following the September 21 coup, and was based on drafts prepared by Yeltsin's staffers.
In its fundamental provisions, the law is not objectionable; it provides for a two-chamber parliament with a 450-seat lower house, half of whose members are to be elected on the basis of two-round polls in single-member electorates, and half on a proportional basis according to lists of party candidates. There is no doubt, however, that the provisions were carefully chosen to create the greatest possible chance of a pro-Yeltsin majority.
Like most legislation prepared hurriedly and without consultation, the new electoral law has turned out to contain many contradictions, oversights and unworkable provisions. On October 12 the Moscow press reported that Democratic Party official Vyacheslav Smirnov had "complained that the electoral law had changed four times since September 21." There is also cause for concern in the fact that a major role in organising the polls will be played by local administrative chiefs who in most cases were appointed by Yeltsin, and who remain personally accountable to him.
The greatest anger of political party leaders, however, has been directed not against the content of the electoral law, but against the timing of the elections. The eleven and a half weeks which Yeltsin in his September 21 decree allowed for election preparations are the mere blink of an eyelid in Russia. "In such a short time no parliament can be elected which is representative of the people's interests", argued Yuri Gekht, business leader and head of the Industrial Union faction in the old parliament.
Electoral experts cited on October 1 by the English-language Moscow Times concluded that a December 12 poll was impossible, and even presidential aide Georgy Satarov admitted that holding elections on that date would be "logistically difficult". Virtually none of the technical requirements were in place when the elections were announced. A Central Electoral Commission had to be formed. In the space of a few weeks, electoral district boundaries had to be worked out, a process that in Britain regularly takes two years of proposals and appeal hearings. Only through gross acts of bureaucratic arbitrariness could the often inexperienced electoral officials make the decisions required in the time available.
Reason to rush
Ostensibly, the rush to the ballot box reflected a reluctance by the president to rule for more than a few months by dictatorial fiat. However, his real reasons were almost certainly less high minded.
In setting a tight schedule for the elections, Yeltsin clearly hoped to profit from the fact that opposition parties would have little time to organise effective campaigning. Most Russian political parties are tiny, often without even rudimentary organisational structures; the only two that might have organised effective national campaigns at short notice were the pro-Yeltsin "Russia's Choice" party, and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).
An even more central reason for the haste was the impatience of the president's economic ministers to launch unrestricted "shock therapy" policies, which would bring a wave of bankruptcies and steeply rising unemployment. It was important to get the vote over before the full impact of these measures hit.
In a restricted time frame, provisions of the electoral law that might otherwise be acceptable have become crudely discriminatory. To be listed on the ballot, parties have to present 100,000 voter signatures, with no more than 15% in any one electoral district. The cut-off date of November 7 will make this unattainable for all but a handful of the largest amd best-organised parties.
The only opposition force which might have been expected to meet this stipulation easily was the KPRF, which with a reputed 500,000 members is by far the country's largest political party. But on October 4 the KPRF appeared on a list of political organisations whose operations were declared suspended by the regime, and whose finances were frozen.
A further list issued on October 8 broadened the suspensions to include one of the largest parties of the political "centre", the People's Party of Free Russia (NPSR). The NPSR was originally set up on the initiative of Alexander Rutskoi, who as Russian vice-president remained among its most prominent members. However, other NPSR leaders publicly dissociated the party from Rutskoi following the clashes of October 3 and 4.
On October 19 Yeltsin announced that the suspension orders on the KPRF and the NPSR would be lifted; meanwhile, six other leftist and nationalist organisations that had also been suspended were banned outright. The parties that were restored were left with only two and a half weeks to gather and submit 100,000 signatures. This task will probably prove beyond them; at best, it will monopolise their energies during a period when electioneering by pro-Yeltsin parties is in full swing.
Not only are the elections likely to go ahead without two of the country's largest parties, but voters will not have their thoughts distracted by an opposition press. On October 14 press and information minister Vladimir Shumeiko issued an order under which 15 suspended news publications were declared shut down for good.
The major opposition dailies Pravda and Sovetskaya Rossiya, which had also been suspended, were sent faxes demanding that they immediately sack their editors and change their names if they were to be allowed to resume publication. It was also made clear that a change of political line would be expected. Although these actions by Shumeiko clearly violate the country's recently adopted press law, Yeltsin has not countermanded them.
Newspapers are now a luxury beyond the reach of large parts of the population; most Russians rely for information on the electronic media, and above all, on the state-run television. In television reports of events after September 21, the pro-presidential content must have been close to 100%. On October 1 the generally pro-Yeltsin Moscow Times complained:
"Television news has either delayed or simply omitted coverage of crucial events.
"It has avoided all substantive coverage of statements by Rutskoi or parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov."
The same issue of the paper reported that the head of the respected Postfactum news agency had resigned after charging that the state-run television and radio were refusing to run the agency's reports.
Then, on October 14, two television talk show hosts who had regularly interviewed controversial figures, including opponents of the government, were taken off the air. "The directors are trying to get rid of everyone who might present a point of view other than what the president wants", one of the journalists, Alexander Lyubimov, told the Moscow Times.
On October 12 the English-language Moscow Tribune reported that the government had allotted one billion roubles, earmarked simply for election coverage, to be divided among Russia's leading television, radio and wire services. With no need to be bribed to support Yeltsin, the media chiefs were being bribed nonetheless.
In the old parliament before the September 21 coup, moves had been under way to adopt British-style "equal time" election broadcasting regulations. Now, under one-person presidential rule, the effort to implant such refinements is no more than a wistful memory. On October 19 the liberal daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta was moved to irony, placing the following subhead on an election article: "The State Television Company 'Ostankino' has Decided Where its Sympathies Lie — It's Backing 'Russia's Choice'." The latter is the hard-line neo-liberal party set up by Vice-Premier Yegor Gaidar and other government ministers.
It is striking that in key respects the Soviet-era elections that created the parliament recently overthrown by Yeltsin were much freer than those now engineered by the president and his "democratic" followers. In March 1990 anyone who could persuade a residents' meeting or public association to nominate them was able to stand, and pro-capitalist views were being aired much more freely on television and in major newspapers than anti-capitalist ones are now.
In his year-long struggle to overthrow the former parliament, Yeltsin created a political culture in Russia of constitutional violations, coups and involvement of the military in politics. For this he was praised by Western leaders as a builder of democracy.
Now the basis is being laid for another baneful tradition — rigged elections. When the count is tallied and the results announced, Clinton, Major and their counterparts in other Western capitals will no doubt again declare that the Russian president has their confidence and support. That is the extent of their own political debauchery.