Sunday, May 26, 2019

30 Years Ago Today Competitive Elections Came to the USSR -- and Destroyed It

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – On this date in 1989, the first Congress of Peoples Deputies of the USSR assembled, many of whose members were chosen in competitive elections. And even though it rejected Aleksandr Obolensky’s effort to be a candidate for its head in favor of Mikhail Gorbachev, the meeting ushered in a brief period of real elections that helped kill off the USSR.

            In an appreciation, Russian commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev notes that even though more than 1400 of the 2250 delegates were not willing to take even the slightest chance of a competitive vote on the country’s leadership, the fact that a deputy was prepared to run against Gorbachev changed the world (

                Over the course of the next two and a half years, he points out, “free elections took place for the parliaments of 15 republics and more than 120 oblast soviets and Soviets of autonomies, direct elections occurred for the heads of both capitals, as did popular votes on the heads of a number of republics, including the RSFSR.”

            As a result, “the communist party lost control over events.” The USSR had to “recognize the independence of a number of its former republics and then cease its existence entirely. Today, it is difficult to say what would have happened if Aleksandr Obolensky had been given the trust of the deputies, but one must not fail to recognize” that Gorbachev was more attached to democracy than his predecessors or successors.

            “The elite which replaced him in the Kremlin  in December 1991 never again allowed the possibility of the appearance of new leaders as a result of free elections” and was prepared to use force, corruption and the misuse of the law to ensure that its members remained in power and could not be effectively challenged at the ballot box.

            According to Inozemtsev, “the several glorious years of Gorbachev’s policies became possible because with the return of democracy arose the chance to make society ‘more contemporary,’ one in which the political elite could separate itself from the entrepreneurial elite had perestroika been extended.”

            But those who came to power in 1990-1991, tragically, were “motivated not so much by political as by mercantilist considerations,” the economist says.  They were quite willing to dispense with communist ideology – it only got in their way – but they weren’t prepared to give up the Russian tradition of authoritarian personalist rule.

            Already in the 1990s, it became “obvious” that the commitment of the elite groups to remain in power by any means necessary was “directly proportional to the possibilities of extracting rent incomes” for themselves. “Beginning in 2003-2004, when the Kremlin recognized how big ‘the pie’ to be divided was’ any doubts on that disappeared entirely.”

            “The personalist regime which exists in Russia today is not one of the cult or personality which the country suffered through 70 and 80 years ago,” Inozemtsev says.  “It much more calls the Russia of the pre-modern period when the country was run by a narrow group of people in their own interests and above all in their material ones.”

            According to the commentator, “the legal defense of the subjects today is no higher than in Petrine times, the extent of theft of state property is much more significant, and interest in preserving this arrangement overwhelms any rational considerations which require democracy and modernization.”

            From where Russia was in 1989, it has “returned to its pre-communist traditions and become ever more archaic,” with power based on clans as is “completely natural in archaic societies.”  And that provides the answer as to why: the current regime is the only kind “adequate to society where power and property are not divided and where state service is a business.”

            “In such a society, one should not expect a different political superstructure.”

            Unfortunately, Inozemtsev says, there is little reason to think that the perestroika period is relevant to Russia today.  Indeed, he says, he does not “see many reasons for optimism except for the most general: Russian society of the 2010s is much more limited, cynical and indoctrinated than was Soviet society of the last period of stagnation.”

            Russians then were more educated than they are now, money was not “the absolute substitute for morality” as it has become, “and the ideology of the post-Brezhnev period was remarkably toothless.” In today’s Russia in contrast, it has proved easier to buy off people than it was earlier to convince them.

            As a result, he concludes, “the quantity of liberals and democrats in our day does not guarantee either a liberal order or democracy.”  And while many might want to challenge Putin the way Obolensky did Gorbachev, “the likelihood they’lll get into the Great Palace of the Kremlin or the State Duma is very low.”

            Because that is the case, Inozemtsev suggests, “today the experience of perestroika should be remembered above all as an attempt at resistance which, having begun with small steps was able to destroy the system. But one shouldn’t hope that everything will occur so easily and simply.”

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