Russians Made Their Choice

By Andrei Pravov, RIA Novosti political analyst

Russia is not prepared to assimilate democracy. The nation is happier with an authoritarian regime. It even prefers the rule of an emperor or a tsar. This is how many foreign analysts have commented on the March 14 presidential election results.

However, this is a lightweight assessment of what happened in Russia last Sunday. This is probably because Western countries do not really understand what is going on in Russia today and what has been happening here for the past 15 years.

Russians welcomed Gorbachev’s perestroika and the further course for democracy set out by Boris Yeltsin. They were enthusiastic about the changes. "Democracy" was a kind of vogue word in those days. Post-Soviet Russia was also very enthusiastic about the ideas promoted by the "young reformers." People pronounced the names of Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais with great respect, pinning great hopes on them for an economic breakthrough and, hence, a rapid improvement of living standards.

However, things turned differently. As a catch phrase, which is ascribed to Viktor Chernomyrdin, a prime minister in the 1990s, goes: "We tried our best, you know the rest…"

The economic theories of the West for "some reason" did not work in Russia, which become increasingly clear with every passing year. Many families had fallen below the poverty line by the mid-1990s, when enterprises were being closed down countrywide, and the employees at the surviving firms either faced wage arrears or were not paid at all.

Working in the scientific, cultural, teaching or healthcare fields was no longer prestigious in Russia. Businessmen of unclear origins and often with criminal pasts, oligarchs, who had acquired enormous wealth by pilfering public funds or through fraudulent privatisation deals, emerged as the protagonists of the time. President Boris Yeltsin, who was dubbed Tsar Boris, was surrounded by swindlers fishing in troubled waters.

Trains laden with stolen non-ferrous metals streamed towards Russia’s western frontiers. Billions of dollars in oil profits were pocketed. Deals were increasingly settled in "black cash," which was a common term in those days.

The first Chechen campaign, which was launched under Yeltsin, only heightened society’s discontent with the government.

By the late 1990s, the government had lost much of its popularity with the nation. The once decent suit branded "democracy," which was made for Russia according to western patterns, had faded a great deal. The word "democracy" began to be linked to all sorts of disasters, both on the personal and national scale, to impoverished retirees and homeless hungry children, rather than long awaited freedom and economic prosperity.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Irina Khakamada did not win any massive voter support in the presidential election. Ms Khakamada was a co-leader of the democratic Union of Right Forces, along with Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, instigators of the highly unpopular privatisation campaign. Ms Khakamada simply could not win the support of more than 3.8% of the electorate.

Patriotic forces also performed rather poorly in comparison with previous elections. Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov and nationalist-patriot Sergei Glazyev were supported by an aggregate of some 18% of the voters, largely elderly people, who are convinced that life was better under Leonid Brezhnev. However, the younger generation remembers food shortages and the Communist rulers’ hollow promises of a better life.

Vladimir Putin’s landslide victory shows that the country does not believe promises, but judges a leader by his actions. According to the Vremya Novostei newspaper, the main economic indices have grown considerably over the past four years of Putin’s presidency. The deep economic recession has finally given way to dramatic growth. GDP has grown throughout the past 4 years (10% in 2000, 5.1% in 2001, 4.7% in 2002, 7.3% in 2003). Production has also gone up (11.9% in 2000, 4.9% in 2001, 3.7% in 2002 and 7% in 2003), as have real incomes and investments in fixed assets. The Central Bank’s gold and foreign currency reserves grew from $12.5 billion in 1999 to nearly $77 billion in 2003. The country has easily paid the peak payments to its foreign creditors. In 2003, Russia paid off more than $17 billion of its foreign debt. And there is confidence that the debts will continue to be paid on time in the future.

However, Russians understand that their country is still far from perfect. The war in Chechnya is continuing, terrorists carry out bomb explosions, while poverty and corruption still have to be tackled.

Nevertheless, people are optimistic about the future, which can be seen in the high voter turnout, 64.3%, at the election. This figure would make some countries envious and only goes to prove that Russians have made their genuine choice in the traditions of a democratic society.