The Hour of the Demagogue

The Hour of the Demagogue

Mini Teaser: As fate has it, Russia is given to the power of extremes,.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

Both Gorbachev's own hard line and, still more so, the August coup exposed a huge problem with the "Pinochet" scheme: the only institutions able to enforce it had no interest in promoting the liberal result that its authors desired.  At the same time, the mobilization of radical forces suggested that liberalism was not so feeble as the neo-authoritarians had insisted.  By rallying the people, Yeltsin and his allies showed that a Soviet liberal regime might--like its Eastern European counterparts--be strong enough to enforce its policies.  It was a reminder that, in a revolution, force is not the only form of power.

Illiberal Demagogues

Anyone who sets out to praise liberal demagogues takes the risk of seeming to praise demagogues of all kinds--a serious mistake in writing about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  In the unfolding disintegration of Yugoslavia, for example, the most important single role has been played by the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, who for our purposes can only be categorized as an illiberal demagogue.  After taking control of the Serbian Communist Party in 1987, he succeeded in giving it a thoroughly nationalist coloration and in December 1990 was able to win a crushing victory in the republic's presidential election.  Insisting that Yugoslav federalism was created by Tito largely at Serbia's expense, Milosevic quickly brought two previously autonomous provinces--Vojvodina and Kosovo--under firm Serbian control.  More recently, in the bloody guerrilla war waged by Serbian military and paramilitary units inside Croatia, he has again played an inciting role.

What sets Yugoslavia's break with communism apart from the other Eastern European revolutions is that it was achieved without any real role for anticommunism.  The country went straight from a decentralizing reformism to divisive nationalism.  Grievances against the Communist Party were unimportant enough that its leaders were able to become nationalist heroes not only in Serbia but even in Slovenia, the most Western of Yugoslavia's six republics.  Moderate reformers--above all, the federal Prime Minister, Ante Markovic--eventually became irrelevant bystanders to ethnic conflicts whose spread they could do nothing to stop.

The absence of anticommunism in Yugoslav politics may seem a mere curiosity, but it is more than that.  It has meant that the country has no politicians able to rally popular support for holding the country together on a democratic basis.  Yugoslavia has, in other words, no liberal demagogues.  They were pre-empted for many years by the seeming success of moderate reform and, subsequently, by ethnic particularism.  The first factor made anticommunism seem unnecessary; the second made it seem inadequate.  As a result, the only serious electoral rival to Milosevic last year turned out to be another Serb nationalist.  When armed force was used to break up peaceful demonstrations in Belgrade last spring, a burst of anticommunist protests gave hope that liberalism had a constituency after all.  But no existing politicians were in a position to exploit (or perhaps even to understand) the opportunity.  Milosevic had so successfully defined Serbian politics in ethnic terms that he quickly refocused public attention on the conflict with Slovenia and Croatia.

The horrors of the Yugoslav case have seemed a mere foretaste of what might be in store in the Soviet Union, and developments in some of the non-Russian republics do bear striking similarities to the Yugoslav pattern--in particular, the use of ethnic minorities as pawns in increasingly violent paramilitary struggles.  The outstanding example is Georgia, whose president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, has accused Moscow of arming the Ossetian minority so as to foment a Georgian civil war and cripple the drive for independence.  He has referred to the Ossetians as "guests" in Georgia and threatened to deport them and other minority groups.  Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, ethnic minorities have provided similar material for outside manipulation.  In the Baltic republics, for example, Soviet military bases have provided organizational support for demonstrations and strikes by ethnic Russian groups; alleged violations of the rights of Russians were also among the pretexts for the military crackdown in Lithuania and Latvia in January 1991.

In such confrontations, separatist leaders have won strong popular support by proposing to wage the battle with Moscow on the all-out terms that Moscow itself employs.  Gamsakhurdia (whose rhetorical style is typified by his demand that Communists "be chopped up....burned out with a red-hot iron of the Georgian nation") was the choice of 86 percent of voters in last spring's elections, and his critics charge that a personality cult and press censorship are taking hold.

For many, these cases are reason enough to treat nationalism as inherently illiberal, a view that President Bush himself came close to expressing when he lectured the Ukrainian Parliament on August 1 about the threat to freedom posed by "suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred."  There could have been no worse spot than Kiev to deliver this message, for--whether intentionally or not--it implied a grossly unfair criticism of the Ukrainian opposition movement Rukh.  Rukh, as it happens, provides strong support for the proposition that anticommunism tends to liberalize nationalism.  The movement is passionately hostile toward Moscow; toward minorities, its policy is a model of tolerance (and in a culture whose tolerance is by no means ingrained).  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bush ignored Rukh's moderate nationalism primarily because he considers its principal goal, Ukrainian independence, to be inherently extremist.  But, paradoxical as it may seem, the two halves of Rukh's program--inclusiveness and separatism--are mutually reinforcing.  Tolerance helps to neutralize the attempts of the "empire" to use non-Ukrainian minorities as levers of political control.  And anticommunism helps to build a national identity that is not simply ethnic.  If the Ukraine evolves successfully toward democracy, liberal demagogues--liberal nationalist demagogues, at that--are likely to deserve much of the credit.

The Defense of Liberty

Almost thirty years ago, a candidate for the presidency of the United States horrified a national political audience by suggesting that extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice.  There was as much sham as shock in the reaction to this remark, but the basic objection to it was reasonable enough.  Extremism weakens the underlying consensus that a working democracy needs.  Losers find it too hard to accept defeat, winners find it too easy to press their advantage.

This objection can hardly have the same force in societies that are trying to break down totalitarian institutions and make democracy work for the first time.  In carrying out such a revolution, liberal anticommunist demagogy helps to solve three separate problems with which moderate reformism has usually been unable to cope.  It gives the people, who are asked to endure many hardships, reason to believe that the changes underway will not be so heavily compromised that they cannot succeed.  It intimidates the guardians of the old order, who are otherwise inclined to think that the revolution can be undone by some combination of bureaucratic sabotage, strong-arm methods, and stalling.  And it gives new democratic leaders the enduring legitimacy that enables them to thwart rival demagogues who seek power for illiberal ends.

The peoples of the old Soviet Empire have been blessed with the opportunity to make one of history's great revolutions, by unexpectedly peaceful means.  They have discovered, however, that there is sometimes only one way to protect a peaceful revolution, and to keep it moving forward.  With an ax.

Stephen Sestanovich is director of Soviet and East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

1)  Foreign critics spoke up too.  On March 28, the very day that the Russian Congress met to consider Yeltsin's impeachment, Stephen Cohen of Princeton expressed doubt abut the propriety of the protest rally held on Yeltsin's behalf: "Is it the right thing to do to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the street at a moment when a parliament, which is a new phenomenon in the Soviet Union, is meeting to resolve weighty issues?"  It was one thing, apparently, for conservatives to attack, quite another for liberals to respond.

2)  Oleg Rumyantsev, "Who is Boris Yeltsin?", Washington Post, June 16, 1991.  Whether this is in fact Yeltsin's view is, as we shall see, unclear.

3)  Yakovlev is known in the West as one of the most sophisticated and worldly of Soviet politicians, but the sneering epithet "female student" confirms that these terms are relative.

4)  Zhirinovsky has something else in common with Tyminski: he was widely seen as a creature of the secret police.  The KGB, it seems, was using the Russian election for a little market research: could a candidate openly appealing to lower class resentments cut into Yeltsin's vote?  This time the answer was no, but the research continues: Zhirinovsky says he will run next for president of the USSR.  (Tyminski has also formed his own party, to be known simply as "X.")

5)  Yeltsin first made a national reputation as a critic of party privilege, while Gorbachev has always been curiously obtuse about it.  In February 1990, immediately after the CPSU's historic decision to surrender its constitutional monopoly of power, Gorbachev dismissed the whole subject: "What privilege does a party organization secretary's post afford him?  The privilege of rushing around day and night?"  (Pravda, February 12, 1990).

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