Worldwide Media Relations

The Commies are Coming?

by Steven R. Van Hook 
December 21, 1995
Santa Barbara News-Press

So the Communists have been resurrected in Russia, much to the presumed delight of Western cold-war hawks and spy novelists. Life can be awfully dull without some bogeyman to deride.

Russia's parliament election last Sunday -- where the Communists claimed more votes than any other party -- does bode badly for Boris Yeltsin and other "reformists" come the presidential election in 1996.

But does this Communist victory spell an end to the reform movement in Moscow and across Russia's vast hinterlands? Has the time come once again to wring our hands over the looming red menace?

The White House says no. "There will be new faces but the balance of power ... will remain roughly as it's been," said the president's spokesman.

Newly-freed states surrounding Russia say no. (And who has more to fear from marauding Communists than those republics of the former Soviet bloc -- those who have already tasted the master's whip and polished boot?) From a leader in Moldova: "Russia will not base its policy on emotions and hasty decisions ... no one will be able to get rid of the market economy."

And, for what it's worth, I say no. As a Moscow-based television bureau chief over 1990-91, I witnessed the great fall of the Soviet Empire, the withering of Gorbachev's rule and the rise of Yeltsin's regime. I heard the hosannas in the street as Russians stood nose-to-nose with tanks and they bravely declared an end to tyranny. It was a brilliant, shining moment in the often vast darkness of humankind's history. It's impossible to fathom that such a great leap forward would take such a giant step back so soon.

What, then, is this election saying? The writing has been on the wall since the fall of the much graffitied Berlin Wall: "So the shackled are free ... now what?" Freedom is a fine sauce, but it doesn't necessarily fill the stew pot.

In the mayhem ensuing the demise of a well-entrenched Soviet system, some rather unsavory characters have bubbled to the top. Rather than a rule of law, Russia has fallen prey to the rule of the lawless. The Russian mafia controls virtually every street corner of business, exacting a tribute of steep taxation and paralyzing fear.

I've spoken with many energetic, clear-eyed, hopeful family people immobilized by terror, whispering of their mafia ordeals in hushed tones.

One mafia ploy in St. Petersburg is to stage a traffic accident against some middle-class citizen who has the hard-earned privilege of a car and home. The involved police warn the citizen to quickly settle an accident claim with the mafia. So the hapless victim, typically devoid of savings, must often sign over his/her family's apartment for sale on the lucrative real estate market. Good people don't know where to turn, knowing too well that the underpaid police could be on the mafia take.

A spirit of criminality has pervaded the country, and the people have recoiled in horror. But now that flash of fear is growing into a flame of retribution, and the mafia cowards -- as is so true of bullies everywhere -- will surely turn tail.

Russia has also seen an influx of swarming corporate pirates, many from our own stateside towns, slavering over the wealth of Russia's abundant natural resources. I've seen too many of my American compatriots come into Russia looking for easy pickings rather than partners.

Granted, the Russians may have made some bad choices. But this is the land that gave us Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Chekov, Dostoevsky. It is not a nation of dummies, and we'd better be wary of thinking so.

What the Russians want is not so different than what we Americans want: a land of good laws, economic opportunity, safety in their streets and peace of mind in their homes. Freedom can be an abstract too easily lost in the fray. A recent poll asked a sampling of people across Russia what they thought the nation needed more -- democracy or order. Three-fourths of the respondents chose order. Many Russians are blaming their new freedoms for a surge in crime and economic insecurity.

Is the December 17 election demanding a return of the Communist state? No. It is saying something else, something we Americans should easily understand. The Russians are saying "no" to foreign invasion; "no" to crime; "no" to a growing schism between the rich and the poor. Doesn't everyone hear these echoes in our own homeland?

And America is certainly no stranger to demagogues exploiting the public's discontent.

I can recall weeks at a time in Moscow's gloomy winter when I could not find eggs nor orange juice, even with a pocket full of hard currency and my American Express charge card. Now throughout most of Russia's large cities you can find whatever you want providing you can afford the steep price. Given even more products, better distribution and protected competition, the situation will steadily get better.

Now that the Russians have had a tempting taste of the abundant benefits from partnership in the global economy, they will not readily turn away. I'd bet my borsch on it.

Copyright © 1995 Steven R. Van Hook