Finally Some Good Political News from Russia and Ukraine

CAMBRIDGE: Amazing but true: there is, at long last, good political news from Russia and Ukraine. Both countries held elections recently (for President in Ukraine, and parliament in Russia); both produced centrist governments. Even more remarkable, for the first time, the executive branch in each country is poised to find parliamentary support for its governmental program. This could be the beginning of effective democratic rule for the first time in these countries. Democratic rule, in turn, could give a decisive boost to true economic reform.

We must acknowledge, of course, that the political situation in both countries remains far from ideal. Both the Presidential elections in Ukraine and the Parliamentary elections in Russia were not quite fair and free. In both countries, the presidential administrations used their heavy muscle to dominate television, thereby limiting the ability of opposition candidates to make their case to the public. Ukraine’s President Leonid Kuchma won re-election despite the misery of a decade of economic paralysis and widespread corruption. President Boris Yeltsin’s favored parties won strong support in the Duma in large part because of the popularity of the brutal war that Russia is waging in Chechnya.

The good news, nonetheless, dominates the bad news. Immediately after the elections, an interesting thing happened in both countries. In Ukraine, a newly re-elected President Kuchma had to nominate a new Prime Minister for approval by the parliament. He first re-nominated the existing, lackluster Prime Minister, who was justifiably voted down by the Parliament. The President then put forward for Prime Minister an impressive reformer, Central Bank Governor Viktor Yushchenko. Remarkably, Yushchenko won strong backing in the parliament, receiving confirmation by a vote of 296 deputies out of 450 members. Yushchenko immediately declared his intention to pursue privatization, land reform, and a consolidation of bloated state finances. The omens are good.

In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, though a dour and tough-talking state security officer and former spy in East Germany, who has masterminded the renewed Chechen war, was also impressive in democratic politics following the Duma elections. Immediately after the Duma elections, in which the two main Kremlin-backed parties in combination far exceeded the communist party vote, Prime Minister Putin went to the Duma to forge a parliamentary majority for the government’s program. This was a deft move, and a promising one for future reforms, especially since many of the leading economic reformers are working closely with Putin.