Russia’s political order not an economic system

In the wake of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s victory over Communist candidate Gennadi Zyuganov, Western journalists continue to subtly confuse readers about the forces shaping Russia’s historic struggle to escape its past.
The race between Yeltsin and Zyuganov has been described as a battle between capitalism and communism, or, in some cases, democracy and socialism. An editorial in Thursday’s edition of The New York Times, for instance, said the results of the election — in which Zyuganov received 41 percent of the vote — indicate Russians of all political backgrounds want a “more deliberate, humane transition from communism to capitalism.” Such characterizations are misleading.
A basic civics course would reveal that socialism and capitalism are economic systems while democracy and communism are predominantly political orders. Consequently, comparing an economic system with a political order — socialism and democracy, for instance — is an apples-and-oranges proposition. It’s an unfair and inaccurate use of important words.
A trifling complaint? Hardly. Such illogical comparisons serve to misguide readers who are struggling to understand the historical dynamics that have allowed some countries to evolve into stable democracies while others continue to suffer through cycles of autocratic and totalitarian rule.
Many democratic countries — Sweden, Norway and France, to name a few — have at times chosen to follow socialist paths. Voters in those countries are free to choose or reject a socialist economy as it suits their needs. Russians under communism, on the other hand, had no choice — bureaucrats chose socialism for them. Those that opposed the Soviet Union’s economic or political systems faced isolation, prison or death.
It is that totalitarian component of communism to which the West has routinely objected — not socialism. Democratic countries with socialist economies must not be confused with countries governed by non-democratic, Communist elites.
Of course, economic conditions played a significant role in the Russian election. Many voters chose Zyuganov because he promised economic stability and an end to the corruption and chaos that has accompanied the country’s adoption of free market reforms. To say Yeltsin’s victory was based solely on the electorates’ hunger for elections, press freedom and constitutional rights — the fruits of democracy — would be naive.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the election may be lasting democracy in Russia. Yeltsin’s victory boosts the country’s push toward democratic and free market reforms.
In response to wide-spread corruption and joblessness, the Communists and nationalists that dominate Russia’s parliament may try to revive aspects of the centralized economy. As long as the country’s democratic system remains in place — and the people are free to choose their economic system — the West should have no complaints.