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Soviet Reformers Find There's More to Democracy Than Winning Elections

LAST spring Irina Bogomsteva was elected to the Moscow city Soviet, or Mossoviet, as it called, amid a wave of enthusiasm for democratic reforms. The democratic opposition took power in major cities, such as Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev, and elected Boris Yeltsin to head the Russian republican parliament. The democrats promised to create islands of the free market in the communist sea, leading the way for the whole country by their example. By October, Ms. Bogomsteva, who serves on the presidium of the council, was feeling frustrated and powerless.

Ambitious plans for privatization of everything from housing to retail stores had gone nowhere. Though the democrats had taken over the council and elected radical economist Gavril Popov as their chairman, the actual administration of the city was in the hands of the existing executive committee.

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"We can't replace the executive committee because they know the old system," Bogomsteva explained. "We don't want that system, but we don't have a new system to replace it with."

The reformers have found that winning elections is not all there is to democracy. The reformers are "very bright but in terms of technical professionalism, they are starting from nothing," says Elizabeth Reveal, the director of finance for the city of Philadelphia.

Ms. Reveal is a participant in a novel effort to provide practical advice to the leaders of the Mossoviet and Moscow Executive. Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government has been cooperating with Mossoviet in a "Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project." The project has included small seminars and, most recently, from May 16-18, a series of seminars modeled on the executive training program the school runs for government officials in the United States.

The program covered topics such as how to make Moscow attractive to foreign investors, practical steps to privatization, the structure of municipal government, and municipal finance. Reveal also participated in a similar series on municipal finance held in Moscow and Leningrad, with participants from all over the Soviet Union, held from May 12-15. These sessions were sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, an arm of the Democratic Party.

"There is an incredible body of knowledge and experience out there in the world," says Reveal. "Here you have a society that has no body of that knowledge extant. They can't afford to reinvent the wheel. They simply haven't got the time."

Kemer Norkin, a member of the budget committee of Mossoviet, had down to earth questions to ask Ned Regan, New York State's comptroller. "What information about private companies is closed to you on the pretext of commercial secrets? Are companies that use the property of the state obliged to give additional information? Is your personal fortune accessible to the public? Does your post oblige you to reveal your personal fortune?"

The last question reflects the widespread corruption of public officials as well as Communist charges against the democrats that privatization will only put state property in the hands of the mafia and speculators, with payoffs in the bargain.

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At the municipal finance gathering, a local Soviet official asked what an American city council would do if it discovered there were too few barbers in a city. Others peppered municipal officials from the US and Western Europe with queries on how many pages in a budget document, does the mayor prepare the budget or the legislature, or what an accounting system is.

Financial issues are most difficult to translate from the capitalist West. "It's pretty hard to have double-entry bookkeeping if you have no assets and no property," says Reveal.

But this is what the reformers need to know if they want to privatize city services or gain control of the government from the Communist bureaucrats who still run it. Indeed, the reformers at Mossoviet have very little idea of where their money comes from and where it goes. Most of the income of the city is derived not from taxes but from its ownership of state enterprises, such as the network of shops.

But as a study on the Moscow government undertaken for the Harvard project revealed, even those are not clearly Moscow's. All of them are actually registered on the balance sheets of two authorities - the Russian Republic's Ministry of Trade (which is in turn under the central ministry) and either the city or one of the 32 districts into which the city is divided.

The division of authority has not been made nor is it clear how to enforce it. "The concept of law is nonexistent in the way we understand it," comments Reveal.

Nor is there even the same understanding of what democracy is. "When I think of democracy I think of a cacophony of interests, skills ... all competing raucously," she says. "They think of it as a more monolithic thing."

In the end, the very idea that democracy depends on the open flow of information may have had the most powerful impact on conference participants.

"I never thought about why you'd want to share information," one Mossoviet deputy reflected. "I only thought about keeping it for my own use."

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