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Russia's Door to Prosperity

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A deeply divided Russian electorate gave democracy and market reforms a second chance last week. But both still have a long way to go before Russia joins the democratic family of nations.

That the elections even took place is a remarkable victory for the Russian people. About 67 percent of Russian voters - a figure that should humble Americans - cared enough to cast their ballots. No serious vote fraud occurred, and the opposition Communists accepted and respected the result. True, President Boris Yeltsin made shameless use of the government's television monopoly to deny Gennady Zyuganov full use of the media, and his campaign used other strong-arm tactics reminiscent of the 19th-century New York Tammany Hall Democratic Party machine. But Russians have never before had so much say in who their leader will be.

Yeltsin's incredible political comeback also deserves notice. After last December's parliamentary elections, his public-opinion ratings were in single digits. His political resurrection testifies to the volatility of the electorate, the ineptitude and inflexibility of Yeltsin's noncommunist rivals, and Russians' repudiation of the communist past.

But no respite lies ahead in the struggle to cement democracy and the free market in Russia. Economic problems, administration infighting, and foreign-policy challenges will continue to confront the Yeltsin team.

On the economic front, the first tender shoots of prosperity are in danger of being uprooted by insufficient reform, serious corruption, and Yeltsin campaign promises. The federation budget deficit is growing alarmingly, reaching 9 percent of gross domestic product in April. Tax collections fell markedly during the election, especially as subsidized factories paid wages instead of taxes. Many workers wait months for their wages, sometimes because corrupt factory directors bank their payrolls to earn interest instead of paying employees.

What Russia needs now is more economic reform, not less. Not until the market economy is able to pick up the slack from dead-end state enterprises will progress be made. Yeltsin has hesitated to remove the remnants of state involvement in the economy, but delay has only made things worse. Those ex-communist countries that have made the most radical reforms - Poland and the Czech Republic - are those that have had the most economic success.


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