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Rebuilding 'authority' in Russian

Hard times make lure of a strongman such as Lebed a serious hope, not just nostalgia

Russia, they say, is the only country in the world where both communism and capitalism failed.

With this winter already registering among Russia's most bitter, the economy and politics paralyzed, and President Yeltsin fading away, forecasts of Russian apocalypse are the loudest they've been since 1991.

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Yet, the recent developments in Moscow might actually be the catalyst for a constructive change.

The virtual resignation of Mr. Yeltsin in favor of the old KGB hand Yevgeni Primakov and the latter's mounting anti-crime and anti-corruption campaign could be the first steps in restoring the principal condition for an economic revival in Russia - the strong state.

In a broader sense, it may also be the beginning of the end of the discredited "wild markets" epoch and a prelude to an altogether different path of economic development, that of authoritarian capitalism.

In Russia, the view that the nation's weak democracy is incapable of extracting it from the current crisis is rapidly gaining popularity. During a recent trip there, I heard calls for "a strong hand" from many of my university friends who, just a couple of years ago, were patent democrats.

To illustrate just how strong the political whiplash is, consider this: Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the anti-communist dictator of Chile reviled for his cruelty has become a role model for many Russian politicians, some of them communists who compare his "law and order" methods favorably with Stalin's.

Pinochet speeches about the accomplishments of his regime have been broadcast on Russian TV recently (even before the former dictator hit the news again with his arrest in London).

Pro-authoritarian feelings seem increasingly popular among the working class, the military, and entrepreneurs. A recent World Bank study found that in terms of people's trust in their government, Russia - and other former-Soviet republics - rank last in the world, right after the poorest countries of central Africa.

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In the West, such developments are discounted as mere nostalgia for Soviet times.

This is wrong.

Russian people are smart enough to appreciate the benefits of the free market and democracy. What they don't like is the ugly "excesses" of capitalism and the lack of economic growth. Given the choice between another decade of stagnation and a promise to get out of it - even at the cost of curbing some freedoms - their desire for a stronger state is entirely rational.

Today, the state in Russia is so weak that it cannot perform even the basic duties of collecting taxes, enforcing contracts, and protecting businesses and citizenry from the onslaught of crime. It has yielded its alcohol and tobacco monopolies, once a great revenue producer, to the black market, and gave management of its budget to private banks. The Russian state is also far less capable than its Soviet predecessor of providing crucial social services - health care, education, and pensions. Government inefficiency is legendary, while the ranks of federal employees unaccountably are growing. At 1.1 million, their number in Yeltsin's government is almost double that of the government of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Thus, today Russia faces the worst of two worlds - a bureaucracy that is bloated and unwieldy, yet too weak and corrupt to enforce even the basic rules of the market. With the failure of weak Russian democracy to deliver on the promises of capitalism, the only workable alternative to the nation's continuous stagnation, it seems, is to strengthen the state and to place at its helm a powerful leader who can play the role of a "benevolent" dictator.

This is not going to be an easy task. At a minimum, it will require cleaning up the government itself, simplifying the tax system, and suppression of organized crime.

The notorious "oligarchs" - the heads of Russia's vast, and in some cases incredibly wealthy, former state monopolies - have to be subdued. Foreign investors must be lured back with prize stakes in Russian assets. And a currency board must be established for the ruble.

The recent moves by the Russian government, such as the anticrime campaign prompted by the brutal murder of liberal legislator, Galina Starovoitova, in St. Petersburg, as well as stepped-up efforts at tax collection and restraining of the restive provinces, may finally set in motion the long overdue process of restoring power to the battered Russian state.

Clearly, as long as lame-duck Yeltsin remains president, Mr. Primakov's government can only set the stage for the new course. Most of the necessary reforms would have to wait for implementation until after the election of a new president in 2000.

The three leading - if undeclared - contenders are: communist Gennadi Zuganov, with the troubled legacy of his party to bear; Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, whose big-money machine politics are suspect; and the governor of the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, Alexander Lebed, a former Army general with authoritarian tendencies.

If Russia is limited to these three choices, Mr. Lebed, with his clean reputation and military prestige, fills the image of a strong and fair ruler most credibly.

In the early 1990s Russia, unlike Eastern Europe, failed to bridge the abyss between communism and capitalism by building strong democratic institutions along with a market economy.

Democracy is still the best option, but a strong democracy, not the weak and corrupt one Russians are living with now. Under the circumstances, Russians seem to be gravitating toward the lesser evil - authoritarian rule.

Successful implementation of an authoritarian model might allow Russia to emulate a variant of the government-led economic growth of Singapore, South Korea, or Taiwan, and still preserve most of the democratic freedoms achieved in the last 10 years.

True, the "Asian model" is not very popular these days. But for the clueless and anarchy-prone Russia, switching to the Asian path would be a big step forward.

Russia's tumultuous last century has earned it a dubious reputation as the world's largest socio-economic laboratory. The latest crisis, however devastating, gives Russia a unique opportunity to right itself before the century ends. A strong state and a strong leader are what Russia needs to enter the new millennium with a sense of dignity and direction.

* Alexei Izyumov, a Russian economist, is co-director of the Center for Emerging Market Economies at the University of Louisville, Ky. In the Gorbachev years he worked on economic reforms at one of Moscow's leading think tanks.

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