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April 14, 1997

Political scientist Michael Urban witnesses 'Rebirth of Politics in Russia'

By Jennifer McNulty

Studying Russia is a habit that's tough to break, says political scientist Michael Urban (photo), who caught the bug as a graduate student 25 years ago.

Ever since, Urban has been captivated by the drama and spectacle of Russian politics. He's visited the country at least 16 times since 1975 and was invited in 1995 to brief the State Department about candidates in the upcoming elections.

His latest project is a book titled The Rebirth of Politics in Russia, published this March by Cambridge University Press. The book covers the years 1987-95, a pivotal period that spans the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.

The inspiration for the book came on Urban's birthday in 1991, which he spent in Moscow. It was during Yeltsin's first campaign for president, and Urban describes a heady scene.

"I was close to two of Yeltsin's top aides, and they were working 15-hour days," recalls Urban. "It was so involving that you physically had to run out of energy to take a break. I'd wake up in the morning to the sounds of grandmothers talking politics outside my window. It was the same on the subway. Everyone was talking politics."

Describing the transition from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to today's uncertain state of affairs, Urban speaks affectionately of the passion, enthusiasm, and sometimes appalling naivete that has marked "the rebirth of Russian politics."

"They've done it from scratch. Russians are incredibly ignorant about politics," says Urban, recalling a scene at Moscow State University in 1988 when several hundred intellectuals gathered to prepare for the country's first semi-free elections in 1989.

"People were throwing out random thoughts, and then one guy in back stood up and proposed that they adopt the American Constitution in full. The room exploded in applause, but the thing is, I doubt a single person in that room had ever seen our Constitution," says Urban. "There's been very little to guide this process except a tremendous amount of energy and a great deal of hatred of the people who ruined the country."

That anger was the key to Yeltsin's popularity, says Urban. "He said 'It can be better. We've been held back. We can do better, and we need a leader to take us there.' Yeltsin personified that feeling of hope," says Urban. "It was as much religion as politics."

But if the first half of the story is a comedy, says Urban, the second half is a tragedy, as the very same people who'd represented the return of political life began to betray the citizenry.

"They created an unmanageable, horrible government system, and their incapacities began catching up with them," says Urban. With no grasp of the importance of separation of power, Urban says, it is as if Russians replaced the czar with the communist party, and the party with the president. Each time they created an all-powerful body--and lots of problems.

Lines of authority are unclear, and the constitution is just "window dressing," says Urban. The actual conduct of government is ordered by presidential and governmental decrees, which are often inconsistent and frequently ignored. As under czars and communists, Russian bureaucrats tend to shift burdens to the populace, who are bearing the brunt of unpredictable government behavior.

Urban blames Yeltsin for failing to create political institutions and procedures that would end "the war of all against all." Instead, Yeltsin held all the power, and the goal became "who can manipulate the czar," explains Urban. "It's no way to run a country. It's very like czarism."

Now, with everyone certain that Yeltsin's health problems will prevent him from ever running the country effectively again, there is a remote chance that some rules will be established and lines of succession may be drawn--if only because the country's elites fear a man named General Alexander Lebed, who almost certainly would win the next presidential election, says Urban.

"Right now the rules are a function of the players," says Urban, who smiles and recites Urban's Rule of Russian Politics: "The only reason two politicians are not fighting each other is because they're each busy fighting other people."

If the players don't reshape the system and make it more responsive to voters, Urban says the possibility of revolt is real. "There is severe suffering outside of Moscow," he says. "People are hungry. Starving to death. Conditions are very bad."

The army, too, is hungry, he notes. Soldiers are not getting paid, and the number of suicides among officers and troops is increasing.

"The minister of defense said recently that he can't speak indefinitely about control of Russia's nuclear arsenal," says Urban, raising the possibility of civil war in Russia with nuclear weapons.

"I feel apocalyptic, almost alarmist even to mention it," he says. "But in all seriousness, it would be foolishly optimistic to discount it as a possibility."

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