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Two generations away

Despite misleading signposts, it's clear democracy is far off

The signpost points to Leningrad. Behind it, in the public square of Gomel, the tall, bronzed countenance of Lenin ("Onward!" he seems to say) stares sternly ahead, warding off reformers who might tinker with his namesake city. From this busy intersection, St. Petersburg, 500 miles north, remains frozen in Communist nomenclature.

Unchanged signposts throughout Russia and its former republics are just one indicator of the challenges on the road to freedom and democracy. Next week's national elections for the presidency will be held across 11 time zones in a country of eight republics plus Russia, 11 autonomous regions, and more than 100 ethnic languages.

When the Communist shroud began to unravel from Moscow four years ago, it did not everywhere come apart. Not every hammer and sickle came down, not every Lenin likeness was dismantled. The resurgence of the Communists, headed by party chief Gennady Zyuganov who has led the incumbent reformer, Boris Yeltsin, in nearly every poll since campaigning began, has taken by surprise Americans who thought the broken Soviet Union would be remade in Uncle Sam's image.

"With the collapse of Marxist-Leninist ideology," says Russia expert John Bernbaum, "there is a lingering vacuum with regard to what Russians are to think about themselves. You can sense this struggle for self-definition when you spend time in Moscow. Are we internationalists, they wonder, or is there more of a distinct Russian character?

"When Yeltsin articulates the need to be democratic, he sounds thoroughly Western. For those who want to look to the East, to China and to Asia for the future, that is not sufficient. 'What is our role as a nation?' they want to know."

Mr. Bernbaum, who heads Russian-American Christian University now open in Moscow, says Russia's "injured pride" must also be taken into account. Talk of the New World Order is "too much for them to hear" because it is a reminder of their diminished role in world affairs.

The country's image problem looms over the presidential race. Even as soap opera star Stacy Edwards ("Holly" on the very popular American import, Santa Barbara) stumps in newspaper articles for Mr. Yeltsin, his administration is turning open hands to the East. Mr. Yeltsin traveled to China before President Clinton's seat had cooled at the Moscow summit table, laying the groundwork for a "strategic partnership" plainly unfriendly to American interests.

Preoccupation with the East is also at the root of Mr. Yeltsin's determination to settle the war in Chechnya. With access to both the Black and Caspian Seas, Chechnya is strategically vital. Oil and natural gas pipelines from Central Asia and the Middle East crisscross the region.

Opinion polls put Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Zhuganov well ahead of the other presidential candidates, with more than 20 percent of the electorate each. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the hard-core nationalist candidate, looks like the next-closest candidate, with less than 10 percent. The two top vote-getters in June 16 elections are supposed to advance to a second round of voting, likely to be held either July 7 or14. A candidate must win more than half the votes in the June elections to bypass the second round, something no candidate looks ready to do.

Schizophrenic image-making-together with a moral vacuum created by 70 years of atheistic, communist rule-also explain why Mr. Yeltsin is no longer seen as the friend of democracy. Tatiana Kotliar, a local chapter leader of Democratic Russia, says her organization has not supported the president for two years. "Our claims against him are the war in Chechnya and his use of the nomenklatura [the old Soviet Communist Party bureaucracy] to implement reforms." Democratic Russia, she said, will support a lesser known, reform-minded candidate named Grigory Iavlinsky.

Mr. Bernbaum agrees that many of the aides now surrounding Mr. Yeltsin "are frightening."

Does all this mean Western groups, particularly Christian-based organizations working in Russia, have failed to put down roots necessary for democracy and freedom to grow?

Says Mr. Bernbaum: "We don't have a sense of failure. We realize we are in this for the long haul, and there is no quick fix here. We get discouraged a lot at what is going on right now, but we are short-term pessimists and long-term optimists."

The negatives, according to Mr. Bernbaum, make a long list, but the list of good things over the last four years is still worth noting. Compared to only handfuls of active churches under Communist rule, 15,000 Russian Orthodox Churches and about 5,000 Protestant ones are open. Mr. Bernbaum now counts 110 Bible institutes in Russia, where only half a dozen existed before 1991.

Nearly 50,000 new organizations have formed in the private sector, often prompted by Western groups like the Mennonite Economic Development Associates. Business "incubators" -projects to develop clusters of small businesses-are growing in Moscow's suburbs. "This is the stuff of democracy," Mr. Bernbaum said.

Whoever wins, there is little promise of improvement for the Russian people or the country's standing abroad. The Communist Party looks poised to renationalize agriculture and some industry and to confiscate property. Mr. Yeltsin, too, shows signs that he will move toward more centralized government and fewer individual liberties. He also holds the power to impose a police state and even to postpone the elections.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said it will take two generations for Russia to live down its Communist legacy. Outside the official Washington embrace of Mr. Yeltsin, election observers are beginning to think he may be right.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.