THE MOST remarkable feature of Russia's parliamentary election, political scientists Michael McFaul and Nikolai Petrov noted before it took place Sunday, "is that the vote is not a remarkable event." Russia has now staged three such elections in succession--in 1993, 1995 and 1999--all according to the same rules and all reasonably fair (with a glaring exception, discussed below). "No other democratically elected legislative body has lasted so long in Russia's history," Mr. McFaul and Mr. Petrov point out. Democracy is becoming normal; the ballot box, rather than violent revolt, is widely accepted as the way to promote change. That wasn't true a few years ago; it still isn't in more than half the republics that emerged from the Soviet Union.
In their ballot choices, Russians showed that they do not want a return to the Soviet era. The Communist Party remains stuck at about one-quarter of the electorate, despite all the troubles of recent years. And even the Communists don't really, for the most part, believe in communism.
Still, it doesn't follow that most Russians were voting for liberal, market-oriented reforms. On the contrary, the single strongest current apparent in Sunday's vote was a desire for a "strong hand"--for a leader and a political system that can restore some order to the chaos of post-Communist transition. It's a testament to the political skill of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that he was able to portray himself as the outsider who could impose some order, even though he is an incumbent and the appointee of the unpopular President Boris Yeltsin.
In the land of Lenin and Stalin, the desire for a strong hand inevitably has disquieting undertones. But those Russians supporting Mr. Putin and his Unity Party aren't necessarily pining for dictatorship. They've seen that a weak state can be fatally debilitating, injurious most of all to society's weakest. Unpaid salaries and pensions, unchecked corruption, undelivered services--these hurt the poor most of all.
What is disquieting is that Mr. Putin and his allies rode to victory chiefly by hitching themselves to a brutal war in Chechnya. They spoke of their Chechen victims in the most dehumanizing terms. They whipped voters into a war frenzy with the most slanted propaganda. And they hearkened back to Russian "greatness" with an indiscriminate attack against a largely defenseless civilian population.
In the 1996 presidential election, the Russian press made a pact with the devil; to beat back a serious Communist challenge, it stopped covering Mr. Yeltsin honestly. It was an understandable bargain at the time, but Russia has not yet stopped paying; the press found itself corrupted for good. In this fall's campaign, almost no one provided objective coverage, while Mr. Putin's allies manipulated the media to savage their opponents.
Now, in this election, Russia's reformers made a similar pact, suppressing any doubts about war crimes to surf a patriotic wave into power. As a tactic, it worked. In the long term, it's likely Russian democracy and society will again pay a high price.