Back when the Soviet Union was still around, American policy makers often argued that we needed to base our policy on Soviet capabilities, not on the professed intentions of its leaders. Intentions are hard to pin down and can change; a country’s capacity to carry out a given policy can be estimated more confidently, though without absolute certainty. As we assess the prospects for Russia following the parliamentary elections last December, it will be well to keep this distinction firmly in mind.
There is no question that the election delivered a sharp rebuff to President Yeltsin’s government. Our Home Is Russia, the party organized by Yeltsin’s Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and heavily favored by the government, received less than 10 percent of the votes cast, while Gennady Zyuganov’s reconstituted Communist Party of the Russian Federation received more than 22 percent. Although Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s misnamed Liberal Democratic Party got only about half of the votes it received in 1993, even it outpolled the government party, with 11 percent of the total vote. The leading opposition party favoring market reforms, Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko, came in a poor fourth with slightly less than 7 percent of the vote, but nearly doubled its presence in the State Duma. Of the forty-three parties that contested the election only the four named passed the 5 percent threshold required for representation of its slate in the State Duma.
For supporters of continued market reforms, except for Yabloko, the election was a rout. Russia’s Choice, the party led by former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, was virtually wiped out. When the previous legislature was organized two years ago Russia’s Choice had the largest block of votes—seventy-six—but now its remnant successor has only eight, all from individual constituencies, since the party ticket received less than 4 percent of the vote. But the government party and the democratic reformers were not the only ones who fared poorly. General Alexander Lebed’s Congress of Russian Communities, which many thought might be a vehicle for a new Bonaparte, also failed to cross the 5 percent threshold.
Most of the parties ran on slogans rather than precise platforms, which makes it impossible to judge just what the Russian voters voted for, though it is easy to see what they voted against. The parties that captured the most votes exploited the discontent of citizens at the bottom of the economic heap and of those who feel that their life’s work has been repudiated with the collapse of the Communist system. The promises the Communists and other populist politicians made, however, cannot be carried out without hurting the very people who voted for them; this applies particularly to their promises to raise pensions, social welfare generally, and increase subsidies to state enterprises, so it would be wrong to assume that the support they gained in December 1995 is a harbinger of the future. If there are future honest elections, support for them is much …