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The Russian Prospect


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. 1

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 more likely to decline than to increase or stay stable.

Russian politicians, of both democratic and authoritarian bent, have been generally fractious; the half-life of most of their parties and coalitions is measured in weeks rather than months. Yet they have proven to be remarkably adept at agreeing on the division of the spoils of office. The new deputies managed to complete the election of parliamentary leaders and assign committee chairmanships in just a couple of weeks. A member of the Communist Party, Gennady Seleznev, was elected speaker on the third ballot by a mere six-vote margin. His main opponent was the previous speaker, Ivan Rybkin, whose ties are to the Agrarian Party and whose leadership of the previous Duma gained him widespread respect. Many observers think he would have been reelected if Yavlinsky’s Yabloko had not supported its own candidate for speaker, a move that split the non-Communist vote. Yavlinsky has denied making a deal with the Communists, but his party was allowed to retain two key committee chairmanships, for the budget and for foreign affairs.

Communists now hold a third of the seats in the State Duma, as compared with no more than a tenth previously. But much of their gain was at the expense of parties which also opposed the government’s reform policies, so that the actual shift of power in the Duma is not as great as those figures alone would suggest. The crucial fact, however, is that no faction in the Duma will be able to assemble an automatic two-thirds majority to over-ride presidential vetoes. This means that the Duma will be unable, by its votes alone, to force a fundamental change in government policy. The executive branch still remains the predominant authority in the Russian Federation. Therefore, the election last December is probably more important for its impact on the presidency, and its failure to diminish Yeltsin’s power, than for its effect on the parliament itself.

President Yeltsin announced after the election that there would be no change of policy, and has repeated this assurance almost every day since, but his actions have not matched his words. During January he purged the cabinet of its few remaining reformers and replaced them with persons who have called for a halt to privatization, increased subsidies to state enterprises, and intensified efforts to subdue the rebellious Chechens by military force. He replaced Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, who had won a seat in the Duma from Murmansk, with Yevgeny Primakov, the former head of Foreign Intelligence, dismissed Anatoly Chubais, the deputy prime minister who had managed the privatization process, in favor of Vladimir Kadannikov, known for his ties to state-owned industrial enterprises, and appointed the hard-line Nikolai Yegorov to succeed Sergei Filatov, a highly respected proponent of democratic reforms, as his chief of staff.

These changes took place during a serious flare-up of fighting in and near Chechnya, when Russian forces were ordered to attack a group of Chechens who had taken hostages from a hospital in Dagestan. Although the Russian authorities tried to obscure and misrepresent the facts, it is now clear that the military reaction was as ill-advised and as inept in execution as the entire tragic war in Chechnya has been: the leader of the hostage-takers and many of his band escaped, and those Russian hostages who lost their lives were apparently killed by the Russian military assault, not by the Chechens.

In changing key members of his team, Yeltsin’s eye is clearly on the presidential election scheduled for June. Though he has not yet announced his candidacy officially, it seems obvious that he will run and is attempting to shed his campaign of what, in the light of the December elections, he now regards as liabilities.

Yeltsin’s recent appointments leave an unrelievedly grim impression, though in one or two instances the new appointments may prove somewhat less damaging than pessimists fear. For example, Yevgeny Primakov, the new foreign minister, may define Russia’s interests as requiring more confrontation with foreign governments than Andrei Kozyrev did, but he is intelligent, well informed, and by no means an extremist ideologue. He may not be as pleasant an interlocutor as his predecessor, but there is no reason to think that we cannot deal with him. Few of the other new appointees have his stature, however, and the best that can be said of most of them is that their incompetence will probably undermine the effectiveness of whatever misguided policies they may be inclined to pursue.

It is no wonder that several members of Yeltsin’s formal advisory body, the Presidential Council, have resigned in protest over the latest developments. Yegor Gaidar, the journalist Otto Latsis, the human rights activist Sergei Kovalev, and Academician Sergei Alekseyev all left the Council in January, most with blasts at Yeltsin’s retrograde policies. Kovalev’s eloquent statement of resignation appears on page 29 of this issue. With the departure of those he fired and those who resigned in their wake, Yeltsin is left with hardly any of those supporters from the democratic movement who came into office with him when he was elected Russian president in June 1991.

In some respects, Yeltsin’s reaction to the December elections is eerily reminiscent of Gorbachev’s “turn to the right” in the winter of 1990–1991, when he felt his popularity and control of the country rapidly slipping away. At that time, Gorbachev placed in key positions the very people who tried to remove him in August 1991. But today there are actually more differences than similarities. When Gorbachev broke with the liberal reformers, Yeltsin was scoring higher in the polls and was seen by all as an alternative to a stumbling president. Now there is no clear challenger in sight. In a poll published on January 28, no potential candidate received as much as 12 percent support, and Yeltsin ranked fifth in order of popularity, behind Zyuganov, Yavlinsky, Zhirinovsky, and Lebed. (The rankings of all but Zyuganov were so close as to make the precise order practically meaningless.)2 Furthermore, there is no reason to suspect that Yeltsin’s personal entourage would turn against him, as Gorbachev’s deserted him in 1991. In fact, Yeltsin’s closest associates are reportedly pushing him to enter the election since their own depends entirely on his; if he goes, they certainly will too, and perhaps with unpleasant consequences.

Already, some twenty-three “initiative groups” have announced that they are collecting signatures to secure places on the presidential ballot for a candidate. Many may not succeed in securing the necessary million signatures they need. Nikolai Ryabov, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, has estimated that no more than ten candidates will qualify. But even eight or ten would turn the election into a veritable free-for-all. A run-off of the top two would be virtually inevitable, and it might not take many votes to score near the top. If the vote for president follows the party-line vote in December—which is highly unlikely—the Communist Zyuganov would lead the field with a mere 22 percent of the vote, and Zhirinovsky would come in second with eleven.

Such a choice would horrify most Russian voters and they will probably manage to escape it, but the relevant arithmetic also suggests that Yeltsin might well manage, despite his current unpopularity, to reach the run-off. If so, he would have a good chance of winning, since the majority of voters might see him as the lesser evil compared to any of the other likely contenders.

Mikhail Gorbachev may also see the presidential election as an opportunity to stage a political comeback. He has already indicated that he would be a candidate if backed by a “broad democratic coalition,” and is likely to take a liberal view of what constitutes such a coalition. Some of his closest advisers have attempted to dissuade him from making a run, but he seems convinced that Russia needs him and it is his duty to make the sacrifice on his country’s behalf. But unless public attitudes change radically between now and June, he is likely to be disappointed. Yeltsin’s decline in popularity has not yet produced any rise in Gorbachev’s very low ratings. The stark fact is that nobody at this point can predict with any confidence what might really happen if a presidential election is held in June as scheduled.

  1. 1

    Half the seats in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, are filled by proportional representation of those parties that get at least 5 percent of the vote. The other seats are filled by elections in individual constituencies. Some parties which did not pass the 5 percent hurdle are represented in the Duma since its members won constituency elections.

  2. 2

    The poll was conducted by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research and had the following results: Zyuganov, 11.3 percent; Yavlinsky, 7.7 percent; Zhirinovsky, 7.1 percent; Lebed, 5.5 percent; and Yeltsin, 5.4 percent. Statistical error, not stated in the published results, may well account for the differences in rankings of all except Zyuganov, and readers should bear in mind that these popularity polls have typically been very volatile, with the only constant since 1994 being Yeltsin’s low standing and the absence of a strong challenger. Readers should also note that, although Zyuganov topped the list, his popularity was barely half of the proportion of votes cast for the Communist Party list in December.

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