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.


We can think of a lot that can go wrong in 1996, however. The presidential election could be canceled, postponed, or subverted. If Yeltsin’s close advisers become convinced that he cannot win, they will be tempted to find a way to avoid defeat. Possible strategies abound; a confederation with Belarus, sought by its current president, Alexander Lukashenka, might be proclaimed and the argument made that the current constitution, which requires a presidential election, has been superseded. Other excuses might be found to postpone the vote, or if it is conducted, the returns might be manipulated. Any of these courses of action would be a blow to the democratic process in Russia so serious that it might take decades to recover.

We may also see further assaults on freedom of the press, one of the most hard-won achievements of the democratic movement in Russia. If press freedoms are seriously circumscribed, it would of course make it much more difficult to preserve an open and pluralistic political system.

On the economic front, we can assume that a majority of members in the new State Duma will press hard for more government spending to prop up state enterprises, including military-industrial organizations, that are now technically bankrupt. They will also insist on higher pensions and outlays for social welfare. Yeltsin’s recent appointments suggest that he may bend to this pressure in the hope that it will improve his electoral prospects in June. But a surge of government spending this spring without an improvement in revenue, which only a revived economy and reformed tax system can bring, will inevitably kick off another round of high inflation, which has been gradually and painfully brought down to tolerable levels by the government’s tight-money policies in 1995. It is ironic that the very people who will suffer most are those who rushed to vote for the Communists and other anti-reform forces. Yeltsin probably understands this, but may hope that the effects will become apparent only after the election.

We may also see an increase of violence in Chechnya, now that those Russian advisers who only think of military solutions seem to have Yeltsin’s ear. But the Chechen rebels will be the ones to decide. They can increase the violence, or permit it to diminish. The government’s bungled attempt to deal with the latest hostage crisis leaves the initiative in Chechen hands. As yet, unfortunately, there is no clear prospect of solving the problem.

How should we view these possibilities? Will the anti-reform mood in Russia bring on a dictatorship or stimulate serious efforts to reassemble the empire by force? No, neither eventuality is likely, but Russia will nevertheless be making some fateful choices in the months to come, and the most important will be the decision whether or not to conduct a fair presidential election in June. An honest election is far more important than the identity of the winner.

Whatever the intentions of Zyuganov, Lebed, Zhirinovsky, or even Yeltsin, it is highly unlikely that any leader could reestablish centralized, autocratic rule in Russia in the foreseeable future. The fact is that too much power has already seeped out of Moscow, and provincial leaders now have more incentive to resist a distant dictator than to cooperate as local enforcers. Even the widespread corruption and crime act as a barrier to dictatorship: the instruments of compulsion are now so corrupted and ineffective that few would be intimidated by threats to use them.

Nevertheless, attempts to subvert the electoral system would have dire consequences. They would destroy any sense of legitimacy and further weaken the authority of the federal government. They could lead to further fragmentation and even to spreading conflict in the country. They would be bad for everyone inside and outside Russia, but they would not lead to a revived imperial monster crushing everything in its path. On the contrary, the result would more resemble a political and economic black hole.

Successful assaults on freedom of the press would be extremely dangerous in the long run, though the immediate results might not be as dire as those caused by subversion of elections. But up to now, Russian journalists have steadfastly resisted serious encroachments on the freedom secured with the end of Communist rule. So long as the Russian political system is open and pluralistic, they will probably continue to succeed, though not without a continual struggle.

As for the economy, a renewal by the government of inflationary policies would be most damaging in the short and medium term, since it would prolong the agony of transition to a market economy. But it would almost certainly be short-lived, since neither the public at large nor the business community would be willing to tolerate it for long. Indeed, a resurgence of runaway inflation could revive the appeal of the reformers since they, for a change, would be able to prey on the discontented, blaming demagogic populists for the growing misery.

The privatization which has occurred is probably impossible to reverse, since it has benefited too many powerful people, including many managers of formerly state-owned enterprises who now have title to them. The new owners will fight to retain their privileges, and without their money, few politicians can survive for long. Privatization can, however, be slowed or even halted for a time, which would delay economic recovery, but not in itself bring on economic collapse.

The greatest danger is not that Russia will turn back on the road to a market economy, but that it will dawdle on its journey down that road. Until Russian governments make the country attractive for investment, by Russians and foreigners alike, production—both in industry and in agriculture—cannot be turned around decisively. Unfortunately, it may take another round of economic lunacy to create the public support necessary for a further reform push. After all, if the Communists or other reactionaries (for that is the proper term for the populist forces) should gain control, the reformers can benefit from votes of dissatisfaction—just as they did in 1991.

This, of course, presupposes that elections will continue to be held. For the coming June, the most immediate danger of tampering probably comes from the Yeltsin camp, but Yeltsin’s cronies should take account of the difficulty they would face in governing the country if the election is avoided or subverted by fraud. One of the positive elements of the December vote was the scale of participation: around 60 percent of eligible citizens voted. Public insistence on the right to vote is probably the best (though certainly not an absolute) guarantee that any elected leader will think twice before trying to become president for life.

What should the United States do? Are we too close to Yeltsin? Should we start hedging our bets? Didn’t we stay with Gorbachev too long? Shouldn’t we terminate aid because of brutality in Chechnya and pressure the IMF to suspend its currency stabilization loans? Such questions are now being raised by many well-informed observers.

Few recent political myths have been so tenacious and so fallacious as the idea that US interests somehow suffered because we “stuck with Gorbachev” too long. While ambassador to the Soviet Union, I argued for more attention to Yeltsin than the Bush White House, for a time, was willing to give, but never as a substitute for Gorbachev. Gorbachev was the president, and we quite properly dealt with him as long as he held that office. When Russia and the other Soviet republics became independent, we dealt with Yeltsin and the other presidents, and our relationship was in no way impaired by our previous relationship with Gorbachev. In fact, the Russian-American “honeymoon” occurred just after Gorbachev left office.

Nothing would be more self-defeating than to appear to involve ourselves in the electoral process in Russia. The Russians will choose their leaders by procedures they devise and, when their choice is made freely, have a right to expect other countries to respect it. Foreign endorsements, even if indirect, almost always work to the detriment of a candidate. The idea that we can somehow influence the Russian election by throwing our weight behind one of Yeltsin’s rivals is simply absurd. So long as Yeltsin is president, we should deal with him as president; if he is replaced we should try to have as close and productive relations with his successor as possible. Whether we succeed would depend upon the new president’s policies and ours, not upon our relationship with his predecessor.

Does this mean that President Yeltsin, or any other foreign leader, should be immune to criticism? Of course not. When his policies are wrongheaded we need to let him know that we think they are, and why. Usually this is best done in private, if there seems any reasonable chance of a policy reversal, but at times public explanations are necessary. But they should focus on policies and principles rather than personalities.

The issue that most exercises human rights advocates like Sergei Kovalev, the war in Chechnya, while totally appropriate for Russian citizens and private organizations, is particularly difficult for foreign governments to deal with. Certainly, wanton violence should always be condemned, and every government encouraged to solve internal political problems by political means. Nevertheless, the war in Chechnya is not comparable to the massacre on Tiananmen Square, when peaceful demonstrators were crushed by tanks. We must not forget that the Chechen rebellion began with an armed seizure of power and has been pursued by violence and terrorism, actions which would have challenged any government’s attempt to deal with it peacefully. Both sides have been tragically mistaken in the brutal methods they have employed to achieve ends which were hardly noble to begin with. Private citizens and foreign governments alike should do all they can to persuade both parties to come to their senses, but it does not help if foreigners appear to throw all the blame on one party and exonerate the other. Such an attitude would only inflame xenophobic sentiment in Russia, even among the many who deplore their own government’s handling of the Chechen rebellion.

Western economic assistance, of marginal impact at best, given its limited quantity, should have a defined purpose and should be pursued as long as that purpose is being fulfilled. The funds appropriated under the Nunn-Lugar bill, which finance dismantlement of Russian weapons, should not be hostage to the vagaries of Russian internal politics. If they are spent for the purposes intended, they clearly serve American interests. Stabilization loans from the International Monetary Fund should also not be subject to political conditions. They should be suspended if the Russian government is unwilling to follow reasonable policies to stabilize its currency—for example, controlling both the budget deficit and the money supply—but continued as long as the financial conditions are met. The fact is that Russia will never have a more tolerant and democratic government if it is unable to make its way through the treacherous passage to a market economy. Unless the currency is stable, nothing is going to work.

Even though they may be apprehensive about where President Yeltsin’s recent decisions may lead, Western leaders should continue their efforts to influence his actions through their personal ties with him. In particular, he should be warned of the dangers to his country, to its relations with others, and to his own place in history if he allows serious tinkering with the presidential election scheduled for June. So long as an honest electoral process endures, Russians will have an opportunity, over time, to correct the mistakes they may make along the way. It is the democratic process we should support, not the politicians.

However disappointing the December election may have been for friends of democracy and reform in Russia, there is no need to lose sleep over whether Mr. Zyuganov is sincere when he says that he has no intention to return to the Communist system of the past, or whether the Russian people will be so irresponsible as to vote a person like Vladimir Zhirinovsky to high office. For the fact is that neither of them, nor for that matter any other Russian politician, can rebuild the Communist system or the Russian empire. Russia no longer has the capacity for either, and if their rhetoric fails to recognize that reality, then the problem is with the rhetoric, not the reality.

February 1, 1996

This Issue

February 29, 1996