Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine


In January most people thought President Boris Yeltsin could not win a free election. Their attitude was reflected in a story that made the rounds in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yeltsin,it went, was taking an evening stroll across an open field near his dacha and stumbled on an old bottle. He picked it up, pulled the cork, and out jumped a jinni, who bowed to him and said, “Thank you for releasing me from 3,000 years of captivity! In gratitude, I will grant you a wish.”

“Let Russia become a civilized country, with all its citizens hard-working and prosperous,” Yeltsin requested.

“Look,” the jinni replied, “I have a lot of power, but some things even I can’t do. Don’t you have another wish that is a little more practical?”

“All right,” said Yeltsin, “just see to it that I win re-election this year.”

The jinni paused, rolled his eyes, then asked, “Now what was that first wish again?”

Reasons for the jinni’s skepticism were obvious. In December, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation had won a plurality of seats in the State Duma and had attracted enough support in that chamber to elect one of its members, Gennady Seleznev, as Speaker. Opinion polls showed Yeltsin in seventh place among the likely contenders for the presidency, far behind front-runner Gennady Zyuganov. Throughout the fall and early winter Yeltsin had been largely absent from public view, hospitalized for a heart condition, then recuperating. His ability to conduct a vigorous campaign seemed seriously in question.

In view of these conditions, many doubted that elections would be held at all. Yeltsin, and particularly his cronies—usually called the “party of power” or, after the invasion of Chechnya, the “war party”—whose influence had seemed dominant for the past eighteen months or so, could not afford to leave office, they reasoned, since any successor government would be likely to bring them to account on various charges of malfeasance. Therefore, every effort would be made to keep Yeltsin—and with him the “party of power”—in office without an election. Rumors circulated about possible strategies for delaying the election, including a declaration of federation with Belarus, which would allow Yeltsin to argue that the new constitutional arrangement superseded the existing Russian constitution; postponement of the elections by presidential decree on grounds that a national emergency existed; or a power-sharing deal with the Communists.

Alexander Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s longtime bodyguard, close personal friend, and chief of presidential security, contributed to the impression that some way would be found for Yeltsin to stay in office without submitting to a vote. Korzhakov was periodically quoted as believing that Russian society was too volatile to tolerate orderly elections this year.

In January and February, conventional political wisdom in Moscow incorporated two convictions: (1) that elections, if held at all, would likely be a sham; and (2) that, though Yeltsin was unlikely to go quietly, it would not make much difference to the country if he were to lose the election, even to the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov. Yeltsin, in the eyes of many, had long ceased to be a true democrat, if he ever was one, and there was not much that Zyuganov could change, even if he came to power. In effect, a different interest group would simply replace those currently in power and life would proceed much as it had for the last two or three years. Both of these convictions would be shattered during the campaign, and the fact that they were provides a key to the outcome.

Yeltsin himself never wavered (in public, at least) from his assurances that the presidential election would take place as scheduled. When Korzhakov continued to hint that an election would be disruptive and unwise, he delivered a stinging public rebuke and denied that Korzhakov had any influence on policy. Most likely, Yeltsin resented the implication that he was incapable of winning the election, even when it came from an intimate friend. Winning elections had been his route to power after he had been cast out of the political leadership by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 and his trump card in the contest with Gorbachev in 1991 and with the recalcitrant Russian parliament of 1993.1 His exercise of power had always been heavily authoritarian, but in his own mind his authority was based on popular consent. To admit to himself that he could no longer win an election would have been tantamount to conceding that he was washed up as a political leader.

Suddenly, early this year, Yeltsin awoke from his 1995 hibernation. He became once again the vigorous campaigner, traveling widely, dispensing largess with abandon, even dancing to rock bands. He seemed more like the Yeltsin of 1990 and 1991, but this time with the resources of the Russian state behind him.

His electoral fortunes could not have revived without his active entry into the campaign, but his personal participation was inadequate in itself to achieve victory. For that, an effective strategy was necessary. Until March none was apparent in the Yeltsin campaign run by Oleg Soskovets, a member of the President’s inner circle. But then, persuaded by some of Russia’s richest new capitalists, who had just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and were appalled at the prospect of a Zyuganov victory, Yeltsin replaced Soskovets with a team of liberal reformers, including Anatoly Chubais, an economist who had managed Russia’s privatization program. The new team’s fundamental task, aided by large infusions of money from Russian businessmen, was to shatter both of the presumptions the public held in January: that Yeltsin could not win and that it would make no great difference who did.


On the first question, efforts were already underway to enlist the support of the non-Communist newspapers, along with radio and television stations, under government or pro-Yeltsin business control. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov met with editors and journalists in January to plead Yeltsin’s case: their freedom was at stake, he explained, since it was clear that a Communist victory would lead inexorably to tighter control over information. If they valued their freedom, journalists and editors should do all they could to ensure a Yeltsin victory. Otherwise, their heads would be the first to roll.

Luzhkov’s appeal fell on willing ears. The independent press had long been a target of Communist militants, who saw its criticism of the Communist system as one of the principal causes of the Soviet collapse. If Communists came to power again, the press would have few defenses against attempts to restrict its freedom, particularly if they were indirect (for example, limiting the supply of paper, putting pressure on the printing plants, most still state-owned, or filing numerous expensive lawsuits for slander). Most publications currently operate on a shaky financial basis and would be acutely vulnerable to manipulative pressures.

By March, the tone of the hitherto critical non-Communist press had become strongly pro-Yeltsin. Polls began to show that Yeltsin was closing the gap with Zyuganov, and maybe he was, though some of the published results seemed more wishful thinking than impartial analyses. By April, the Russian public seemed to accept that Yeltsin was in fact a serious candidate, even though he still had an uphill struggle ahead.

The Communists themselves cooperated mightily, though unwittingly, in implementing Yeltsin’s second campaign objective. First of all, the name of their party created a vulnerability not shared with the former Communist parties that have won elections in Lithuania, Hungary, and Poland. In all of these instances, the former Communists had changed the names of their parties and adopted platforms consistent with democratic practices. This was not so with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). It was run by people who had never ceased to call themselves Communists and who had resisted attempts to reform the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Many had tried to remove Gorbachev by force in August 1991 and Yeltsin in October 1993. If they had participated in armed rebellions in most other countries, including traditional democracies, they would be languishing behind bars for their illegal resort to violence; but a parliament dominated by Zhirinovsky nationalists and Communists had granted them amnesty. They saw nothing wrong with the Soviet past; even Stalin was judged to have had a positive record.

Entirely aside from the ominous implications of their choice of a name and attitude toward the past, the Communists made several egregious errors early in the campaign which served to alarm many of those who previously had believed the claim that the Russian Communists had suddenly and miraculously become democrats. On March 15, 1996, the Communist-dominated State Duma passed a resolution declaring that the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was an illegal act. Constitutionally, the resolution was an absurdity: if Russia were not an independent country and one of the legal successor states of the Soviet Union, its entire structure of government, including the State Duma which voted the resolution, would have no legal basis.

The resolution, of course, was a purely political gesture, an attempt to “get” Yeltsin for having participated in the breakup of the USSR. But it backfired. It was immediately condemned by all the other Soviet successor states except Belarus. This gave Yeltsin the opportunity not only to brand it as nonsense, but to demonstrate that he was much better able to bring about some “reintegration” of the former republics than were the Communists. He moved rapidly to sign a treaty with Belarus for a sort of union (which, however, had little substance beyond the commitments already present and largely ignored in the treaties that established the Commonwealth of Independent States); he then met with most of the leaders of the other former Soviet republics, who endorsed Yeltsin and made it clear that the Communist position on “reintegration” was not acceptable to them.


The second event which undermined the Communist claim to be a democratic party like the others was a remark made by General Valentin Varennikov, one of the plotters in the abortive coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, that the published Communist program was a “minimum” program and that there existed a “maximum” one as well. This was taken to mean that the Party’s platform was largely for show and that the CPRF was still a conspiratorial organization with secret goals, as it had been ever since Lenin created it. While the Party platform had dropped all mention of Marxism-Leninism and the traditional militant atheism—the Communists’ alliance with the nationalists required them to seek a rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church—it still called for renationalizing large industries, state ownership of the largest banks, price controls, preservation of monopoly producers, state control of foreign trade, and tightened central controls over most economic activity.

As Russian reformers began to reflect on the makeup of the Communist Party and its likely goals, their previous complacency vanished. One former minister in Yeltsin’s government remarked to me in Moscow in May, “Zyuganov may possibly be a flexible politician with no ideological goals, though I doubt it.2 But that is beside the point. Unlike the other parties in Russia today, which are more or less the instruments of their leaders, the Communist Party is a real organization, based on the old CPSU. Zyuganov doesn’t control it; it controls Zyuganov. And the leaders of the party really want to restore the past system, which is the only one they know how to run.”

“Of course,” he continued, “they are not idiots and therefore will not admit what they have in mind. They are also smart enough not to try to do it all at once. They won’t impose censorship or close a lot of newspapers at first, but only theirs will find it easy to get paper, and very soon most, perhaps, all, of the independent ones will be broke. They won’t nationalize all banks, but rather will make it impossible for most to survive by withdrawing licenses to deal in foreign exchange. Most will go bankrupt and the few that survive will be placed under state ownership. They won’t arrest hundreds or thousands of democrats. They’ll just trump up charges against a dozen or so and prosecute them for something which seems non-political. They will expect the rest of the country to get the message, salute, and shape up.

“If they carry out even a few of their promises, inflation will soar once again; they will lose the IMF loans and the economy will be in chaos by fall. But that won’t faze them. They will say the Western countries, Jews, and Masons are responsible and use this to tighten police controls throughout the country. And don’t think they will ever make the mistake again of letting us vote them out of office.”

When I expressed skepticism that Zyuganov or anyone else could in fact reconstruct the Communist system of rule in Russia, the former minister agreed. “Certainly, they can’t recreate the old system. But they will make a serious effort, and that is what would bring us to chaos and even bloodshed. And no matter how bad things get, we might not have a chance to get rid of them for a long time. That’s the point.”

Other observers, not all Yeltsin supporters, agreed. Anatoly Chernyayev, Mikhail Gorbachev’s assistant, observed that the people behind Zyuganov were convinced that they had been betrayed twice by Communist leaders, once by Gorbachev who ruined the Party with his reforms, and then by Yeltsin who tried to ban it. “You can be sure they won’t let Zyuganov become a normal democratic politician, even in the unlikely event that that is what he wants,” Chernyayev remarked.

By May, most reformers and democrats were convinced that the nation was indeed facing a fateful choice. Though still highly critical of Yeltsin’s leadership over the last two years, they realized that if he was re-elected they could be reasonably sure that there would be presidential elections again no later than the year 2000. Yeltsin would not be eligible to run again, and his health might not permit him to serve the entire term. But if Zyuganov won, who could say? The risk was greater than most were willing to take.


Convincing the country that Yeltsin could win and that the Communists would be a threat to democracy was essential to the Yeltsin campaign but not enough to ensure victory. Given Yeltsin’s unpopularity with the majority of voters, his strategists had to make sure that no third candidate emerged with any hope of taking second place, and that Yeltsin would be positioned in the second round to garner most of the votes cast for third candidates in the first.

Early in the year no fewer than four candidates other than Zyuganov had poll ratings similar to or better than Yeltsin’s: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the erratic nationalist whose misnamed Liberal Democratic Party had scored unexpectedly well in December 1993; Grigory Yavlinsky, the reform economist whose popularity occasionally reached double digits; Alexander Lebed, a retired general who had criticized the war in Chechnya and was running on a law and order ticket; and Svyatoslav Fyodorov, an eye surgeon who had shown a flair for entrepreneurship and was a proponent of Yugoslav-style workers’ management. In theory, at least, any of these could have out-polled Yeltsin in the first-round vote, particularly if two or three could combine supporters to create a “third force.”

For a time Lebed, Yavlinsky, and Fyodorov attempted to do just that. For obvious reasons, no one seemed to have any desire to team up with Zhirinovsky, whose antics in any case had greatly reduced his appeal with the public. But their efforts came to naught, perhaps because of Yeltsin’s tactic of negotiating with each separately, which tended to divide them, but more likely because both Lebed and Yavlinsky were unwilling to cede leadership to the other. (Fyodorov seemed more eager for a coalition on any terms.) In any event, the “third force” never materialized, and toward the end of the initial campaign there were clear signs that Lebed’s campaign was being run in tandem with Yeltsin’s, although this was not publicly acknowledged. From late May, Lebed suddenly had an infusion of campaign money—rumored to have come from Yeltsin’s camp—and the support of sophisticated advisors, which propelled him to a strong thirdplace finish with nearly double the votes for Grigory Yavlinsky, who placed fourth.

The deal with Lebed turned out to be a brilliant move by the Yeltsin campaign. Lebed was in the best position to attract votes that otherwise might have gone to the Communists. Most of Yavlinsky’s votes could be expected to migrate to Yeltsin in the second round in any case, and Yavlinsky sought concessions incommensurate with what he could bring to the ticket, including the dismissal of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Fyodorov’s strength ebbed so rapidly that his candidacy could be largely discounted.

Many issues that had seemed urgent turned out to be peripheral to the campaign. The war in Chechnya was one of these. Before the campaign began in earnest, Yeltsin himself announced that he could not be re-elected unless he resolved it, and although he failed to end the war definitively, he did reach a highly publicized cease-fire with Dzhokar Dudayev’s successor as Chechen rebel leader,3 and made a quick, heavily guarded visit to Chechnya, after which the reduced level of violence attracted little attention. By then, the independent press, which had been highly critical of Yeltsin’s conduct of the war in Chechnya, was not inclined to dwell on the remaining problems in the region lest they diminish Yeltsin’s re-election prospects. Thus, Chechnya receded into the background before votes were cast and seems to have had little, if any, effect on the vote Dudayev’s widow actually endorsed Yeltsin during the later stages of the campaign. After the election, however, the fighting in Chechnya intensified, with the bombardment on July 10 of two villages by Russian forces.

The poor performance of the economy obviously lay behind most of the discontent with the Yeltsin presidency and motivated the economic losers to flock to the Communists. Even so, there was no coherent debate of economic questions during the campaign. Yeltsin conceded that mistakes had been made and that the interests of the average Russian had to be better protected as reforms continued. But aside from offering pay increases to some groups, as well as state grants to cities and collective farms, and ordering that overdue payments be made to pensioners and to workers in public enterprises, he gave little hint of what his future economic policy might be. Both Yavlinsky and Lebed spoke more concretely of the need to improve conditions for free enterprise and investment, but their arguments on these points probably changed few votes. The Communist-led coalition backing Zyuganov was unable to produce an economic program until May, and it was so convoluted and full of internal contradictions that pro-Yeltsin commentators had a field day ridiculing it.4 Its authors, for the most part, were those economists who had consistently failed to produce workable economic reform plans for Gorbachev in 1990 and 1991, and some bore substantial responsibility for the catastrophic state of the economy when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991.

Nationalism was a prominent theme in all platforms. All candidates assured the public that they would defend Russian national culture and Russian national interests, usually with the implication that Yeltsin’s economic reforms had been carried out too much in accord with Western prescriptions and with too little regard for the plight of ordinary Russians. Lebed combined an assertive nationalism with strong support for protecting entrepreneurs, lowering taxes, and reducing the bureaucracy, in apparent ignorance of the fact that all these positions are closer to British and American conservative principles than to the traditional Russian attitudes he said he was defending.

Though foreign observers who are convinced that Russia will inevitably become a threatening imperialist power again will doubtless fail to notice, the campaign made clear that most Russians do not favor aggressive imperialism. Some of Russia’s most unreconstructed imperialists, such as Viktor Ampilov and Albert Makashev, endorsed Zyuganov, but the Communist-led coalition was careful to keep them muzzled most of the time. Even Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose outrageous (nuke ’em if they don’t behave) threats against parts of the former Soviet Empire shocked the world in 1993 and 1994, cooled that aspect of his rhetoric. The fact is that while many Russians retain a sentimental attachment to the vast empire their country once ruled, most are not willing to spend a kopek or risk a single life to resurrect it. And very few vote for candidates who sound as if they would do so.

Aside from the unfairness of economic policy to the poor and dispossessed and the suspected Communist intent to return to the past, the most powerful issue by far was crime and corruption. This is the issue that Alexander Lebed used most effectively. It is a particularly urgent issue since organized crime—which controls a variety of businesses—and the official corruption associated with it have severely tainted the process of economic reform and turned many off the very idea of democracy. One major message of the campaign was that Yeltsin will continue to be politically vulnerable on this issue unless he can find more effective measures to enforce Russia’s laws.


Yeltsin had apparently hoped for an absolute victory when the votes were cast in the first round of balloting on June 16, but it was no surprise to his supporters that this did not happen. At least he came in first, with 35 percent of the vote, three points ahead of Zyuganov. The real surprise of the first round was Lebed’s strong showing. With 14.5 percent of the vote, he won nearly twice Yavlinsky’s total. Whether because of an earlier deal or the obvious political logic of the first-round returns, Yeltsin immediately named Lebed head of his Security Council, potentially a powerful position though totally dependent on the president; since it has no statutory authority. Simultaneously, he removed Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, a Lebed rival. Grachev’s dismissal strengthened Yeltsin’s political appeal since Grachev, identified with the attack on the Russian parliament building in October 1993 and the decision to invade Chechnya in December 1994, had become increasingly unpopular in the Army and throughout the country.

During the next few days, changes in the position of the people and groups around Yeltsin continued to occur in a dizzying sequence. First, Lebed fired seven senior military officers who had been close to Grachev with the accusation (later retracted) that they were preparing a coup. Then, after a bizarre incident that has yet to be satisfactorily explained,5 the three leading members of the so-called party of power—Alexander Korzhakov, head of the Presidential Security Service, Mikhail Barsukov, director of the Federal Security Service (successor to the internal security branch of the KGB), and First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets—were summarily dismissed on grounds that they were interfering with the President’s re-election campaign. Their departure from these positions removed another of the political burdens Yeltsin carried in the campaign, and also apparently strengthened the position of democratic reformers like Chubais, who had long been at odds with Korzhakov and his associates.

When there was speculation that Yeltsin might balance Lebed with the reappointment of Chubais to a senior position, Yeltsin denied that he planned to do so and Chubais said that he would not accept a position in the government. Whether this was a campaign tactic or Yeltsin’s actual intent remains to be seen. When these statements were made, Yeltsin was trying to attract as many Lebed voters as possible for the runoff. He knew that Chubais was anathema to Lebed’s supporters, who accused Chubais of permitting corruption and favoritism in the privatization process. Yeltsin was doubtless reluctant to give them any excuse not to vote for him.

Just after these sudden changes, exactly one week before the July 3 vote, Yeltsin disappeared from public view. Although much remarked in the West, not many Russians noticed, since the pro-Yeltsin press avoided mentioning his absence. His final campaign appeal was taped in advance; he canceled an important meeting with the presidents of Ukraine and Moldova on July 1, and even failed to show up at his usual polling station on July 3. (A video tape was released showing him voting at a station in Barvikha, a resort area with medical facilities for senior Russian officials.) While the Russian press did not pry into the reasons for his seclusion, foreign journalists did, always receiving the answer that he was just suffering from laryngitis or a light cold. Nevertheless, it was clear that his condition was more serious than that. Just how serious was anything but clear.

Yeltsin’s health problem did not seem to affect the runoff voting, even though Zyuganov tried repeatedly to call attention to it. With public attention directed at the dramatic changes in Yeltsin’s team, less attention was paid to Zyuganov, even though he appeared on television almost every day between the June 16 election and the July 3 runoff and the press reported his various activities and proposals. He must have realized, though, that whatever chance he might once have had to defeat Yeltsin was rapidly slipping away from him. As one sign of his desperation, he announced on June 24 that, if elected, he would form a coalition government with a third of its members from the present government, a third from his “popular-patriotic” election bloc, and a third from Duma factions not represented in his bloc.

By then, however, it was too late. Yeltsin had once again maneuvered himself to victory against what had seemed unsurmountable odds. To come from a bare 6 percent approval in January to 54 percent of the vote on July 3 must belong near the top of any list of political comebacks.


An impressive victory, but was it fair? What does it tell us about the state of democracy in Russia? To what degree did the bias shown by television, radio, and many newspapers sully the democratic process? Should we ignore the obvious fact that Yeltsin used the powers of incumbency, including state funds, much more directly in his campaign that would be permitted in most stable democracies?

I would contend that the election was fair since it accurately reflected the considered choice of the Russian people, formed after extensive debate and full access to the views of the various candidates. There can be no question that it was better for Russian democracy that the elections were held than if they had been canceled or subverted. There can also be no question that the Russian people showed as conclusively as such things can do that they value their right to vote, the right to choose, even though its exercise in the past seems to many to have brought on personal hardship. They turned out in greater numbers in both elections than Americans normally do. Their candidates, furthermore, had to vault a higher hurdle than do Americans running for president. The victor had to obtain an absolute majority and could not win with a mere plurality. (Could Clinton have defeated Bush in 1992 in a runoff without Perot? We cannot know but we can have no doubt that Clinton was glad not to have to face that problem.)

Even Zyuganov conceded that Yeltsin’s election reflected the will of the people, and though he complained about various violations of the election laws, he did not charge that the result was fraudulent. Most foreign election observers testified that the voting was generally fair and accurately counted.

As for the biased coverage of the campaign, several points should be kept in mind. First, no candidate was silenced. Platforms were published and discussed. The Communists had their own newspapers (Pravda, Sovetskaya Rossiya, Zavtra), which were at least as biased in their favor as were the non-Communist newspapers in favor of Yeltsin. These papers were not closed or censored during the campaign. The mainstream newspapers supported Yeltsin not just because the government urged them to (although it did), or even because some of their reporters were paid, as some were, to produce favorable articles, but because they genuinely saw the Communists as a mortal threat to their existence. Given the history of the Communist Party and the identity of its leaders, this can hardly be considered an unreasonable fear.

The bias in television and radio is potentially of greater concern because there were no national broadcasters under Communist control. But even here, the Communists were not shut out; an attentive viewer or listener could get a very clear idea of what Zuganov’s position was, even if the commentary accompanying it was critical.

Most of those who are inclined to judge the Russian press and broadcast news by (usually idealized) American standards fail to recognize important differences in the Russian tradition, and also make unwarranted assumptions about the effect of news coverage on political attitudes. Russian journalism has always been highly partisan. The test of press freedom in Russia is not so much whether a particular newspaper or broadcaster is partisan as whether the ones that want to challenge the government are allowed to exist. In present-day Russia they are, despite the almost total lack of precedent in Russian history for such tolerance. As soon as the election was over, both newspapers and television reverted to their earlier criticism of Yeltsin.

The inference some observers have drawn that bias of the press and television contributed greatly to Yeltsin’s victory fails to take account of a deep-seated Russian suspicion of propaganda. Russian opinion can be affected by press reports and editorials if they are considered true—the exposures of Stalin’s abuses during glasnost had a shattering effect on the perceived legitimacy of the Communist system—but Russians react negatively to information they consider false or unfair. Yeltsin won the election in Moscow in March 1989 when the official newspapers and television stations treated him virtually as a non-person. In fact, their hostility was one of his assets. In this election, if the Russian public had considered the favorable treatment of Yeltsin completely unfounded, that would have encouraged them to vote against him, not for him. If it was effective, that was because most Russians, with full access to other views, considered it fundamentally accurate.

As for Yeltsin’s aggressive use of his incumbency, one should not of course condone direct use of government funds for a political campaign. Nor should one ignore the fact that the Yeltsin campaign benefited from contributions from Russia’s new capitalists, which exceeded by far legal campaign spending limits. The sad fact is that, in its present administrative disarray, the Russian government, even if it wanted (and it does not), could not insure accountability for the use of public funds for campaign contributions. The source of Communist funding, more modest than Yeltsin’s but nevertheless substantial, is also unclear. Much may come from assets illegally diverted from Communist Party resources before the Soviet collapse. The election illustrates the need for more transparency and accountability in Russian finance, but the government’s inability to track and control campaign spending is part of a much larger problem which must be addressed as Russia’s democracy matures.

Several American advisers worked secretly for the Yeltsin campaign but there is no reason to believe that their influence was more than technical, including advice, for example, on focus groups and ads. The Yeltsin campaign, like those of his challengers, was run by Russians who made all the key decisions. In the final analysis, the Russian people made a free choice. No amount of spending or propaganda could have saved Yeltsin if the majority of the voters had decided he should go.


In view of his central role in the election and the possibility that he will wield considerable power in the future, General Alexander Lebed deserves close attention. A career soldier of forty-six, he commanded a battalion in the Afghan war. In the republic of Moldova, an independent state since 1991, he was commander of the Russian Fourteenth Army, and he is seen there as the aggressive imperialist who supported the separatist Dniester regime, dominated by ethnic Russians. To those who opposed the invasion of Chechnya he was one of their most vigorous allies, his opinion all the more impressive in view of his high military rank. To Communist Party apparatchiks he has always been an insubordinate officer, skeptical of civilian control of the military, with delusions of grandeur and Napoleonic tendencies. To Defense Minister Grachev he was an outspoken rival and critic, not least of Grachev’s disastrous policies in Chechnya. To the entrepreneurs, businessmen, and economic reformers he was one of the few senior military officers who seemed to understand and sympathize with the need to develop a strong and flourishing private sector. To the public at large, he was a straight-arrow, no-nonsense military officer, who in contrast to most of the others was incorruptible and who took seriously the need to combat organized crime and root out corruption. To a rapidly growing number of voters, he seemed just the sort of person Russia needed at its helm as it entered the next century.

Who is he then, and what sort of political leader will he turn out to be? An accurate answer is that we do not know, and cannot know until we see more of the way he deals with the responsibilities of political leadership—assuming that he will be allowed to take on some of those responsibilities. While he clearly has some important strengths, he also has exhibited characteristics and opinions which could have catastrophic results if he is unable to change or curb them.

Of all the candidates, General Lebed conducted the most coherent campaign, and, except for Yeltsin’s, the most effective. The summary of his campaign platform which appeared in the mass-circulation newspaper Argumenty i fakty in May6 was a model of issue presentation: concise, to-the-point, with general principles backed up by concrete examples. Though it placed heavy emphasis on restoring law and order, it contained little that would disturb a democrat, since the examples he gave involved strengthening the court system, protecting witnesses, and providing much greater transparency to government finances and administrative operations.

His campaign documents probably benefited from editing by sophisticated advisers on loan from the Yeltsin campaign, since his autobiography, published in 1995 in anticipation of his run for the presidency,7 is cruder and contains many ill-considered and ignorant statements. Most of the book recounts his military career, where he was, by his account, constantly confronted by difficult problems which baffled others, but thanks to his skill and ingenuity were always solved. The implication is that he is just the man to solve Russia’s current problems. Along the way he exhibits his personal biases: he is highly critical of both Gorbachev and Yeltsin (he obviously did not anticipate his current alliance), and he spills even more venom on Pavel Grachev.

Though his personality is clearly authoritarian, he also professes to be an enemy of big government. He not only opposed Communist Party control of the Army, but also of the country as a whole. He defends the Army’s actions in brutally suppressing a peaceful demonstration in the Georgian city of Tbilisi in April 1989, but condemns the political leadership for trying to use the Army for internal security. He has almost a mystical concept of the nature and uniqueness of the Russian people, but does not postulate a mission for them of saving the world—a claim that philosophical imperialists such as Dostoevsky and the pan-Slav writer Nikolai Danilevsky were wont to make.

His definition of the Russian people is inclusive and not based on ethnic Russians alone. In fact, he sees as the first requirement for healing Russia a “nationality policy” which will unite the 132 “nations” in the country and citizens of all native religious traditions, which he lists in his book as “Russian Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and many sects” (the latter term usually applied to Protestants). At the same time, he sees foreign, particularly Western, influence on culture, religion, and morals as something which is disruptive and must be resisted. He is also convinced that Russia must be ruled by a strong hand and quotes Plato to the effect that absolute democracy leads to dictatorship and tyranny. He idealizes the Russian Army as the only friend of the nation, and writes at length of the need to revive it from its current disarray brought on by “Russian traitors” inspired and financed by foreign countries eager to keep Russia weak.

One might have hoped that he had learned during the election campaign that some of his earlier crudities were mistaken. But when, flush with his strong electoral showing, his appointment to head the Security Council, and the removal of his military nemesis, he took the podium at almost daily press conferences, he demonstrated that he had not abandoned the aggressive and xenophobic views he expressed in his autobiography. His approach to dealing with crime, he suggested, was based on the principle of “he who shoots first laughs last.” He spoke of the need to restrict foreign influences by limiting visas and banning religious proselytizing by foreigners, and cited Mormon missionary activity as particularly offensive.

He might not have damaged his relations greatly with Yeltsin if he had come across merely as a trigger-happy xenophobe, but he went further, trampling on the turf of powerful Yeltsin lieutenants, and even on that of the President himself. For example, he suggested that his authority would be broader than security matters, and would include economic and social policy, which could be interpreted only as a slap at Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. He spoke several times of the need for a vice president, offering himself as a candidate, oblivious to the fact that Yeltsin was most unlikely to attempt to amend the Constitution and re-establish the office following his unfortunate experience with his first vice-president, Alexander Rutskoy, who actually tried to raise an armed rebellion against him and was currently backing Zyuganov for the presidency. He repeatedly pressed for the appointment of General Igor Rodionov to replace Grachev as defense minister, ignoring the political baggage Rodionov carried as the “butcher of Tbilisi.”8

These statements were hardly a re-assuring debut for the newly anointed statesman, but they may result in more severe limits on his role in the new Yeltsin government than Yeltsin originally intended.


During the campaign, Yeltsin occasionally made coy hints that he might be grooming Lebed as a successor. In fact, it would be quite out of character for Yeltsin to have that seriously in mind, particularly if Lebed seems intent on striking out on his own the way he did at his infamous press conferences in the days leading up to the July 3 vote. Yeltsin has a record of giving subordinates support only so long as he deems it politically expedient, and dumping them when he is convinced that they are no longer assets. It seemed for a while that Korzhakov and those close to him might be exceptions, but if Korzhakov’s ouster holds, Yeltsin will have performed according to his own past record. 9

During a private call on Yeltsin in the fall of 1992, I asked whether he intended to retain Yegor Gaidar as acting prime minister, since criticism of him was growing, particularly from the Russian Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin assured me that he would, absolutely, since Gaidar was a “brilliant economist” who understood what Russia needed and his critics were just worn-out apparatchiks who understood nothing except their thirst for power. “I won’t give him up!” he stated emphatically. But then he volunteered that Gaidar did not speak for him; nor did anyone else. He took out a sheet of paper, drew a circle in the middle, and then sketched lines out from it like spokes in a wheel. He described himself as the figure in the middle, with the spokes representing his contacts with his associates. “I keep them all at arm’s length,” he explained. “That way, I can use them when I wish, but they don’t control me or speak for me.” Three months later, he replaced Gaidar with Chernomyrdin.

Yeltsin’s attitude is probably still the same, and if this is the case he did not take kindly to Lebed’s presumptions in his recent press conferences. There were signs of a cooling toward Lebed in the Yeltsin entourage as early as election day, July 3, when Lebed failed to appear for a scheduled meeting with reporters at the Yeltsin press center. When asked, in accord with Lebed’s views, whether visa requirements for foreigners would be tightened, Yeltsin’s adviser Vyacheslav Nikonov said pointedly that not all of Lebed’s ideas would become policy.

The following day, when Yeltsin finally reappeared in public to claim victory, Lebed was conspicuously absent from the party, which, however, included Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Luzhkov. Yeltsin made a point of asking photographers to take their picture receiving his thanks for their contribution to the campaign. Lebed held no news conference, but when a Russian television crew caught him leaving his car and asked about his demands for extra power, he replied, “I have never been satisfied with the position or post I had.”

The clearest indication of limits on Lebed’s influence, however, came with Yeltsin’s reappointment of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister. Though Lebed had not called explicitly for Chernomyrdin’s replacement, he had severely criticized the huge oil and gas industries, with which Chernomyrdin is associated, for corruption, inefficiency, and nonpayment of taxes.10 On July 4 it was Chernomyrdin, not Lebed, who held the press conference, and he made it clear that he had no intention of transferring any of his authority to Lebed, observing pointedly that there would be enough to do pertaining to security and law and order to keep anyone busy.

On July 5, Anatoly Chubais joined the chorus of criticism of Lebed when he publicly characterized his demand for extra power as “a serious mistake.” He then went so far as to insult Lebed’s intellectual capacity by observing that “there are some shortcomings regarding the balance and profundity of his statements,” and, referring to Lebed’s comments on the Mormons, added “It is quite possible, though, that he confused Mormons and Masons.”

So the fight for the succession has already begun, and Alexander Lebed does not appear to occupy favorable terrain. In fact, he will be just one more participant in the battle of “clans” that was described by Thomas Graham, a political officer at the American Embassy in Moscow, in a widely noted article leaked to the Russian press last November. 11 The different powerful interest groups, whether bankers, oil and gas men, military-industrial managers, or others, will continue their behind-the-scenes struggle to control those policies important to them. If initial indications prove accurate, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and Mayor Luzhkov, who won his election in Moscow with nearly 90 percent of the vote and produced a large margin there for Yeltsin, are at this time on the inside track in the race for the succession. That, however, could change rapidly, since Yeltsin will likely stand aloof and play one faction off against another, just as he always has done up to now.

Yeltsin’s recent illness is a reminder that he may not last out his term. Uncertainty about Yeltsin’s health is bound to accentuate the struggle for the succession, though up to now he has come out of his illnesses with surprising vigor. Nevertheless, they occur with regularity and they seem to involve a deeper problem than the alcoholic binges that Russians automatically suspect, or the mild cardiac disorders that have been announced officially. He seems to require seclusion and rest for two or three weeks—and sometimes longer—immediately following a highly emotional experience. Thus, he fell seriously ill just after Gorbachev removed him from the Soviet leadership in 1987, and then with considerable regularity thereafter, usually after some notable victory or defeat. In 1991 he was away on vacation just after he helped thwart the attempted coup against Gorbachev; precisely at the time he should have used the momentum of his victory to push through a new Russian constitution and elections to replace the Communist-era parliament.

Yeltsin now has an opportunity once again to create a more balanced government that will simultaneously continue the reform process and begin to clean up some of the disorder brought on by the collapse of the Communist system. But this will require bringing more reformers into the government and giving them real authority. It also will require more engaged leadership to set the direction of his government and enforce a consistent policy. Yeltsin’s record, unfortunately, does not provide great encouragement that this will happen.

Many Russian liberal reformers have hoped that Yeltsin, having won a second term, would bring Grigory Yavlinsky into his government to lead the reform process and to provide a balance to the ambitious Lebed. This seems unlikely to happen in the near future, however, because Yavlinsky’s tactics during the campaign thoroughly offended most Yeltsin supporters. In refusing to support Yeltsin explicitly, even in the second round, and repeatedly demanding Chernomyrdin’s job, he convinced the Yeltsin team not only that they owe him nothing, but that—as many always suspected—he would never be a team player. Other reformers such as former Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, Yegor Gaidar, and—of course—Anatoly Chubais would seem at this writing to have better prospects for jobs in the second Yeltsin administration. There are, however, good reasons that all of them might want to delay their participation in the government.

Yeltsin’s campaign and his campaign promises will prove costly to the Russian budget and could well kick off a new round of ruinous inflation. Some of the promises will not be kept. The banking system is now tottering and could soon require a costly bailout. By July tax receipts were running 40 percent below budget projections. Even economic liberals are calling for protectionist measures to revive industrial production; but if they are adopted they will be a heavy blow to the urban consumer, now accustomed to a large assortment of high-quality goods.

The election campaign, in short, has made it more, not less, difficult to guide the Russian economy out of the trough it is in. If any of the prominent reformers are placed in charge of economic policy now, they could be made the scapegoats for the economic problems caused by the election campaign’s excesses. They may well calculate that it is better to let Chernomyrdin’s team deal with the campaign debris, standing ready to re-enter the government when the immediate prospects for economic improvement are brighter. Furthermore, the war in Chechnya is far from over and the reformers may not have assurances that it will be settled satisfactorily. Thus, while Yeltsin’s election is a victory for Russian democracy in having staved off a serious and possibly mortal threat, it did nothing directly to solve Russia’s current problems and may in fact have complicated that task.

The jinni was right to reconsider and grant Yeltsin’s second wish. It is now up to Yeltsin to work on making the first one come true.

July 11, 1996

This Issue

August 8, 1996