Russian elections: how Yeltsin rose from the dead
By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Boris Yeltsin might with justice claim to have pulled off the near-impossible when he took first place in the presidential elections on June 16. Granted, he went nowhere near matching his easy first-round victory of 1991. With about 34% of the vote, compared to 32% for his main rival, Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov, Yeltsin has been forced into a second-round run-off, probably to take place on July 7. But only six months ago, surveys gave him a confidence rating of as little as 4%. Zyuganov was tipped as an easy victor.
A large role in Yeltsin's first-round victory was played by pure luck. Initial signs of a financial collapse, resulting from the government's desperate and haphazard monetary policies, were already appearing by the second week of June. Fortunately for the president, a full-scale crash did not follow immediately.
Another element of good fortune for Yeltsin was the fact that large government outlays kept the total sum of unpaid wages relatively static through March and April. It was only in May that unpaid wages again began rising steeply, by 19%. The effects of this had not taken on decisive weight by mid-June, though the story may be different by the time of the second-round vote.
Other reasons for Yeltsin's victory are less fortuitous. As the incumbent, Yeltsin is in a position to use state policy to bolster his position.
Tight-money policies early this year have meant that, with the normal lag, price rises during the period of intensive campaigning have been relatively low. But during the past few months, numerous concessions have been announced, including subsidies for industry and agriculture and a scheme to restore part of the value of pensioners' inflation-eroded savings. Meanwhile, "budget area" state employees have felt the benefits of Yeltsin's moves to reduce the wage debt. For a few months, the illusion has been created that economic stabilisation has arrived.
Yeltsin has also directly appropriated various resources of the state to aid his campaign. Dominance of the broadcast media, in particular, has been used to ensure a barrage of pro-Yeltsin propaganda of staggering intensity.
News programs on all channels were turned into parades of positive images of the president. After watching Yeltsin plunge into crowds of eager citizens in one province or another, viewers would see workers and pensioners responding delightedly to Yeltsin handouts. Interspersed were reassuring interviews with the silver-haired president, shown responding mildly to questions from fawning journalists. Other candidates were virtually ignored. Programming during the last days before June 16 consisted largely of popular anti-communist feature films, and of documentaries on Stalin's purges and prison camps.
Yeltsin's victory also rested on skilful management of dangerous issues. A decree ordering the phased abolition of the military draft by the year 2000 caused rumblings in the officer corps, but was popular among young people and their parents. The impact of the war in Chechnya — according to surveys, the leading cause of dissatisfaction with Yeltsin's administration — was partly neutralised when Yeltsin made the important concession of agreeing to meet in Moscow with Chechen insurgent leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.
For all Yeltsin's skills and ruthlessness, he could not have finished ahead on June 16 if the victory had not in effect been handed to him. Going into the campaign period with a strong lead, the KPRF appears to have taken the attitude: Yeltsin can't win the elections, but we could lose them. The result was a caution and ambivalence that, together with major strategic errors, produced a campaign that inspired no-one, while leaving many Zyuganov supporters bewildered and demoralised.
To a large degree, Zyuganov has been invisible. Early on, his strategists took the decision not to run paid television advertisements, even though huge numbers of Russians have no other regular source of information apart from the broadcast media. The leaflets and stickers on which the Zyuganov campaign spent much of its finance cannot even remotely compete with Yeltsin's television productions. The doorknocking and person-to-person contacts on which the KPRF places many of its hopes have probably been quite effective, but they cannot make up the difference.
The failure of the KPRF's campaign, however, primarily reflected underlying political failures. Among the worst of these has been the KPRF's refusal to decide where it stands on painful questions of the Soviet past. This has provided Yeltsin with enormous scope for negative campaigning. As presented to voters, the choice in the elections is between "reform" and the gulag.
Still more fundamentally, there has never been much sign that the KPRF leadership understands the type of party needed to defeat Yeltsin — one that is popular, democratic in its structures and rooted in the organisations and struggles of workers and the oppressed.
Real power within the KPRF lies with various factions of the former party-state apparatus that have remained alienated from Yeltsin, as well as with particular groups of industrial managers, especially from the defence sector and rural-based industry. Also influential are representatives of local administrative machines. The mechanisms of rank and file decision-making are poorly developed.
The KPRF has few attractions for militant workers. In its four-year history, the party has never become a significant, coordinated presence in Russia's labour movement.
Unable to appeal to voters as workers, the KPRF has sought to win the presidency through an extended manoeuvre with Russian nationalists. Formally, Zyuganov is the candidate not of the KPRF but of a "popular patriotic bloc" with dozens of member organisations. In practical terms, nothing unites these bodies except a vague aspiration to restore Russian "greatness". The price of holding the bloc together has been to strip Zyuganov's election appeals of virtually everything assertive, controversial — and progressive.
In alliance with nationalists whose "patriotism" often tips over into aggressive Russian chauvinism, Zyuganov has failed to exploit the glaring weaknesses of Yeltsin's position on Chechnya. Opinion surveys suggest that a call for the prompt withdrawal of federal forces, followed inside Chechnya by an internationally supervised referendum on the republic's independence, would be overwhelmingly popular among Russian voters. Yeltsin is highly vulnerable on this issue, but even within the KPRF itself, not to speak of its allies, chauvinist moods have been too strong to allow this political bomb to be placed under Yeltsin's campaign.
Similarly, the Zyuganov campaign has allowed Yeltsin a free run with the issue of conscription. The KPRF failed to challenge the traditional Russian nationalist attachment to a large conscript army. The incongruous result is that Yeltsin, who sent conscripts to fight in Chechnya, enjoys far more credibility among young voters than the KPRF.
Even Yeltsin's disastrous economic policies have failed to differentiate the main camps. Throughout the campaigning, the economic platform of Zyuganov's coalition has remained obscure, and has been given almost no publicity.
Even the KPRF's own economic platform was not revealed to voters until a few weeks before June 16. It stresses the need for the state to intervene to boost consumer demand and encourage investment in agriculture and consumer manufacturing. Resting on orthodox Keynesian mechanisms, the program is in no sense socialist. Nevertheless, it could be expected to work better than the chaotic mix of pork-barrelling and Thatcherite monetarism that the government has actually applied. The delay in the program's publication, however, has meant that even the soundest of its positions has had no impact on the election.
Worries for president
Nevertheless, the first round of the elections brought some unnerving developments for Yeltsin. One ominous statistic was the voting figures in Kemerovo province in central Siberia. After the first night of counting, Zyuganov had secured almost 40% in this region, compared to 24% for Yeltsin.
Kemerovo province, with more than 2 million electors, includes the massive Kuzbass coalfields. In 1989 and 1991, the Kuzbass miners played a key role in the huge coal strikes that were instrumental in bringing Yeltsin to power. Arguably Russia's best-organised and most militant workers, the miners were once among the president's strongest supporters. To judge from June 16, they are now among his opponents.
The broader voting figures also confirm a well-established principle: wherever there are large numbers of peasants, the vote for Yeltsin is especially bad. Despite the president's manoeuvres with "land reform", the rural population remains deeply hostile to the new order. Russian capitalism is thus denied one of the key elements of a Western-style conservative coalition — farmers and small-town residents.
Meanwhile, the medium-term prospects for the economy are not of stabilisation, but of acute and protracted financial crisis. Yeltsin's likely victory in the second round will be a setback for working people, but none of the basic problems of Russian capitalism will have been resolved. The opportunities and challenges before leftists will remain enormous.