'Democracy' Yeltsin style

Wednesday, June 26, 1991

By Renfrey Clarke

What is it called when the leading opposition candidate in an election is excluded from the ballot, despite the express wishes of the legislature?

In the Soviet Union today, you might well find it called "democracy" — to judge by the response of Boris Yeltsin's "Democratic Russia" bloc to a challenge from a left-wing candidate.

During the lead-up to the June 12 mayoral elections in Moscow, the "Democratic Russia" incumbent, Gavriil Popov, was challenged by a range of opponents, of whom the best-known was economist Tatyana Koryagina.

Koryagina gained prominence during the late 1980s as one of the first political activists to argue openly that the USSR needed a sector of small private and cooperative business. She was later appalled, however, by the type of privatisation on which the Communist Party and its liberal allies embarked: turning even large industrial enterprises into joint stock firms open to control by individual capitalists.

Opinion polling in the weeks before the election gave Popov the support of 35% of the electorate, followed by Koryagina with 17%.

Before the candidates could be officially registered, however, they had to demonstrate their support through a petitioning process. The Moscow City Soviet stipulated 10,000 signatures. But the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic, headed by Yeltsin, had the final say, and decided that the figure should be 35,000 signatures.

This transformed the election. To find 35,000 signatures was no problem for Popov. Nor was it difficult for the various candidates who had their political base in the Communist Party, which, despite its low rating with the electorate, still has a large apparatus.

Koryagina, however, was an outsider whose main activist backing came from the few score members of the Moscow section of the Socialist Party. For her supporters to gather 35,000 signatures in the few weeks available was a gargantuan task.

Doing so was not made easier by the ambiguous political climate in Moscow. "It's not that people don't like her policies", one supporter explained after a frustrating day petitioning in a car plant. "But they don't just have to sign, they have to give their addresses and passport numbers, and they're reluctant."

Koryagina's supporters gathered 11,600 signatures — enough to satisfy the requirements of the Moscow Soviet, but not those of Yeltsin.

"The Moscow Soviet voted to support Koryagina's right to run", recounted Boris Kagarlitsky, a Socialist deputy to the Soviet. "Deputies from the Socialists, the Greens, the Social Democrats, the Radicals and the Initiative Group all condemned the discrimination against her. Even two Communist candidates for mayor demanded that she be on the ballot.

"It became an important issue. But Yeltsin didn't respond."

Yeltsin placed the threshold for ballot status so high, Kagarlitsky argued, because Yeltsin's bloc wanted to limit the electoral process to two groups: "Democrats" and Communists. With the Communist Party heavily discredited, the "Democrats" could count on winning such contests despite their own dwindling support.

Koryagina's supporters can console themselves that Moscow at least is not experiencing the "democracy" seen during the elections in Tatarstan, formerly the Tatar Autonomous Republic. There, in an electorate a fraction of the size of Moscow's, the threshold for ballot status was set at 50,000 signatures.

Not surprisingly, only one of the five declared candidates made it onto the ballot for president. That candidate was local strong man, president of the Supreme Soviet of Tatarstan, Mintimir Shaymiev.

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