The generals' elections in Russia

Issue 

The generals' elections in Russia

By Boris Kagarlitsky
MOSCOW — Every time Russian television announces the formation of a new candidates' slate for the December parliamentary elections, viewers find themselves wondering: which well-known entertainer and which general will be among the first three people named? Russians are finding the party programs much less interesting than the bizarre juxtaposition of personalities. The slates that have proliferated most rapidly have been those of the political centre. The same people who in 1992 and 1993 were trying to establish a centre-right in Russian politics are now entranced by the idea of creating a centre-left. How this centre-left differs from the centre-right is a matter of indifference to them. They are preoccupied with a much more important matter: singing the praises of whoever is on top of their list.
The first to announce the formation of his bloc was Ivan Rybkin, the speaker of the State Duma. Or rather, President Boris Yeltsin announced even earlier that Rybkin would establish a left-centrist bloc. The speaker worked diligently to carry out his orders, but none of the left parties wanted to join his formation. Rybkin bargained at length with the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), but agreement was not reached because FNPR chairperson Mikhail Shmakov demanded a third of the places on the slate, together with a firmer criticism of the government.
After several months, the Duma speaker finally announced his list. The new formation was called, simply and modestly, the "Ivan Rybkin Bloc".
The fact that the people who headed this slate were leftists was a revelation. But they were certainly well known. They included the first deputy minister of defence, General Gromov, and the millionaire singer Iosif Kobzon, who because of reputed mafia links recently lost his visa to enter the US.

Unions

Representatives of the workers' movement included the chairperson of the Independent Union of Miners (NPG), Alexander Sergeev. The NPG used to have a reputation as a right-wing trade union; in 1993 it supported Yeltsin and Gaidar. But times change, and the NPG is now trying to take its distance from neo-liberalism. Sergeev observed: "Taking into account the history of our trade union, Rybkin's bloc is the most left-wing formation we could have joined".
Meanwhile the FNPR, which had broken its ties with Rybkin, was preparing to run its own slate. But then the FNPR concluded an agreement with the disaffected factory directors of the Russian United Industrial Party. This union of labour and capital would vie in the elections with the Russian Social Democratic Union, to which former mayor of Moscow Gavriil Popov had attached himself at the last moment.
The Social Democrats were somewhat put out to find Popov's name in the candidates' list, since he had earlier been considered their ideological foe. But the Social Democratic leaders explained that Popov had brought with him large sums of money.
Prominent trade unionists are also on several other electoral slates, including those of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and of the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO). The miners and transport workers, meanwhile, intend to run a separate list. And as if to reduce everyone to total confusion, the participants in the election will include the Party of Workers' Self-Management, headed by the uncompromisingly pro-business medical entrepreneur, eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov.
If we bear in mind that the centrist-minded voters to whom these electoral blocs lay claim number only about 15% of the electorate, and that each bloc needs to win at least 5% in order to be represented in parliament, it is not hard to see how everything will finish up.
General Alexander Rutskoi, once Yeltsin's vice-president but now his bitter opponent, is heading his own electoral bloc, Derzhava ("Great Power"). But after the list of Derzhava candidates was submitted to the Central Electoral Commission, a scandal erupted.
Candidates who were dissatisfied with their positions on the list publicly accused Rutskoi of putting shady business leaders on his slate in exchange for money. Rutskoi countered that his business leaders were all irreproachably honest, and expelled the rebels. The revised list was given the name "Derzhava-Rutskoi".
The malcontents joined with film director Stanislav Govorukhin to form another patriotic bloc. Govorukhin, meanwhile, is a member of the Democratic Party of Russia; another Democratic Party leader, Sergei Glazyev, has joined the KRO along with General Alexander Lebed.

Vague advantage

The rapid growth in the popularity of the KRO has been the main surprise of the campaign. The KRO has neither a clear ideology nor a distinct structure, but perversely, these shortcomings have allowed it to attract support from all sides. Some journalists are even suggesting that the KRO represents a "spare" party of power which the ruling circles are getting ready in case Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin are forced out of office.
Despite abundant funds and the good will of the mass media, the KRO leaders are encountering serious problems, especially in explaining what they really want. Criticism of the authorities, social demagogy and nationalist rhetoric now make up the shared ground of the majority of election contenders.
Several more formations are competing for the right to represent the "patriotic idea". The most notable of these are Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, the Front for National Salvation and the Union of Patriots headed by former KGB General Alexander Sterligov. The Russian nationalists will be opposed by the Union of Muslims of Russia.
Supporters of a liberal westernising course are clearly out of fashion. Sensing their weakness, they have sought desperately to unite, and intensive talks have been held with the aim of founding a single "democratic" bloc. The result has been that the two earlier groupings (Russia's Choice and "Yabloko") have now been replaced by five.
The main liberal line-up at present consists of Russia's Democratic Choice-United Democrats, Democratic Russia, Forward Russia!, the Republican Party of the Russian Federation and "Yabloko". There are also smaller groups organised by politicians denied electable positions on the five main lists. These minor formations include Honest Russia, Stable Russia, Democratic Initiative and For the Homeland.
This time "Yabloko", headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, has a chance to overtake Russia's Democratic Choice — now visibly falling apart — and to become the leading "democratic" party. However, this process has been impeded by a squabble within the "Yabloko" leadership. Yuri Boldyrev, who held second place in the 1993 model "Yabloko", quit the party, accusing his colleagues of using Stalinist methods.

Universal opposition

Most parties and blocs declare themselves to be part of the opposition. Even groups which have members in the government take every chance to dissociate themselves from the authorities. In a variation on this practice, Chernomyrdin, in expounding the policies of his bloc "Our Home is Russia", publicly took his distance from the formation.
Despite receiving strong support from the mass media, Chernomyrdin's bloc is not flourishing. Surveys suggest that no more than 12% of electors are likely to vote for it. In the elections for governor of Sverdlovsk province, "Our Home is Russia" suffered a crushing defeat.
Chernomyrdin's "Home" has also suffered from the defection of vice-premier Sergei Shakhrai, now seeking to rebuild his own Party of Russian Unity and Accord. Shakhrai accused "Our Home is Russia" of using totalitarian methods, and predicted that it would not win even 5% of the votes.
The main ace up the government's sleeve is the stabilisation — partial and unlikely to last, but real enough — of the economy. Chernomyrdin this year has been able to cite falling inflation and signs of revival in some sectors of industry. Stabilisation, however, means that a further change of course lies ahead.
So long as inflation remained high, the government could adopt a new package of anti-inflation measures every six months and blame its enemies for the fact that the previous, essentially similar, measures had failed to work. But with inflation rates now much lower, continuing with the old policies is as senseless as summoning the fire brigade after the fire has been put out.
The government now has to confront the economic failure of privatisation, as reflected in the collapse of production. However much the authorities might talk of privatisation being "irreversible", in the new conditions a re-evaluation of the results of privatisation has become inevitable. Already, the role of the state sector is beginning to increase spontaneously; despite everything, state investment remains the key factor of economic growth in Russia today.
For better or worse, the government in the past few years has learned how to manage crises, but in conditions of stabilisation these skills are worthless. Other people and methods are now needed. At the top levels, a new struggle for power is under way, and yesterday's victors are already losing out.
Paradoxically, the period now opening up is not proving especially favourable for the leaders of the main opposition forces. The crisis at the top is not clearing the way for their automatic rise to power. To make use of the new opportunities, the opposition needs to introduce major changes to its policies. Meanwhile, the absence of a united opposition organisation and of a recognised leader has allowed internecine struggles to grow more acute.

Divided left

The government camp and the unstable political centre are not alone in being seized by intestine warfare. The situation on the left is no better. The strongest left organisations are the Agrarian Party of Russia and the CPRF, headed by Gennady Zyuganov. Vying for the same political space are two other lists of candidates: "Power to the People!", headed by former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, and "Communists/Working Russia — for the Soviet Union", uniting various leftists who find Zyuganov's "opportunism" unacceptable.
The struggle over the composition of the CPRF's electoral slate revealed fundamental weaknesses in the party. Potential candidates who were relatively young, or who had their own sharply defined identity, generally lost out. The political positions expressed by contenders counted for virtually nothing; the radical leftist Yuri Leonov and the entrepreneur Vladimir Semago were both excluded from the slate.
Although the CPRF will undoubtedly poll well, its new parliamentary fraction will be distinctly older than before, and politically weaker. The most outstanding recruit to the CPRF's list is Aman Tuleev, who has been assigned the second place. Tuleev, who is not a member of the party, has massive support among the miners of the Kuzbass. However, he clearly does not intend to work in the Duma; his goal is victory in the elections for provincial governor.
The CPRF's list has aroused disappointment among people who linked their hopes for a general rise of the Russian left with the renovation of the CPRF. The emergence of a large number of independent left candidates, representing a new generation of activists, is now inevitable.
In 1995 each elector will be able to vote for his or her favourite general and favourite entertainer. Some voters are attracted by the bear-like General Lebed. Others prefer the haunted mien of General Rokhlin, from Our Home is Russia. Still others are impressed by the severity of the CPRF's grey-haired General Varennikov. Lesser-known generals hope to gain renown on the field of electoral battle through running on other slates. Even Gaidar has his general — Eduard Vorobyev.
If your eyes are dazzled by the stars on the generals' epaulettes, you can shift your gaze to stars of the stage and screen. Candidates in the elections include the well-known film director Nikita Mikhalkov (Our Home is Russia), and the popular entertainers Nikolai Gubenko (CPRF), Stanislav Govorukhin (Govorukhin's bloc), Alexander Kalyagin (Our Home is Russia), Lidiya Fedoseeva-Shukshina (Russia's Democratic Choice) and finally, Iosif Kobzon.

Image-makers

A particular role in these elections is being played by sociologists and image-makers. Often, the same people perform consulting work for Communists, liberals and centrists. The consultants explain that ordinary people have no love for politicians, but still respect entertainers and military officers.
Taking this advice to heart, the politicians have rushed for help to the generals. One need not be a prophet to foresee that after two months of electoral campaigning no-one will arouse such irritation in television viewers as actors and generals pursuing a profession which is not their own.
Sociologists have also reported that Russians love the victims of injustice. Hence all the politicians are pleading for someone to do them wrong. All the candidates complain of injustice and promise to fight against corruption. The obligatory set of slogans is topped up with standard accusations against opponents, who are charged with insincerity, with resorting to Stalinist methods and with having links to organised crime.
These accusations are quite likely to be believed. It is no accident that one of the most popular programs on television nowadays is the satirical show Puppets, in which the main participants in election battles are depicted as freaks and idiots.

The arbitrary make-up of the candidates' lists, together with the absurdity and chaos of the election campaigning (which recalls a squabble in a children's sandpit) points not only to a crisis of the political system, but also to the weakness of society after 10 years of pseudo-reforms.
It requires a remarkable imagination to see in this the development of democracy. The weariness of the much-deceived population, the ineffectiveness of the left forces, the paralysis of the trade unions and the obvious contempt into which the elections, the political parties and the representative organs have fallen all serve to create favourable conditions for a new growth of authoritarianism.
The overwhelming majority of participants in the election will emerge from it weakened. And although only a few electoral blocs will make it into the Duma, there is little prospect that any of them will be able to count on a majority there. The CPRF, Our Home is Russia, the Congress of Russian Communities, Zhirinovsky and Yavlinsky, Women of Russia and the Agrarians will all receive roughly equal support.
A completely unworkable composition of the new Duma is, perhaps, exactly what the authorities are looking for. The clownish parliamentary politicians will be incapable of emerging as serious candidates in the 1996 presidential elections. Against a background of general mistrust of parliamentarism, the uncontrolled and irresponsible executive power will be strengthened still further. The struggle for the position of supreme boss will become increasingly keen, and the outcome will not be decided through elections.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.