Russia's elections without winners


By Boris Kagarlitsky

MOSCOW — The second-round presidential elections on July 3 began inauspiciously for the authorities. Throughout the morning, the population of St Petersburg, a city considered a major stronghold of the regime, failed to turn up at the polling stations. People were clearly sick of elections. By 3pm, only about 4% of electors had voted.

A low turnout was also evident in other regions where Boris Yeltsin had come out ahead in the first round. Something close to panic broke out in the president's campaign team. A state television announcer let slip the news that "catastrophic moods" had seized hold of the campaign staff.

After 4pm, however, something happened. As if someone had waved a magic wand, the low turnout was everywhere replaced by a high one, in some places exceeding the results of the first round. If we are to believe official reports, the citizens of Russia turned up in a body at the polling stations and, in no less united fashion, voted for Yeltsin.

The more remote and inaccessible the region, the greater the support for the president. The people of the Chukotka peninsula in the far north-east showed particular enthusiasm, giving Yeltsin 75% of the vote — a remarkable result, especially if we consider that in the heat of the election campaign the authorities had forgotten to ship foodstuffs to Chukotka, and the danger of starvation hung over the region.

The people of Chechnya also voted en masse for Yeltsin; obviously, they had recovered after being bombed by warplanes of the federal forces. Journalists were unable to find many of the polling stations, but totals of votes recorded at these stations were nevertheless to be found in the offices of the republic's electoral commission.

The inhabitants of Daghestan, who voted overwhelmingly for Communist candidate Zyuganov in the first round, had evidently changed their minds 17 days later, when they voted for Yeltsin. The official press attributed this to explanatory work carried out by local leaders. Similar explanatory work had been performed in Bashkiria and Tataria.

Despite all these strange goings-on, it would be wrong to speak of widespread fraud. More likely, the authorities "adjusted" the results somewhat. A small majority for Yeltsin was thus transformed into a substantial one; the president was re-elected with 54% of the vote compared to about 40% for Zyuganov. Almost 5% of voters rejected both candidates.

If Yeltsin's victory prompts questions, the defeat suffered by the Communists is beyond dispute. The leaders of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and their most loyal supporters explained this setback as the result of Yeltsin's total domination of the mass media. The propaganda campaign mounted by the Russian authorities was indeed so scandalous that it drew protests even from pro-Yeltsin western observers and the international press.

Opposition default

But were the KPRF leaders really unaware of who they were dealing with before the election campaign began? The anticommunist propaganda on television was so successful precisely for the reason that this time, unlike the December parliamentary elections, the opposition virtually quit working with people at the base level.

The Communist Party concentrated totally on its parliamentary activity, although for the Communists this work has yielded poor results. A dull, incompetently organised election campaign, a complete lack of new ideas, and a refusal to work with the population at the local level all pointed to the likelihood of defeat, perhaps even in the first round.

By the second round, the position had become even worse. The Communist Party virtually abandoned propaganda work. The party's leaders spent more time consulting with the government than on assisting their own activists. The KPRF's reluctance to condemn obvious breaches by the authorities of the electoral legislation, together with the fact that Zyuganov's campaign staff did not seem in the least disappointed by the election results, provides grounds for still more grave suspicions.

Even before the elections the Communists' "reserve candidate" Aman Tuleyev unexpectedly declared his readiness to enter the government. Immediately after the elections, State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev and one of the party's long-time leaders, Anatoly Lukyanov, spoke out in the same vein. They referred to the party's "good" results and argued that the KPRF ought to receive relatively senior posts in the new cabinet.

Leading members of the Yeltsin administration who barely a day before had been speaking of the "red menace", and suggesting that if the Communists came to office the effect would be something close to the end of the world, also changed their tone abruptly.

On the day after the elections, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and other government representatives spoke of the presence in the KPRF camp of serious and responsible people, who should be brought into the government and entrusted with the task of resolving social problems. The government leaders argued that the country should not be divided "into reds and whites" (as if they had not spent the previous two months doing precisely this), and pledged that a place for all would be found in the cabinet of ministers.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalists in the parliament, also expressed the hope of receiving a portfolio. The only prominent opposition leader who failed to receive any offers was Yeltsin's liberal rival Grigory Yavlinsky. He was obviously being punished for taking a principled position on questions of human rights, and for refusing to call on his supporters to vote for Yeltsin until the last day of the election campaign. The irritated Yavlinsky noted in turn that he knew only two Communists whom he would wish to see in the Russian government: Marx and Engels.

A deal?

Very likely, the Communists were offered a choice: either to show obstinacy and suffer persecution, or to agree to a compromise under which they would refrain from stirring up indignation over doubtful results in particular regions, and would enter the government. The KPRF's weakness, the absence of a mass mobilisation and the ideological omnivorousness of the Communist leaders determined what the choice would be.

The KPRF leaders were also clearly impelled by another consideration. The deterioration of Yeltsin's health became a generally acknowledged political fact. The president could not even vote at his usual polling station; he cast an absentee vote in the village of Barvikha, the site of the sanatorium where high-placed bosses of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union used to receive treatment.

The KPRF leaders apparently concluded that Yeltsin was unlikely to survive until the end of his term in 2000. They seem to have reasoned that when the question of the succession comes to be decided, it would be better to be close to the empty throne.

It is easy to speak of "treachery" and political irresponsibility. But the problem goes much deeper. On the one hand, the Russian population has not shown any particular desire for change. Half-starved teachers and workers voted for Yeltsin, not because they were scared of the Communists, but for another reason: for hundreds of years such people in Russia have had instilled in them a platonic love of the authorities — any authorities. July 3 marked a historic triumph of social apathy, of conformism and of an authoritarian political culture.

Weight of past

On the other hand, not only the KPRF but also the forces of the left as a whole proved incapable of presenting themselves to society as a modern, dynamic alternative. Despite massive discontent with the regime, the KPRF's social base has remained extremely narrow.

The left has been unable to act as a force striving for a broad democratisation of society. In public consciousness, the Communist Party remains linked above all with the past, even if this is seen by many people as a great past. In these circumstances, the regime that is responsible for the collapse of the country's modernisation has been able to present itself as a force oriented toward the future.

The defeat of the KPRF and its possible inclusion in the government mark the beginning of a new crisis of the Russian left. This crisis may result in a "new wave" of political activism, free of any ties to the nomenklatura-authoritarian traditions of the Communist Party. But the process of renewal will be extremely difficult and painful.

There were no winners in the July 3 elections. Yeltsin's victory was Pyrrhic; the price he paid was not only grave damage to his health, but also the open abandonment of his original program and the sacking of an important part of his team, who were dismissed in favour of Alexander Lebed. The suspicion that the elections were rigged will pursue the new authorities even if the parliamentary opposition does not decide to mount a serious investigation.

The Communists unquestionably lost as well. Also among the losers were those people who voted for Yeltsin with the sole aim of keeping Communists out of the government. KPRF supporters who saw the party as the main opposition force lost too. In the final accounting, Russia lost. One is tempted to see a grain of truth in the old saying that every country gets the government it deserves.