WORLD

NEW SOVIET DEMOCRACY

THE SOVIET UNION’S FIRST CONTESTED VOTE HAS PROVOKED A HEADY SENSE OF EXCITEMENT

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 27 1989
WORLD

NEW SOVIET DEMOCRACY

THE SOVIET UNION’S FIRST CONTESTED VOTE HAS PROVOKED A HEADY SENSE OF EXCITEMENT

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 27 1989

NEW SOVIET DEMOCRACY

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION’S FIRST CONTESTED VOTE HAS PROVOKED A HEADY SENSE OF EXCITEMENT

Larisa Popik, a 21-year-old student at a teachers’ college, could barely contain her excitement. Popik had been told by friends that Boris Yeltsin, the outspoken former Moscow Communist party chief who is a candidate in the Soviet Union’s first contested election on March 26, would make a campaign appearance at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys. As a result, Popik travelled last week for more than two hours by train and bus from her home outside Moscow and arrived at the institute more than an hour before the maverick politician was to debate his opponent, automobile plant manager Yevgeny Brakov. Said Popik: “Yeltsin is a man who speaks directly to and for the people.” She added, “This election process finally makes it possible to see such a man.”

Popik’s enthusiasm is shared by many Soviet citizens. The nation’s first and sometimes halting attempt at electoral democracy has provoked a heady mix of excitement, controversy and confusion. In the election of delegates to a new national parliament—the 2,250-seat Congress of People’s Deputies—some voters have the unprecedented opportunity to choose—by secret ballot—between rival candidates. That is a dramatic departure from the past, when voters elected a sole candidate endorsed by the Communist party. Now, the voters—and the candidates themselves—are experiencing an unaccustomed taste of Western-style electioneering, with some candidates employing campaign staffs, holding rallies and distributing posters and lapel buttons. Said Yevgeni Stankovitch, a candidate in the Ukrainian city of Kiev: “Sometimes I am ashamed to say ‘Vote for me,’ but I know that I must.”

Still, the country’s new electoral democracy clearly has limits. Although most deputies in the new parliament will represent specific territorial and population districts, one-third of the seats were allotted to such officially recognized Soviet organizations as the Communist party and trade unions. Voting for those positions began on March 11 and was restricted to members of each organization. The new election law passed last year theoretically permits “an unlimited number of candidates” to participate. But the Communist party’s policy-making Central Committee nominated—and last week

formally elected—exactly 100 people, including leader Mikhail Gorbachev, for the 100 seats reserved in the new legislature for the party. Opposition parties are not permitted, and only Communist supporters can run as candidates. Said Lev Zaikov, a member of the ruling Politburo: “There are a lot of countries in the world where there are many parties, but democracy there still serves a definite class. We do not need debates about a multiparty system.”

Many of the voters and the more than 8,000

registered candidates have responded to the new campaign with sometimes startling enthusiasm. One nomination meeting in Leningrad’s Smolny district took more than nine hours to choose from among eight candidates. And during a sea voyage, more than 50 crew members of a Soviet fishing vessel argued throughout a storm over who should represent their union. Some successful candidates hired consultants

to advise them on policy and campaign strategy. Explained Vladimir Marchenko, a candidate in the Minsk region who consulted experts: “I have to know how I look in experts’ eyes in the more important campaign issues.” But some people complained that the new electoral regulations are ambiguous and easily manipulated to reject controversial candidates. One rule allows directors of formally recognized institu| tions the sole right to name 0 candidates, without consultai ing rank-and-file members. E Because of that, several § prominent reformers failed to 1 win nominations—an apparg ent rebuff to Gorbachev by i the nominating panels. S Among the reformers spurned: Roald Sagdeyev, the former head of the Soviet Space Institute, and Vitaly Korotich, editor of the reformist weekly magazine Ogonyok. In the most controversial case, the board of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R., which controls 25 seats, did not nominate prominent physicist and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov.

The most widely watched figure likely to sit in the new legislature is Yeltsin, 57, who for the past 17 months has been conducting a noisy uphill campaign to rehabilitate himself with Soviet authorities. A gruff but charismatic figure, Yeltsin was forced to resign as Moscow party chief in November, 1987, during a stormy Central Committee meeting. There, Yeltsin criticized the slow pace of reform, and he indirectly criticized several Politburo members, including Gorbachev. Since then, his popularity as a self-styled “man of the people” has soared among ordinary citizens. Vendors in Moscow parks sell lapel buttons bearing Yeltsin’s likeness that read “Fight, Boris.” And his campaign meetings—often publicized by word of mouth—have drawn as many as 5,000 spectators.

Yeltsin’s popularity—and his reformist views—clearly worries party conservatives. At a plenum in Moscow last week, the Central Committee announced an investigation into discordant views Yeltsin is said to have voiced

in the current campaign. He has criticized the Young Communist League and has called for all public organizations, including the Communist party, to be subject to parliamentary control. Said party ideology chief Vadim Medvedyev at a news conference: “The plenum asked a group of participants to look into all the facts and report back to its next meeting.” Moscowbased diplomats say that Kremlin leaders are divided over Yeltsin’s candidacy. Said one: “They are terrified that he will use the legislature as a regular platform to denounce them. But if he loses, it casts doubt on the credibility of the entire process.”

Some Soviets say that such doubts represent an exciting new dimension to their country’s usually lacklustre politics. Said student Popik: “We see things happening that have never happened before.” Others are more cautious. Said another student, 24-year-old Moscow resident Alexander Savienko: “We need two or three of these elections before there is real change.” And as Alexander Lebedev, a member of the Central Committee’s ideology department, smilingly declared in a recent interview: “On March 26, the Communist party will win the election. You can bet on that.” That is a wager that Soviet voters still will not—and cannot—put to the test.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow