WORLD

Da to Yeltsin

Personality and pork-barrelling pay off

MALCOLM GRAY May 10 1993
WORLD

Da to Yeltsin

Personality and pork-barrelling pay off

MALCOLM GRAY May 10 1993

Da to Yeltsin

RUSSIA

Personality and pork-barrelling pay off

Shading his eyes against the bright spring sun-shine, Pavel Glushkenov fanned out his ballots for Russia’s four-question referendum like a card player. “Da, Da,

Nyet, Da,” the 53-year-old Moscow engineer counted off for the benefit of voters gathered near him. Some of them teased him for sounding like the campaign jingle aired in support of President Boris Yeltsin. But across Russia, a narrow but decisive majority of Russians followed Glushkenov’s voting pattern: Yes to Yeltsin’s leadership, Yes to his economic policies, No to early presidential elections and Yes to early elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies—a result which allowed Yeltsin to claim a mandate of renewed confidence in his leadership. Perhaps. But when pressed, voters like Glushkenov offered only qualified support. “I am still a communist and worry that Yeltsin’s policies will cause sharp class divisions,” said Glushkenov.

“But he deserves a chance to show what he can do. Russians have a proverb about not changing horses in midstream.”

The referendum had no legal impact on the power struggle between Yeltsin and his opponents in the conservative-

dominated Congress. But 53 -

per cent of those voters who went to the polls also endorsed the president’s economic reform policies, which have, so far, only made life harder for most of them. The unexpected result surprised hard-line legislators. They had insisted on putting the direct question on Yeltsin’s economic policies to the people in the clear expectation that it would result in an embarassing defeat for the president.

Yeltsin gave no sign of basking in his victory, a mistake he has made before. In 1991, after turning back a right-wing coup attempt, Yeltsin chose to take a vacation rather than use his surge in popularity to press for political reforms. By contrast last week, Yeltsin charged ahead with plans for a new constitution. Unsurprisingly, the Yeltsin draft calls for a stronger presidency and replacing the un-

wieldy, 1,033-member congress with a smaller, two-chamber parliament. And in a clearly personal touch, the proposed constitution pointedly eliminates the posts of vice-president and parliamentary speaker. That would mean unemployment for two of Yeltsin’s most persistent critics: Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi and Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Even before the vote, Yeltsin took the fight to his opponents with a burst of pork-barrel politics. He showered Russians with promises ranging from a freeze on the retail price of gasoline to plots of land for retiring army officers. His foes in the legislature tried to match the presidential largesse: they passed a law protecting the savings accounts of Russian citizens from the ravages of inflation. But neither side in the country’s power struggle

seemed concerned that fulfilling their promises would add another $600 million to government spending every month. When former acting prime minister Yegor Gaidar told Yeltsin that the blizzard of commitments would worsen already-soaring inflation, the campaigning president brushed his aide aside. Said Yeltsin: “First we have to win a political victory. Then we can sort things out.” Win he did. But Yeltsin did more than simply buy his victory. A key factor in his success

was his mastery of Russia’s airwaves. Yeltsin’s government still exercises a loose control over state television, and during the final week of the referendum campaign, the two national networks largely abandoned any pretence of objectivity in the referendum’s outcome. Yeltsin’s opponents rarely gained TV exposure. When they did, thenappearances were swiftly followed by commentators offering scathing rebuttals to their arguments.

Russian viewers also were treated to a stage-managed peek at their president’s personal life. Presenting Yeltsin as a family man, an hour-long, TV documentary showed him dandling granddaughters on his knee and being scolded by his wife, Naina, for absentmindedly shelling a gaily painted Easter egg. Shots of Yeltsin at home portrayed the president as the resident of an ordinary flat in central Moscow. But the broadcast did not mention that Yeltsin and his wife spend most of their time at a more comfortable dacha on the forested outskirts of the capital. “The area is filthy and noisy,” Yeltsin told Russian journalists last month of his inner city home. “Do you think that I, as the I president of Russia, could invite o world leaders to my apartment?” g Yeltsin’s Western-style cam§ paign tactics showed just how ^ much Russia has evolved in the last few, tumultuous years. A tale

of two signs in downtown Moscow

underscores those changes. One is a vast wall mosaic showing muscular workers gazing into the socialist future under the inscription: ‘We are building communism.” The wall display is permanent, revealing communism’s misplaced confidence in the party’s future. Removing it now would require the demolition of the building that frames it. Last week, with the referendum campaign over, city workers removed a pro-Yeltsin banner hanging across the street, reading, We are building a new Russia.” To Pavel Glushkenov and the other Russians who backed Yeltsin last month, the words on that flimsy piece of cloth now seem to hold out more hope than past communist ambitions written in stone.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow