Russian voters prepare to make a historic decision
Who should it be? As this Sunday’s presidential election approaches, Russians seem more divided, more unsure, than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union five years ago. Should they proceed with the wrenching social changes initiated by
President Boris Yeltsin—or return to the communist past under
leading challenger Gennady Zyuganov? Arguments over Russia’s future have split cities, towns and villages, right down to individual families. Pyotr Smolensky used to work on an assembly line in Moscow’s Zil car factory—before layoffs at the struggling plant swept away his job
two years ago. Now he works as a trader, shuttling back and forth by bus to Turkey to buy cheap clothes for resale in Russia. “It’s a much harder life now,” he says. “I must travel all the time, everything costs so much and everyone from border guards to the mafia say I must pay them money if I want to keep on selling.” But while he misses the predictability and order of the Soviet era, the 54year-old trader has reluctantly decided to vote for Yeltsin. “People forget about the shortages under communism and how the party controlled everything. Now, I feel that despite all the problems
with crime, there is opportunity and I’m in charge of my own life.” Irina, Smolensky’s wife, feels differently. “I don’t like Yeltsin,” she says. “Five years ago we had enough savings to buy a car, but inflation turned it into small change. Certainly, the stores are full of goods, but who can afford them? I’m for the Communists—but what if, as Yeltsin says, we go back to the old ways of repression?”
Some choice, indeed: back to communism or forward with an administration that is widely seen as corrupt and remote from the people. The two leading candidates embody the contradictions and tensions wracking the country. Yeltsin’s message to voters is: the worst is over;
stick with the devil you know. “Remember,” he told a crowd during a recent visit to the northern city of Arkhangelsk, “you are not just voting for a president, a name, but for a whole course of action.” Yeltsin presents himself as the only viable democratic candidate, although he has done little to create a genuine democratic organization. Communist leader Zyuganov, meanwhile, is trying to hold together an anti-Yeltsin coalition that stretches from extreme nationalists to unreconstructed supporters of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. In pursuing a socialist-minded platform, he has
been noticeably reluctant to acknowledge the labor camps, mass repression and other dark aspects of Soviet rule. He tells voters: “Only the Communists will make Russia great again and not a vassal state of the West.”
Polls last week indicated that the unwieldy 11-candidate race had become a showdown between the two men. Yeltsin seemed to be ahead, although the pollsters themselves admit that their craft is far from precise (page 20). Most probably, though, neither man will get the 50 per cent of the vote needed for an outright win, in which case a runoff between the two top finishers is expected to take place three weeks later. Russians, however, seem doubtful that the issue will be decided by a simple counting of ballots. Expectations of cheating are rampant. After the votes are in, a current joke goes, an aide will bring the news to Yeltsin: Zyuganov has received a convincing 52 per cent of the tally. But not to worry—Yeltsin has received much more.
It is natural that Yeltsin is the focus of attention. Not only is he the incumbent, he is also the symbol for all the changes that have occurred during the five years he has held the presidency. It has been a rough ride for most Russians. There have been two coup attempts and the Soviet Union has disappeared. And the New Russia that
WHAT THEY WOULD DO
The Communist economic challenger platforms Gennady of reformist Zyuganov President differ Boris greatly Yeltsin on such and key issues as nationalization, agriculture and foreign involvement. But they share some positions. They have a near-identical commitment, for instance, to economic reintegration with the former republics of the defunct Soviet Union—voluntarily, that is. Critics, though, focus on another similarity: their pledges of generous social spending. Yeltsin does not explain how he would finance it while pursuing tight-money policies. Zyuganov does, but his Soviet-style prescription could breed high inflation and shortages. Key promises:
YELTSIN • Continue the International Monetary Fund’s recommended program of privatization, economic reform and foreign loans.
• Bring down the inflation rate (currently 14 per cent) to five per cent by the end of the century.
• Eliminate the budget deficit by 2000.
• Achieve a four-per-cent annual growth rate by 2000.
• Increase minimum wages and salaries gradually to help the poorest members of society.
• Index pensions and salaries to the inflation rate and compensate people for savings lost to the high inflation of the early 1990s.
• Sell off former collective farms to individual owners.
• Tell the IMF to go home.
• Increase social outlays, including on pensions and health care, to fuel a spending boom and kick start the economy.
• Finance such spending through increased oil-andgas revenues, improved tax collection and nationalization
of the lucrative alcohol industry.
• Encourage purchase of local goods by imposing protectionist tariffs, doling out subsidies and keeping energy and raw materials costs low.
• Block the break-up of communally owned farmland, although the privatization of small enterprises, apartments and cottages would not be reversed.
emerged from the old empire has been wracked by ills as varied as hyperinflation, industrial collapse, a savage internal war in Chechnya, and rampant crime and corruption. More than half the population has suffered a sharp decline in its standard of living. That has prompted the old, the discontented and the disadvantaged to seek shelter under the resurgent red banner of communism. But Yeltsin, the onetime party boss, has played on fears of renewed breadlines and repression should the Communists win. Many voters appear to accept the argument. Said Marina Vorshuleva, a 44-year-old bookkeeper who braved wind and cold in Arkhangelsk to see Yeltsin: “We have come too far to suddenly change everything back to the old ways.”
Besides evoking the Red Menace, Yeltsin has papered Russia with election promises. So much so that Economics Minister Yevgeny Yasin warned that Yeltsin’s $16 billion worth of pledges were “absolutely unrealistic” and would bust the budget. His boss was undaunted. “I have come here with full pockets,” Yeltsin told listeners on his swing through northern Russia. One of the most familiar sights of the campaign has been Yeltsin uncapping his black fountain pen to sign another decree favoring oldage pensioners, small businessmen, students or whatever group of voters he is wooing at the moment. Yasin aside, no one in the government talks about where the money will come from.
As if the advantages of incumbency were not enough for Yeltsin, Russia is awash with speculation about election fraud and what the president will do if he loses. Scenarios range from the preventive-strike theory—Yeltsinappointed governors in the provinces altering the vote counts as they come in—to Yeltsin simply refusing to give up power. Zyuganov has warned his followers to watch proceedings at all 97,000 polling stations across the country to reduce chances of trickery. Not to be outdone, Yeltsin adviser Georgy Satarov has accused the Communists of readying armed units for an illegal seizure of power. While denying that charge, Zyuganov did not rule out disturbances if the final outcome was suspiciously pro-Yeltsin. Said the Communist leader: “If people vote, they have the right to insist that their will be taken into account.”
The swirl of rumors tends to obscure the fact that Yeltsin is a superb campaigner. Newly fit and evidently staying off the vodka he has long enjoyed, the 65-yearold president has waged an astoundingly energetic fight for a man who has suffered serious heart problems twice in the past year. He was at the top of his game in the swift negotiation of a ceasefire in Chechnya late last month. Leaving Chechen rebel leaders virtually hostage in a Moscow guest house to ponder their signed truce agreement, Yeltsin established his credentials as a muzhik (real man) with a lightning-fast visit to the wartorn region. Televised images showed him surrounded by soldiers as he signed a presidential decree on the steel flank of an armored personnel carrier. Inevitably, the scene recalled the heady days of August, 1991, when Yeltsin stood atop a hostile tank and successfully rallied Russians to oppose a coup by hardline Communists.
Aware that the army played a decisive role in keeping him in power during that challenge and another in 1993, Yeltsin has vigorously courted Russia’s huge military vote. He has pledged increased aid for the cash-strapped defence industry and vowed that in future only volunteer soldiers will serve in Chechnya and other hot spots. He has even promised to abolish the deeply unpopular draft and convert the army to an all-volunteer force by 2000. But it is still not certain if Yeltsin will get what he has described as the key to staying on in the Kremlin: clear signs of progress in ending the war in Chechnya before the election. That depends on Chechen field commanders holding
to the shaky ceasefire—and Yeltsin maintaining control over Russian commanders still pushing for a military solution to the conflict.
Zyuganov, though, has reason to feel outgunned despite having 500,000 party members to pit against Yeltsin’s access to state resources and grip on state television. When he does get press coverage, the Communist leader frequently has to endure hostile questions and personal insults. ‘"Who could imagine gazing into the eyes of Zyuganov and imagining him as the father of one’s children?” sneered the popular weekly magazine Ogonek (little Beacon) recently. But when ordinary voters actually meet him, many say that they are impressed by his calmness and steadiness. “He is not as colorful as Yeltsin but that may be all to the good,” said Dimitri Rybov, a farm worker who chatted briefly with the Communist leader at a Moscow-area rally recently. “I’m tired of the fireworks that come with Yeltsin. I just want a normal life.”
Zyuganov certainly cannot match Yeltsin’s performing skills on the campaign trail. Cordless microphone in hand, the president eagerly mixes
with voters to show that he is healthy, sober and once again engaged with the problems of ordinary people. “What, have you no questions for me?” he teasingly asked a surprised group of dancers welcoming him to the southern Urals region. At other times, the president has played to the Russian liking for strong leaders— barking at the Chechen rebel leaders in the Kremlin to sit down and begin negotiations. The balding Zyuganov, by contrast, hardly dominates a room.
Sometimes it is hard to pick out the 51-year-old former teacher from the
handful of bodyguards and aides who accompany him as he takes ordinary trains and planes across Russia’s 11 time zones. Lately, in response to pleas from his advisers to lighten up a little, Zyuganov has begun to join in dances at his rallies and even tell a few jokes. When asked how much he drinks, he found a way to mock both Yeltsin and the architect of a highly unpopular temperance campaign during the 1980s, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Said Zyuganov: “I must say that I drink less than Boris Nikolayevich and more than Mikhail Sergeyevich.”
Yet if Zyuganov is somewhat wooden in public, he is also a shrewd politician who has managed to unite most of the opposition to Yeltsin behind him. Like some of his fierier supporters, Zyuganov backed the failed coups of 1991 and 1993. But he cautiously avoided playing a key role and was distant from the barricades when the guns started firing. Zyuganov is equally careful about tailoring his message to his audience. Before foreign businessmen he plays the moderate, soothingly telling them that a Communist government will respect all forms of property and that Russia wants foreign investment. But in the so-called Red Belt—the towns and cities whose Soviet-era factories are dead or dying—he stridently blames foreigners, especially the United States, for the mess Russia is in. According to Zyuganov, Washington’s hidden plan is to turn Russia into a resource colony. His scenario: exports of oil and gas flow out to meet the conditions of loans provided by the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund.
And he wraps the superpower past in a glow of nostalgic rhetoric, leading to charges that he is rewriting history. Zyuganov has said that Stalinist purges killed fewer than one million people instead of the 20 million cited by many historians. He also argues that the regime of former Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev was free of repression. To be sure, Zyuganov reluctantly acknowledges that repression did occur under Stalin. But he says: “Let us concentrate instead on the victory over fascism in the Second World War and Stalin’s role in it.” Now, Russians are again at a great turning point in their history. The world will know soon if they will make a decisive break with the past or decide to embrace it. □
THE PERILS OF THE POLLS
Buoyed Yeltsin by surging poll results past Communist that show President rival Gennady Boris Zyuganov, Yeltsin aides have begun to talk of winning an outright victory in the first round of the presidential election on June 16. Hang on a minute. Those surveys were taken in Russia—a country where, until recently, talking politics with an inquisitive stranger could lead to all sorts of unpleasant complications. Now even the pollsters concede that their findings may be somewhat inexact. At a roundtable discussion that brought together 11 major polling organizations in Moscow recently, the pulse-
takers stressed that the electorate’s volatility makes it difficult for a poll to be anything more than an extremely rough guide to voters’ preferences. Said Nuzgur Betaneli, director of an influential poll at the independent Institute of Parliamentary Sociology: “Most Russians do not belong to a political party, so that makes it difficult to determine how they will vote. Instead of political convictions, we are trying to deal with political moods.”
Betaneli ’s words carry weight with his colleagues. Alone among pollsters, he correctly predicted that ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party would do well in the 1993 and 1995 parliamentary elections at the expense of pro-government
candidates. Until recently, Betaneli’s surveys on the presidential race were at odds with others that showed Yeltsin pulling ahead of his main rival. Now, however, even Betaneli holds that the president has at least drawn level with the Communist candidate. That finding leads most surveys to a common conclusion: no candidate will get the 50 per cent of votes needed to win, and Yeltsin and Zyuganov will face each other in a second-round runoff election. But Betaneli warns people not to take his latest forecast too seriously: “Just because we got it right last time, does not mean that we will do so again.” Betaneli has been successful in part because his polls use 6,000 respondents in 250 cities, towns and villages. Others question only 1,600 people or so and tend to ignore rural voters. “Most tend to rely on telephone surveys and many people who live in the country do not have telephones,” says Andrei Neschadin, the acting director of another Moscowbased institute. Other sociologists note that many Russians do not like being questioned about politics and do not always reveal their preferences to a stranger on the phone. And when they do answer, many deliberately shade their responses in favor of the current authorities. “But what can you do?" asks state television broadcaster Nikolai Svanidze. “There is, at the moment, no more accurate way of gauging public opinion.” One final prediction from Russia’s much-maligned pollsters: all say that with the stakes so high and the campaign so intense, more than 80 per cent of the country’s 105 million voters will turn out to vote on Sunday.