Four more years?

July 15 1996

Four more years?

July 15 1996

Four more years?


Boris Yeltsin engineered a comeback and won big— again. Communism lost— again. Now, the rest of the world can stop worrying about Russia sinking back into the past and restarting the Cold War. That is the shorthand message from Yeltsin’s convincing 14-percentage-point victory over Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov in the runoff stage of the Russian presidential election last week. But the fears of the world should perhaps not be putto rest just yet. Between Yeltsin’s troubled health and a mountain of problems facing him, there is plenty that can go wrong even as things seem to be going right.

It was, to be sure, a result based on hope. Yeltsin picked up 54 per cent of the votes cast to Zyuganov’s 40-per-cent share because of the conditional support of people like Yelena Grishina. She is 72 and stout, with neon-bright orange hair and a slight limp from an injury she suffered while serving as a Red Army truck driver during the Second World War. With Sasha, an elderly cairn terrier, in tow, she set off last week to a polling station in a south Moscow district There, she did something at which Russians excel—making sacrifices for the future. Inside a polling station set up in a secondary school, she added her pro-Yeltsin vote to those of her daughter and two university-age grandchildren. “I don’t like Yeltsin’s economic re-

forms,” said the former nutritionist.

“Look at the hardship they have caused.

Many people my age live on bread and milk because that’s all they can afford.

But my grandchildren don’t want to go back to communism and I am hoping that they at least will have a normal, civilized life. If s natural for the old to make way for the young, and I will be dead soon.”

Millions of other Russians made a similar decision on July 3, giving Yeltsin a four-year term to lead them into the 21st century. The election itself was no small accomplishment. It took place largely without incident, concluding with the graceful, if slightly delayed, concession of Zyuganov one day later. True, it was not a textbook example of democracy in action. With an open chequebook to government resources, Yeltsin spent heavily and made extravagant promises during an energetic campaign that took him to 23 different regions of Russia. Zyuganov’s main sore point: the media, particularly state-controlled television, were openly biased against him. Favorable coverage of the president was balanced by slanted stories on Zyuganov that presented him as a latter-day version of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. De-

The doubts linger about Yeltsin's poor health and his mountain of problems

spite such well-founded complaints, Zyuganov congratulated Yeltsin and promised to lead a loyal opposition in the Communistdominated State Duma, the lower house of parliament. In the meantime, he urged Yeltsin not to forget the 30 million citizens who had voted against him, many of them poor peasants in the so-called Red Belt of pro-Zyuganov territory that runs along Russia’s southern borders.

Yeltsin’s Red-bashing campaign was simple, effective and repetitive: voting in the Communists would bring back empty store shelves and renewed state confiscation of private property (right down to the prized dacha, or country cottage), if not civil war. A report on election coverage released by observers from the European Institute for the Media concluded that a 2:1 ratio in televised reports favoring Yeltsin over Zyuganov had given the president a huge advantage. And with an election-day broadcast on state televi-

sion of the three-hour conclusion to a sexy Brazilian soap opera, many voters found it easy to heed TV announcements urging them to stay in the cities to vote in the midweek election (balloting usually takes place on a Sunday) instead of heading for the dacha. The Yeltsin forces’ biggest fear had been a low turnout, which would have favored the well-mobilized Communists. With the rivals focused on the past (Yeltsin’s record for the past five years versus 73 years of Communist rule), most Russians chose the president’s version of the future and gave him a mandate to continue shifting Russia towards a free-market economy.

But it was clear that for all of the president’s superb political manoeuvring, the election had generated more questions than answers. Without

breaking the budget, it is hard to see where the money will come from to pay for $16 billion worth of election promises that Yeltsin made to cushion the impact of reform. They range from assurances that state employees such as teachers and coal miners will get paid on time to increased pensions and compensation for savings ravaged by inflation. Then there are the oft-repeated pledges to combat Russia’s rising and increasingly violent crime and the delicate issue of settling a bloody conflict in the secessionist region of Chechnya. But even as Yeltsin renews his lease on the Kremlin for a second and final term, Russia’s rumor mills are buzzing with the interlinked issues of his health and who will succeed him. Will it be his heir apparent of the moment, former army general Alexander Lebed? Or a more seasoned politician like Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s tough and popular mayor?

At 65, Yeltsin is already living on borrowed time: the average life expectancy for Russian males has dropped to only 58 years. During the past year, he has suffered two mild heart attacks and was in hospital for 13 weeks. In the gruelling first round of the election campaign, Yeltsin sang and danced his way across the country, clearly ea, ger to demonstrate at rock concerts and rallies that he ! still had the vigor needed to run Russia. Then in the two! week interval before the runoff, he almost disappeared


President Boris Yeltsin won a majority of votes in most parts of Russia (in blue). Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov did well mainly in the so-called Red Belt of depressed Soviet-era industrial areas and collective farms in the south. Many voters, however, chose a third option on the ballots: jgL

neither of the above. ÏÆÊ&

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from public view. Aides issued soothing statements about his health as the list of cancelled appearances mounted. The president was well and working at his desk, they said. By one account, he had laryngitis; by another he was suffering from a slight cold. Privately, though, members of his inner circle revealed that Yeltsin had experienced chest and arm pains brought on by angina. That is a non-life-threatening heart condition where constriction of arteries reduces blood flow to the heart. Still, the state of Yeltsin’s health was not an issue in the election. The ever-loyal Russian media said little about it.

In his absence, the stern visage and impossibly bass voice of Lebed dominated the run-up to the election. The third-place finisher in an initial field of 10 presidential candidates made the most of his switch to Yeltsin’s team and a murkily defined job as the president’s chief of national security. That position, the 46-year-old former general argued, gave him the right to do more than carry out campaign promises to fight crime and corruption. Instead, in a flurry of news conferences and official announcements, Lebed was suddenly declaiming on issues ranging from how to stop the illegal flight of capital from the country to why criminals who do not agree to go straight should be shot. Said Lebed: ‘We’ll shoot people, but reasonably—and only those who refuse to be persuaded. He who shoots first, laughs last. I’m in favor of hard but thought-out solutions. You need to hit twice: once on the head and the second time on the lid of the coffin.”

In blunt, barrack-room talk that strikes a chord with many Russians, Lebed also called for restrictions on foreign religious sects operating in Russia. He specifically linked two very different groups whose following is growing in Russia—Japan’s sinister Aum Shinri Kyo sect, accused of carrying out a poison-gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 11 people, and the Utah-based Mormon Church. Lebed, who has never been outside his native country except for combat tours in Afghanistan, dismissed them both as subversive “mould and scum.” He also described Russia as “the most soulful country in the world,” with Russian Orthodoxy, Islam and Buddhism as established religions. Notably absent, in a country with a long history of antiSemitism, was any mention of Judaism.

At times, it almost seemed as if Lebed had taken over, consigning the ailing Yeltsin to be a sort of president emeritus. Lebed even acknowledged his own boundless ambition by noting that he had never been satisfied with any job he had held. “I always want more,” he said. He soon clarified what that meant now: he wanted to be vice-president in the incoming administration. “This post is really needed,” he said in a television interview. “A person is needed who would have strong powers to make political and even military decisions.” There is one constitutional problem with that suggestion, however. When a Russiawide referendum in 1993 adopted a constitution that vested practically all powers in the I presidency, Yeltsin made sure that the charter g no longer included the position of vice-presiI dent. Two months earlier, Alexander Rutskoi, ° the man whom Yeltsin had picked as his vice1 president, had sided with parliamentary

deputies in a power struggle with the president. That armed rebellion ended only when Yeltsin ordered tanks to shell the legislature building. Like Lebed, Rutskoi was a plainspoken general and a hero of the Soviet Union’s disastrous military intervention in Afghanistan. And he is skeptical about his soldier-successor’s ability to survive the intrigues of Yeltsin’s court. Said Rutskoi, now a leading opposition member: “He’ll fight neither crime nor corruption and he won’t carry out army reform either. I’ve been down that road and I know very well the workings of the Kremlin kitchen.”

Moreover, reviving the vice-presidency would be complicated and lengthy. It would require an amendment to the constitution approved by both houses of parliament and ratified by two-thirds of Russia’s 89 regions. As things stand now, the prime minister temporarily takes over if the president dies or is incapacitated. According to a constitution that has never been tested on such a crucial issue of power, he is then obliged to hold new presidential elections within three months.

Once it became apparent last week that Lebed’s supporters had contributed to Yeltsin’s victory margin, it also became clear that the former general will soon have to struggle for survival in the labyrinth of the Kremlin. Yeltsin, a leader who routinely divides power among his advisers, accepted the automatic resignation of his government following the election—and swiftly reappointed Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. His first task: forming a new cabinet. Chernomyrdin, himself a gruff former Soviet energy bureaucrat with strong ties to

Russia’s influential gas monopoly, began by promptly pouring cold water over Lebed’s plan to revive the vice-presidency at his expense. Said Chernomyrdin: “I am not going to give anything away to anyone. My powers are well-known and I don’t plan to part with any of them.” Chernomyrdin suggested that Lebed concentrate on crime-busting and leave economic matters to him. “As far as security and law and order are concerned,” he added dryly, “there is

enough work for everyone.” There is certainly enough work—and potential problems— ahead to occupy the time and energy of a completely healthy Yeltsin. Tdie bill for unpaid wages to state workers is mounting again, government tax collections are below target, and fulfilling even part of Yeltsin’s generous election promises would threaten renewed high inflation. In foreign affairs, the prospect of NATO’s expansion could produce another East-West rift—although Russian officials I have said privately that they can live with Poland and other former SoviI et satellites becoming members of I the Western military alliance. They add, however, that the new members must not have nuclear weapons stationed on their soil and pointed in Moscow’s direction.

Despite the orderly atmosphere of the election itself, Russia’s fragile new democracy is a strange blend of developing democratic institutions and power concentrated in a single individual. So if Yeltsin’s health worsens, all bets on Russia’s true course will be off. The new mandate that he received in last week’s voting would quickly disappear in a monumental Kremlin struggle over his job. □

The mayor who would be king

No need to ask Muscovites to describe their city’s mayor. For the past seven weeks, Yuri Luzhkov’s moon face and pearshaped body have been visible in thousands of pro-Yeltsin billboards and posters. little-known in the West, he is one of Russia’s best-known and most powerful politicians.

Many see him as a potential successor to the president, along with new national security czar Alexander Lebed. Certainly it was Yeltsin who cashed in on the mayor’s popularity in the ad blitz, timed for both men’s re-election campaigns. Without making a single campaign speech or running a political ad of his own, Luzhkov won a second four-year term on June 16 with a Soviet-style result of 91 per cent of the vote.

No one questioned that total. The 59-year-old Moscow native is immensely popular with the city’s 10 million residents for his populist policies. A former Soviet bureaucrat who ran the capital’s food distribution system, he has instituted price controls on milk, bread and other basic foods, and put 5,000 law-enforcement volunteers on the streets to help police cope with rising crime. Usually, Luzhkov has been a loyal supporter of Boris Yeltsin. But the president’s aides were visibly nervous early last year as Luzhkov first considered, then eventually rejected, entering the presidential race at a time when Yeltsin’s popularity rating was near zero.

Since then, Luzhkov has concentrated on doing what he does well: ensuring that the city administration gets a good slice of the money generated by Moscow’s position as Russia’s financial as

well as political capital. Like Yeltsin, the rotund mayor is a nominal democrat at best. He prefers to rule by executive order, all but ignoring a weak city council that can do little to oppose his wishes. Most Muscovites don’t mind those autocratic ways. They like his drive to create such new city landmarks as a huge Second World War memorial and the reconstruction of the 19th-century Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that dictator Josef Stalin tore down in 1931.

In addition, Moscow’s leading populist expects all the pomp and ceremony due to the ruler of a near-independent city-state. To that end, he has won such signs of special status as forcing the federal government to get his permission before privatizing large local industries. And as is fitting for a man whose aides bear such grand titles as prime minister and deputy prime minister, Luzhkov even I pursues his own foreign policy. Two years ago, § when Yeltsin was avoiding entanglement in pro! tracted negotiations with Ukraine to divide the Soli viet-era Black Sea fleet, Luzhkov travelled to the % port of Sevastopol and promised to build housing I for the sailors.

For the moment, Luzhkov has worked hard to keep Yeltsin in power. Disappointed by a low early turnout in last week’s presidential race, he made a successful TV appeal to city residents to get out and vote. But if Yeltsin’s poor health created an opportunity, Luzhkov would likely enter the contest to succeed him. From the mayor’s standpoint, it is a short distance down Tverskaya Street from city hall to the Kremlin.