Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 4

By A.V. Buzgalin


A victory for Vladimir Putin in the presidential election seemed to be on the cards back in November 1999, before Boris Yeltsin resigned, when the elections were still planned for June 2000. A young, energetic and decisive prime minister had made an appearance in the Kremlin–a man who was able to make himself popular among the Russians by his consistent use of force against the bandit groups which had invaded Dagestan, and who was not afraid to take the military campaign against these groups onto the territory of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Remembering the grim results of the 1994-96 Chechen war, this was indeed a brave move for a Russian politician to make, especially one who was not a president and who therefore did not enjoy the full might of state power.

This move was as calculated as it was brave. And it cannot be said with any certainty that it was Putin himself who did the calculating. The course of the military operations in Dagestan and Chechnya and the curious timing whereby the military actions coincided with political events in Moscow clearly suggest that the second Chechen war was used as a pre-election political show.

In fact, the Chechens’ preparations for their incursion into Dagestan, and the erection of long-term fortifications in those border regions where the Chechen population was predominant and where there was a strong fundamentalist Wahhabi presence, were no secret for Moscow, nor of course for Putin’s office. The incursion was expected. What was the first thing Moscow did in reaction to the Chechen aggression in Dagestan? They replaced prime minister Stepashin with Prime Minister Putin. Why was this?

The answer is that the Chechen invasion of Dagestan provided the perfect opportunity to attack the criminal armed groups (or, to put it bluntly, the bandits) which had dug themselves in Chechnya and which threatened the peace and stability of the entire southern part of European Russia. And it was Putin who had to take advantage of this opportunity. He had to take over as prime minister and make himself popular with the Russians by routing the Chechen gangs at any price. This was the last chance for Yeltsin’s “family” to put up a new political figure for the presidential elections–one untainted by being connected to the bankrupt policies of Yeltsin’s administration–and to ensure this figure became popular enough to win the election.

I do not propose to offer any pointed hints or theories as to who was behind the bombing of apartment blocks in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk. Let us assume that the official version is correct. One way or another, these bombs helped to justify Putin’s subsequent actions in the eyes of Russian public opinion. The terrorists needed finishing off! (Putin himself publicly used criminal slang to express this idea). Russian troops thus blockaded Chechnya’s borders and began moving into its northern regions. At first these actions met with very little resistance and proceeded with almost no losses. This is understandable–a section of the Russian population had survived in these northern areas. And apart from this, the blockade of the Chechen border was carried out in a rather curious manner: The borders were closed off everywhere except to the south, which was where the Chechens could receive aid, in the form of money, reinforcements and weapons, through Georgia and Azerbaijan. Why was this?

The parliamentary elections were drawing close, and the forces which Putin hoped to rely on in parliament did not need the bitter fighting and the risk of huge losses that would surround attempts to close off the mountain passes. For the same reasons, the storming of Grozny was delayed, and the street fighting that began very inauspiciously was deliberately kept secret from public opinion for quite some time. It was only two days before the election that paratroopers landed in the Argun pass, Chechnya’s main link to the outside world.

So the elections were held, Unity enjoyed a convincing success and Putin’s main potential rival in the presidential elections–Yevgeny Primakov–was pushed out of the race. Then came Yeltsin’s resignation, and the transfer of his powers to Putin. This move was clearly designed to boost Putin’s popularity further by concentrating all the resources of state power in his hands. Now the elections were two months away, and it was unlikely that anyone would be able to stand up to Putin, who had so quickly won the sympathy of the Russian people. And then the war in Chechnya really got going.


The fact that the full might of the government and pro-government mass media was mobilized to support Putin and to discredit his opponents is not unusual for Russian politics. What was somewhat unusual was the almost complete absence of an anticommunist campaign, the extremely harsh attacks on Grigory Yavlinsky and the quite indecent persecution of those who called for a boycott of the elections or encouraged people to vote against all the candidates. However, these features are quite understandable from the point of view of the tasks facing the Putin’s election organizers.

The consideration that Gennady Zyuganov was very unlikely to win was put to good use. In any case, the communist candidate had a fairly solid core of voters which it would have been practically impossible to sway. To ensure victory for Putin in the first round, other priorities were set: First, to achieve a fairly high turn-out, and, second, to take votes away from the candidate for third place (that is, Yavlinsky). Both tasks were successfully carried out. A comparison of the half-empty Moscow polling stations for the presidential elections and the crowded ones at the parliamentary elections may tell us something about how these tasks were carried out. The official figures for the turn-out were similar in both cases. There were other factors working in Putin’s favor which had little to do with the candidate himself or his electoral team. Favorable economic conditions, a concomitant improvement in tax collection, and a reduction in the wages and pension arrears all served to weaken opposition to the Kremlin authorities.

But even in such favorable conditions, Putin’s final result–some 52 percent–was markedly lower than the 63-66 percent predicted, or even the 57 percent accorded him on the eve of the election (they were evidently apprehensive about blatantly exaggerating the results of this poll). In exactly the same way, Gennady Zyuganov’s result–almost 30 percent–was much higher than the 22-23 percent given as the results of opinion polls. Clearly all the major polling agencies were simply acting as instruments for influencing public opinion.

In any event, Putin won–and much more convincingly than Boris Yeltsin had in 1996.


Support for KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov was noticeably down. Moreover, Zyuganov suffered marked losses in a number of regions (in southern Russia) where he usually achieved better results than his opponents. These losses were a consequence of the political and ideological strategy chosen by the KPRF when the party was founded back in 1993. The attempt to use predominantly nationalist rhetoric in seeking to expand its supporter base was a tactical victory but a strategic loss.

All it took was a politician to emerge in the Kremlin who was prepared not only to use the same nationalist slogans but also to take action establishing him as a nationalist head of state in the eyes of the electorate, and many of the opposition’s trump cards were rendered worthless. And the leader of the KPRF did not manage to come up with an attractive alternative socioeconomic policy and persuade the majority of voters that he was capable of reviving the Russian economy.

The other loser–Grigory Yavlinsky–suffered even more palpable losses. Speaking against the continuation of military action in Chechnya when the bulk of Russian society was still in favor of a radical solution to the Chechen problem cost him a lot of votes. Another factor in Yavlinsky’s defeat was the gradual but steady decline in popularity of a politician who supports the strategy of market reforms yet has never assisted in bringing them about, preferring to concentrate on constant criticism of any specific measures the government takes.

The general decline in popularity of liberal ideas also contributed to Yavlinsky’s loss of popularity. It is no coincidence that the Union of Right Forces was unable to put up a joint candidate for the presidency despite its relative success at the parliamentary elections. Of course, the desire of many right-wingers to demonstrate their loyalty to the clear favorite–Putin–also contributed to this. None of the influential right-wing politicians ventured to declare their candidacy. But even if they had, it is unlikely that they could have done better than 5th or 6th place.

The peak of popularity for the Right came at a time when they could claim that they spoke for all the democratic forces. Back then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Right managed to lead the movement for the democratization of Russia, which brought together people with very different convictions. But this united movement soon broke up, and many people with democratic views, unhappy with the practical politics of the Right, stopped supporting them.

Today the Right’s claims that they personify the democratic forces in Russia are simply laughable. Their support for one of the most corrupt administrations in the world (and their own direct involvement in corruption), and their support for the anticonstitutional and antidemocratic measures of the authorities if they felt this was expedient in order to preserve their political influence, did not gain the right-wing politicians any popularity even among those who shared their right-wing views.


The Russian press today is full of speculation about who will head the government under president Putin and who will be in that government.