Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 11

The Candidates Hit the Road

by Gleb Cherkassov

Trips all over Russia have become one of the most common methodsof campaigning in the second stage of Russia’s presidential campaignthis year. In previous election campaigns this method was givena much lower priority: it was thought at the time that centraltelevision would be the candidates’ main campaigning tool, andthat everything else would be of secondary importance. But theelections to the State Duma proved that the opposite was true– that the electoral groups and blocs which paid the most attentionto television campaigning did not receive the results they expected,while candidates who preferred to appeal to the voters directlysucceeded in their efforts. Most of the parties in the first groupwere reformist parties, while those in the second were mostlyopposition groups.

At the beginning of the presidential campaign, Boris Yeltsin’steam tried to learn from all the mistakes made by "Russia’sChoice" in 1993 and "Russia is Our Home" in 1995.The decision was made to devote as much attention as possibleto the candidate’s direct appeal to the voters. Possibly, thisdecision was inspired by the fact that Yegor Gaidar’s and ViktorChernomyrdin’s television-oriented campaigns did not achieve thedesired results, or perhaps it was also because Boris Yeltsinhas always needed to be in close contact with the voting public.

The beginning of Mr. Yeltsin’s political career, when he was thesecretary of the Moscow City CPSU Committee, was marked by visitsto Moscow stores, trips on public transportation, and the like,actions not at all traditional for Communist leaders. Later, wheneverthe political situation in Russia got worse, Boris Yeltsin wouldmake a ritual of "going to the people." In the opinionof many observers, the president craves contact with average citizens.Boris Yeltsin visibly draws confidence from such meetings, whetherthey are with "gawkers" who have simply come to seethe president, his loyal supporters, who want to see their idolwith their own eyes, or "extras" carefully selectedby servile officials. It is no less significant that after thesemeetings, the voters also fall under the almost "hypnotic"influence of the president’s personality. But is difficult tosay just how powerful and prolonged this effect is.

As previously noted, appealing to the people directly is foreignto the Communist party’s tradition. But after the party was removedfrom power in August 1991, supporters of socialist values hadto make some changes in their political behavior. Since television,especially in the first years after Boris Yeltsin came to power,was virtually closed to the Communists, they had to "go tothe people." The leader of the radical Communists, ViktorAnpilov, who, back in the fall of 1991, became the charismaticleader of a certain segment of the population, has done remarkablywell at this. Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the "moderate"Communists, has also had to learn how to deal with the popularmasses, not from his car window, but face to face. One must admitthat he and his comrades have been good students of Boris Yeltsin,as the 1993 and 1995 elections have shown.

And this was while the president himself, in recent years, wasshowing himself in public less and less often, with even theseappearances looking as if they were "stage-managed."

Boris Yeltsin’s first trips through Russia have shown that thepresident has not lost his "common touch," and intendsto shatter the ceremonial stagnation of the last few years. Infour months, the president was able to tour more than 20 regions,in each of which, in addition to his official program, he hadface-to-face discussions with voters. What was special about thepresident’s trip was that he tried to visit those regions wherethe democratic and reformist positions had been seriously weakenedin the parliamentary elections. It’s hard to say how many grayhairs the sudden stops of the presidential motorcade amidst crowdsof voters, the changes in itinerary, and the president’s desireto speak to those who oppose him, have caused in his securitystaff.

In Krasnodar, which is considered a Communist stronghold, thepresident laid a wreath on the War Victims memorial. A group ofpeople stood in the square, shouting out anti-Yeltsin slogans.Suddenly Boris Yeltsin turned and walked toward them. The conversationlasted about five minutes, and after that, the president droveaway. The people he had been talking to later admitted to journaliststhat the president had been able to change their minds a littlebit.

In the course of each trip, the president criticizes those toblame for making life hard for the people (i.e., the people standingright before him), has mercy on those who care for the people,allocates money from his presidential fund for something useful,and, most importantly, asks people what actions they expect fromhim. Boris Yeltsin is making the voters participants in his electioncampaign. The president makes promises, some of which simply can’tbe kept, but he makes them in such a way that it’s clear to thepeople that he wants to keep them. Boris Yeltsin, in essence,is playing the role of "the good Tsar" who is beingdeceived by "the evil boyars." What is most interestingis that it sometimes looks as if he is beginning to believe ithimself.

It cannot be ruled out that Yeltsin’s unexpected and rapid jumpin the polls can, in large part, explained by the fact that thepresident was able to return to his "roots" and vigorouslyrestore his image as the person who speaks for the "commonman."

The campaign schedule of Boris Yeltsin’s main opponent — GennadyZyuganov — cannot be called overly "light" either.Just like the president, Zyuganov is visiting the big cities,where there is not much support for the Communists. But his tripsproduce much less of an effect than Yeltsin’s. It’s hard to saywhy; perhaps it is because the Communist leader’s meetings aremuch more formal and organized in character than the president’s.He scrupulously follows his previously-approved schedule, andany deviation from it is virtually impossible. In every city,Mr. Zyuganov meets with his supporters, sometimes, several times,but these meetings are called different names: in the morning,it is a "meeting with activists," later, a "publicrally," and later, a "speech to the voters," butit is the same people present at all these events.

So far, Gennady Zyuganov has been unable either to become a realpopular leader or to win the support of regional leaders, eachof whom, carefully listening to the challenger, informs him ofhis intention to support Boris Yeltsin and campaign on his behalf.

Gleb Cherkassov is a political correspondent for Segodnya.