Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 5

Yeltsin Fights for Survival

By Gleb Cherkassov

Presidential elections in Russia differ from those in other countries. It is only in Russia that the incumbent president can establish his campaign headquarters on the basis of government structures and appoint the senior deputy prime minister chief of that headquarters. It is only in Russia that the strongest opponents of the incumbent president can establish their campaign organizations on the basis of the country’s supreme legislature while accusing their Kremlin rival of using state structures for his purposes. But one feature makes presidential elections in Russia and the U.S. very much alike. A candidate has to figure out what concerns the public, what people want to hear and what they want him never to say.

Now, when three months separate us from election day, we can only speculate which subjects will become topical, but the recent speeches of the major candidates (Boris Yeltsin, Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Grigory Yavlinsky) permit us to suggest: The collapse of the USSR and possibilities of reintegration, the situation in Chechnya and ways to regulate the conflict, Russia’s economic situation and the problem of delayed wages and pensions, and the struggle against crime and corruption.

The subject of reintegration and Slavic unity has already developed into a topic of pre-election propaganda. In early April President Yeltsin plans to visit Kiev (this visit had been postponed repeatedly.) It is expected that the visit will result in the signing of several very important agreements designed to make relations between Russia and Ukraine more friendly. Recently, President Yeltsin invited his Belarusian counterpart Aleksandr Lukashenko to Moscow. During the meeting both sides demonstrated their willingness to move towards unification. The two presidents went as far as to forgive the two countries debts to each other. In this, Russia lost much more than she gained.

Communist party (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov is determined to keep pace with his rival. He met with Lukashenko who openly demonstrated his sympathy towards Zyuganov. Another opposition leader, State Duma Deputy Chairman Sergei Baburin, suggested that the Duma adopt a resolution confirming the legal force of the 1991 referendum on the question of preserving the USSR. In addition, Mr. Baburin suggested that amendments be introduced to the Russian Citizenship Law making it possible for those who were USSR citizens and have not accepted citizenship in the new independent state where they reside to be granted Russian citizenship.

Here it is necessary to note that the overwhelming majority of the Russian citizens who live outside Russia are prone to sympathize with the opposition and have traditionally backed the LDPR or the Communists in the elections.

The fact that the presidential candidates have taken up the subject of the collapsed USSR is no surprise. The events of the fall and winter of 1991 remain painful for the overwhelming majority of Russian people. One should not be misled by the fact that this subject did not play an important role in the 1993 and 1995 State Duma elections. In 1993 the attention of the electorate was focused on the new constitution and the September-October events in Moscow. In 1995 the overabundance of election blocs made a topic-oriented election campaign virtually impossible. The most important concern of the various blocs and movements was to call themselves to the attention of the voters.

As far as the question of the former USSR is concerned, the position of Yeltsin is weak compared to that of his opponents. Boris Yeltsin was a signer of the Belovezhsky Treaty which dissolved the USSR and for this, he will not be forgiven either by his opponents or his former supporters. The Communists also bear part of the "guilt." They were an important part of the former Supreme Soviet which approved the Treaty and they refused to merge with the Communist parties of the CIS states. It cannot be ruled out that Vladimir Zhirinovsky will seek to take advantage of this weak point of Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov. Zhirinovsky is a fervent advocate of unification of all the former USSR republic under Russia’s auspices.

The Chechen war has strongly undermined Boris Yeltsin’s position and deprived him of the support of many democrats. At the same time, the failures of the federal troops and their lack of decisiveness during military operations have aroused discontent among the advocates of forceful methods.

Boris Yeltsin has admitted that he cannot expect to win the election if he fails to resolve the Chechen problem. However, the president cannot simply pull the troops out of Chechnya lest he be accused of betraying Russia’s interests and contributing to the country’s collapse. One must also not forget that Chechen militants may make a costly attack on the positions of federal troops or make a foray into a Russian city (in the style of Basaev and Raduev) on the eve of the elections which would seriously hurt Boris Yeltsin’s position. At this moment the president is feverishly looking for a way out of this predicament. It cannot be ruled out that he might agree on talks with representatives of the separatists and sign a cease-fire agreement insisting that Chechnya remain part of the Russian Federation. If the president manages somehow to establish peace in the North Caucasus, this will be a strong trump card for him in the election campaign.

The opposition enjoys a free hand in criticizing the activities of the authorities in the North Caucasus. However, neither the KPRF nor Vladimir Zhirinovsky have so far advanced a trustworthy plan for resolving the crisis.

Russia’s economic situation may also be regarded as one of Boris Yeltsin’s weak points. The majority of the public do not believe (or almost do not believe) that the incumbent president can achieve any improvement in the economic situation or take effective measures to improve people’s standard of living. The most painful issue is the delay in the payment of wages and pensions: In a number of regions and branches of industry it is only now that employees are being paid wages due them in the fall of 1995. However, it would be improper to blame this only on the president or the government: Very often the money (allocated by the center) does not come to the people due to the arbitrariness of local bureaucrats or directors of large enterprises. Nevertheless, the general public is prone to blame it all on Boris Yeltsin.

The president is trying hard to have the situation improved. He acts simultaneously in two directions: Looking for sources of additional funding and for those guilty of the delays. A number of officials have already been punished. Boris Yeltsin is trying to convince the people that the worst times are already over and an economic rise will begin soon. But since he has said this before, many people regard such statements as a propaganda trick.

Nevertheless, one should not conclude that the Russian people have completely and irrevocably ceased to support economic reforms. The opposition does not openly advertise the advantages of socialist economics or propagandize against a free market. Too many people have already benefited somehow from the economic reforms and are not going to forfeit these gains for the sake of the rather questionable delights of developed socialism. The Communists are forced to assure the public that they would never abolish free market mechanisms nor private property, but would only change the course of reform so that the reforms will serve people’s needs.

It is Grigory Yavlinsky who can play the "economic crisis" card. He has the reputation of a man who can ensure an economic rise. Mr. Yavlinsky has not publicly announced his plan of leading the country out of her economic depression yet, and many analysts express doubt that he has one. But Yavlinsky’s image is positively affected by the fact that he was a coauthor of the economic reform model implemented in the Nizhni Novgorod region: It is believed that reforms in this region have proceeded faster and the people have already benefited from them.

It has so far been the opposition which has initiated the verbal battles, forcing Yeltsin to defend himself. In all likelihood, one of the tasks of the president’s campaign will be to shift the ground of public discussion so that neither the Communists nor Yavlinsky nor Zhirinovsky will be able to show themselves to advantage.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky

Gleb Cherkassov is a commentator for Segodnya