Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 7

Yeltsin’s Penchant for Self-Destruction

by Dmitri Glinski

The Russian presidential elections have not started yet. It will be only in late April that the Election Commission will draw the final list of actual contenders. An ever-growing crowd of hopefuls, from well-known to most obscure, are busy collecting one million signatures required for each of them to be put on the ballot. Yet amid this whole mess, persistent signals unequivocally indicate that the Yeltsin era (at least in its present, semi-democratic form) is drawing to an end.

The Russian president’s low approval ratings in the polls are not yet his major problem. With the support of a politically mobilized and cohesive minority, or a well-functioning political machine, he could easily tip the scales in his favor. The really bad news for him is that he has neither a stable social base nor a reliable political organization, nor even a sound electoral strategy.

1. The district-level results of December parliamentary elections suggest that pro-Yeltsin parties and groups (as well as liberals and freemarketeers in general) have lost heavily in terms of voter support in many of their traditional urban strongholds, among the better educated and economically mobile. As conceded by a senior Kremlin adviser recently in Washington, this evidence was strategically the most disturbing for "the party of power." The only democratic slate that was able to keep or even broaden its electoral support, Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko, did so by portraying itself as in irreconcilable opposition on every major issue, such as economic policies, presidential powers and the Chechnya war. Ironically, the major pro-Yeltsin party, Viktor Chernomyrdin’s "Russia is Our Home," finished first in a few most conservative regions (such as Tatarstan and Tuva), where patron-client networks still serve as dependable "transmission belts" of political mobilization. That part of the liberal intelligentsia which initially supported Yeltsin has fragmented and lost its social status; the emerging tiny layer of entrepreneurs is either neutral or blaming Yeltsin himself for the lawlessness and criminalization of the state. Outside of Moscow, St. Petersburg and his native Yekaterinburg, Yeltsin in his pursuit of votes, has to rely mostly upon the manipulative power of the regional and local bureaucracy, which is itself fractured. These bureacrats are at their best passively obedient, and at their worst, playing a double game.

2. Yeltsin’s efforts at coalition-building have been led astray by ideological phantoms. Recently, he declared that all "democrats" will have to vote for him, since they have no other choice. Meanwhile, one wonders whether the label "democrat" in the current Russian context carries any specific meaning at all. There is hardly a single substantive issue which could bring under a single umbrella an advocate of the Chechnya war, such as Boris Fedorov, with Sergei Kovalyev, or a "shock therapist" like Yegor Gaidar with a democratic socialist and proponent of workers’ self-management Svyatoslav Fedorov. Indeed, the bipolar distinction between "democrats" and "the rest" looks desperately outdated, as the democratic left successfully cooperates with the Communists in the new Duma, while the militant nationalist fringe issues embarrassing endorsements of Yeltsin’s presidential bid. This latter rapprochement, intended more to raise the rightists’ own profile rather than to assist Yeltsin, actually helps to destroy both, as more democrats desert Yeltsin’s camp and more nationalists are perceived by voters as a masqueraded part of the same political establishment. (Of this latter, the poor showings by Yeltsin-friendly nationalists in the December elections were a clear signal.)

3. Worse than that, in Yeltsin’s camp there is a vacuum of strategic ideas and goals except for one: staying in power. His erratic evolution away from liberalism over the past two years has destroyed his previous political identity, without providing an equally convincing replacement. His obsession with personnel policies is grounded upon a belief that the voters’ choice is entirely about personal charisma, not about real life issues. He recently opined that an earlier dismissal of Deputy Premier Anatoly Chubais would have added 10 percent more votes to the governmental party, "Russia is Our Home." Some observers joked afterwards that the latter would have probably won a landslide victory, had only Yeltsin himself promised to resign.

As a result, nobody can figure out anymore Yeltsin’s real agenda. The only thing which remains unchanging is Yeltsin’s clear-cut division of the world into "us" and "them." Therefore, instead of trying to build consensus from a clearly defined position, he has borrowed almost every slogan from his opponents (from economic dirigism to the resurrection of the Soviet Union), while depicting his opponents as intrinsically evil.

This tactic of personal confrontation is driving him further into a blind alley. Playing "red scare" does not help advance Yeltsin’s cause — still worse, in the Russian cultural context it produces a boomerang effect. Yeltsin and his advisers seem to have a poor grasp of their own people’s mentality, just as they consistently fail to draw lessons from most recent history. They have apparently forgotten how the "negative advertisement" by the Soviet establishment helped Yeltsin himself acquire the stature of a national hero. The Russian "silent majority" is now driven more than ever by this same mistrust of the elite and empathy for underdogs which shaped the Yeltsin myth in 1987-88.

Today, Yeltsin’s own scaremongering, exemplified by his post-election comments and echoed by the slavishly loyal media, have helped to magnify the Zyuganov phenomenon, by transforming an uninspiring and cautiously balancing party functionary to the national leader of anti-system forces. Perhaps, if the regime’s reaction to the easily predictable Communist gains in the parliamentary elections would have been cooldblooded and better calculated, we would now see several pro-Communist candidates competing for the same electorate. Yeltsin’s obvious panicking, his confrontational rhetoric coupled with the hasty dismantling of his liberal team, helped cement the ranks and organizational structures of the left around Zyuganov. By now he has garnered endorsements from five large parties (including his own KPRF), whose combined showing in the December parliamentary elections totaled 35 percent. With this starting capital, which is likely to grow as more opposition groups jump on the bandwagon, Zyuganov is already towering way above the rest of the vote-seeking crowd.

In the final analysis, the Communists should be grateful to Yeltsin, since his candidacy makes their whole job a lot easier. By staying out of the race, he could have used his resources to fuel the campaign of more viable presidential hopefuls, better equipped to defend the interests of the ruling elite. His decision to run has precluded the appearance of moderate candidates from within the establishment who could define themselves by distancing themselves from the most controversial legacies of Yeltsin’s rule. This has imposed rather severe constraints on the maneuverability of the ruling elite as a whole. More specifically, the present shape of Russian "capitalism"– with its enormous space for backroom arrangements between semi-private monopolies and the Kremlin court — is entirely dependent upon Yeltsin’s continuing in power, and some of today’s financial and trade empires may collapse overnight after he quits the stage. What is much worse, abusive invocations of "democracy" and "reforms" by Yeltsinists have become, to a large extent, an element of a purely partisan ideological code, and, therefore, are inevitably (even though erroneously) associated by many Russians with the present regime and its specific interests. As a result, a wide range of systemic issues, including the entire post-Soviet distribution of power and economic resources within society, are inextricably linked with Yeltsin’s individual political fate. Following traditional patterns of Russian political culture, the most basic principles of post-1991 social organization have become personalized — and it is precisely Yeltsin’s personality that makes these principles less and less defensible in the public debate.

As of early March, it appeared that Zyuganov and Yeltsin are most likely to get through the first round, leaving the rest of contenders far behind. Indeed, all other presidential hopefuls have much narrower audiences in Russian society. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s electoral support has declined twofold over the last two years, as his outsider’s image has eroded, and his nationalist rhetoric has been smoothly incorporated into the mainstream political discourse. Retired Gen. Lieut. Aleksandr Lebed, a recent hope of "enlightened nationalists," has no organizational resources to speak of, and his long record of tortuous relationships with kingmakers behind the scene (from Yuri Skokov to Gennady Burbulis) casts widespread doubts upon his ability to play an independent political role. Besides, he has already publicly agreed to join Zyuganov’s cabinet, which virtually precludes his emergence as a "third force."

On the flank of the democratic left, prospects for a strong challenger to Zyuganov and Yeltsin are only marginally better. Grigory Yavlinsky, who carried the banner of the democratic opposition into a solid fourth place in the Duma elections (and was the only one except for the Communists to broaden his electorate over the past two years), has spent these months erratically maneuvering between KPRF and the democratic mainstream, and was finally forced to take a defensive posture against the media accusations of courting Communists. His Yabloko party is incohesive and virtually nonexistent below the level of the parliamentary faction, and the liberal intelligentsia’s loss of credibility and prestige in Russia makes it difficult for Yavlinsky to attract other social groups. Even within the social-reformist part of the political spectrum, he will have to compete for the votes with widely known eye surgeon and entrepreneur Svyatoslav Fyodorov, whose Party of Workers’ Self-Rule is both better structured and ideologically more transparent than the amorphous Yabloko.

In the light of all this, the real stake for these four candidates is not getting into the runoff, but rather winning a honorable third place. Their relative showings will largely define the direction of rhetoric and alliance-building for the second round of the voting. If the third place goes to Zhirinovsky or Lebed, it is likely that the fight in the runoff will be focused upon nationalist issues. If either Yavlinsky or Fyodorov surges to third place, the social democratic flank will acquire more prominence. In any case, out of these four only Zhirinovsky is expected to back Yeltsin after the first round — and even his personal endorsement will hardly lead to a disciplined transfer of all his votes to Yeltsin. As of early March, it looked like nothing short of an emergency crisis, a mass-scale electoral fraud or a terrorist bullet will prevent the leaders of the Communist party from repossessing the Kremlin, this time in a remarkably peaceful way and by a democratic procedure.

Dmitri Glinski is a Moscow based staff member of the Jamestown Foundation.