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In Russia, It's Not So Much Who Wins as How You Vote

THE elderly man at polling station 597 on the outskirts of Moscow was distraught. Confronted by two long ballots of parties and individual candidates to parliament, he could not remember the names he had carefully decided to vote for.

Facing much pleading and despair, the precinct chairman rolled his eyes and let the man hobble out and return 20 minutes later, much calmer, with his ballots marked.

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This scene in some ways captured the character of the first fully constitutional parliamentary election in Russia since 1912. The violations of election niceties were mostly benign, and voters were fairly determined.

Never mind the results - that the winning Communists and radical nationalists hold ambiguous attitudes toward democracy. The Russian election Dec. 17 showed that the habits of democracy are quickly taking root.

Even Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, widely expected to be sacrificed by Yeltsin as a result of the elections, noted the milestone: "Elections in Russia became regular. They became a rule rather than the exception."

The clearest signal was voter turnout. In this ballot, Russians voted at a higher rate - more than 65 percent - than Americans did in their last presidential elections, when US voter turnouts are usually highest.

"That signals that somehow democratic standards, behaviors, and values are taking root here," says Gerd Dieter Bossen, head of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation's Moscow office.

In the Soviet era, voting for deputies to the Supreme Soviet typically produced nearly 99 percent official turnout. But until the late 1980s, Soviets had only one candidate to vote for or cross out. Voting did not involve choice.

This year, voting involved mega-choice - 43 parties, blocs, and movements on one ballot and up to 24 individual candidates on another.

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The quality of the election process is likely to gain Russia admittance into the Council of Europe in 1996, according to Western diplomats.

"It was a very impressive election in terms of quality," says Michael Emerson, the European Union's ambassador to Russia.

Some striking exceptions marred the elections, most notably in the rebel southern republic of Chechnya, where elections were held under war conditions and could not be monitored. But Chechnya amounts to less than half a percent of the potential vote in Russia and could not noticeably affect the outcome.

The future of democracy in Russia, of course, also depends on who Russians vote for. But the Communists, runaway election winners with about 21 percent of the vote, have been more concerned with getting stronger state control of the economy than with political procedures. And unlike during the one-party Soviet era, the Communists now officially accept multiparty democracy.

It is ironic that the Communist Party is also more democratic in its internal politics than others that may be dominated by a single personality. Many reformers this year wanted to change election laws - even postpone the vote - as it grew clear they would not win the votes for party representation in parliament.

Yet Grigory Yavlinsky, now the leading democratic reform politician in Russia, asked publicly last week if the Communist use of democratic procedures to come to power is just a tactical maneuver "which after it has been used will be replaced by something else."

Like voters everywhere, Russians vote most often according to the direction the country is taking their own lives. The cleaning woman at polling station 597, her dress safety-pinned together where buttons used to be, silently sobbed in spite of herself on a bench last Sunday night as late voters straggled in.

She had been the first voter to cast a ballot that morning, then worked there all day. She was never a Communist during the Soviet years, she said, but she voted for the Communist Party that day.

She recalled how she retired in 1980 with a good pension and 10,000 rubles in savings, enough to buy a car. But inflation devoured both, so now she is back at work and the 10,000 rubles will buy five loaves of bread.

But what drove her into tears was recalling her youth in Smolensk until she was captured by Nazis, her three years in a German prison camp, and her difficult journey since. "Nothing good has come of my life," she said.

This is the core of Communist support in this election - people who have lost personal security and national prestige.

Yulia Antonova, a young mother and recent university graduate, is also not comfortable with much of Russian life. But she voted for the bloc of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, President Yeltsin's closest ally, because she seeks stability. "I don't know what's going to happen if someone else gets in."

But voters like her were outnumbered by those voting Communist or for ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. One explanation: Those most angry about the direction of that the country is taking are older voters. And here, as everywhere, older voters show up at the polls far more reliably than the young.

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