Yeltsin Win Cements Era of Reform
Communism routed in election that sets democracy in Russia
The ballot boxes into which residents of this woodsy little town outside Moscow cast their votes for president Wednesday were sitting back to front. On the side turned discreetly toward the wall was an emblem that once was displayed in full view - the hammer and sickle of Soviet Communism.
"Relics of a previous era," smiled an election observer from the local administration.
The convincing victory of President Boris Yeltsin over his Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov in Russia's elections, Mr. Yeltsin's supporters say, hammers the last nail into the coffin of Russian communism as the country finally turns the corner toward some form of consensus politics.
"Democracy in Russia has won forever," declared Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin yesterday. "We have chosen our path."
"As far as Communist ideology is concerned, its egalitarian approach to [wealth] distribution, this was its last gasp," argued Emil Pain, a Yeltsin adviser.
Even diehard Communists, such as Anatoly Lukyanov, jailed for his role in the 1991 putsch attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, acknowledge that there is now no turning back from reforms, even if Yeltsin advocates "Russian reforms, rather than reforms according to the Western model."
The second round of Russia's presidential election became a choice, in most voters' minds, between turning back toward the stability and security of the old Soviet system, however shabby, and plowing ahead with reforms, however corrupt and chaotic.
Russians were deeply split. Even though Yeltsin won by a clear 13 percent margin over Mr. Zyuganov, 54 percent to 31 percent, the Communist leader still garnered a considerable portion of the vote.
"I hope that never again will we have the same situation in our country" of an election pitting two systems against each other, not just two candidates challenging each other for the right to run the system, Mr. Chernomyrdin said.
"This was Russia's last vote about communism and reform," argues Michael McFaul, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center. "Forty-five percent of the people who voted for Yeltsin would rather have chosen somebody else, but they chose to go forward rather than backward."
Supporters of both communism and free-market economic reform, however, played their part at these elections in establishing roots for democratic methods and habits in a country where democracy has been unknown. Turnout Wednesday was 67 percent - far higher than in American presidential elections - and voters were convinced that their votes mattered.
"The main point is that these elections show that ordinary people are concerned about making our lives better," said Natasha Davidov, a wife and mother, as she voted here.
"It seems to me that that today the Russian people are making a real choice," added Alexander Truganov, a student.
How faithfully Boris Yeltsin will reflect this emerging democratic mind-set during his second term of office, however, is unclear. He has showed little regard for democratic niceties in Chechnya, where his government has waged a brutal and unpopular war against separatists that has killed more than 30,000 people, mostly civilians, in the past 18 months.
Nor did the Kremlin abide by normal democratic standards in its conduct of Yeltsin's election. It ordered state employees to do campaign work, obliged Moscow shopkeepers to display pro-Yeltsin posters, and kept an iron grip on the media, especially on television broadcasts, which slavishly followed the official line.
The president also has disappointed his early allies on economic reform, slowing the pace of market reforms and apparently reconsidering how much influence the state should give up.
In many respects - in his more vigorously nationalistic rhetoric, for example - Yeltsin has moved toward his opponents in recent months. "Ideologically, Boris Nikolayevich has accepted a lot of our concepts," said close Zyuganov aide Alexei Podberyozkin on election night. "We have made him take state patriotic positions into account."
Certainly Yeltsin and his new security chief, Alexander Lebed, have abandoned the sort of economic recipes that were adopted in the first days of reform. "All the major players are [in] the same ballpark," says Stephen Cohen, a Russian affairs analyst at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. "They all believe the state has to have a bigger role."
At the same time, the wave of dismissals that has recently washed over the Kremlin - the Defense Ministry, the KGB's successor agency, and the presidential security force are all being run by temporary stand-ins - and the president's evidently fragile health (he disappeared for the last week of the campaign), have left observers worrying about a vacuum at the pinnacle of power.
Besides Chernomyrdin, the most visible figure in the past few days has been General Lebed, Yeltsin's new Security Council secretary. He has been making increasingly blunt efforts to expand his influence beyond the battle against crime and corruption for which he was recruited to the presidential team.
Lebed - a former Soviet Army general who relishes his tough guy image - has shown few signs of harboring democratic instincts. There is a danger, warns Professor Cohen, that although "there is no going back to the Soviet system, this election has by no means closed the door to some form of Russian authoritarianism," which has a long history.
Even if communism fades from the picture after these elections, Mr. McFaul suggests, the lack of organized political parties in Russia could open the way to unpredictable leaders.
The Communists themselves, meanwhile, insist that they have a bright future because, they say, economic reforms are hurting more and more Russians.
"Where the contradictions between a handful of rich and an ocean of poor deepen, there is always the basis for a socialist and communist movement," argues Mr. Lukyanov, a senior figure in the Communist Party.
Yeltsin supporters, on the other hand, base their view of the future on the opposite assumption that as economic reforms take hold more widely throughout the country, more people will benefit from them, believe in them, and vote for them.
The election results, showing Zyuganov's support heavily concentrated in the rural south, illustrate how "the new economy and new jobs are important for the support of reforms," says Dmitri Oreshekin, an analyst at the Central Electoral Commission.
Ivan Filipov, manager of a trading firm and a clear beneficiary of the new economy, put it bluntly as he cast his ballot in a Moscow suburb.
"In four years, nobody will remember who the Communists are," he scoffed. "This was their last chance."
More likely, perhaps, as presidential adviser Pain predicts, today's Communists will drift in different directions - some toward hard-line Marxism-Leninism, others toward more straightforward nationalism or European-style social democracy.
Then, if Yeltsin continues to steer Russia down the less-Western-oriented course that he already has begun to chart, Cohen suggests, "the Communists will have to come into the house, rather than throw rocks through the window."