In Fear and Trembling to the Polls

John Lloyd on Russia’s elections

Liberals and democrats are fearful about next month’s elections in Russia. Their expectation since 1990 – when Boris Yeltsin became leader of Russia’s Parliament – had been that elections would bring administrations and personalities committed in the main to liberal and democratic programmes. That expectation lasted until the results of the December 1993 elections showed the winner to be Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ironically named Liberal Democrats, a party of extreme authoritarian nationalism. In this year’s election, there are no expectations of a Liberal Democrat success. On the contrary, the belief is that a revived Communist Party will capture the largest share of a highly fragmented Parliament and construct a stable majority with other left-wing and nationalist groupings. Most democrats and many of the new business class believe that will be bad; some think it will be very bad; a few think it could be murderous.There is serious talk of expropriations, imprisonments, political assassinations and civil war. The belief that the changes of the late Eighties and early Nineties were irreversible is no longer solid. The fear is palpable.

Russia is a nervous country, with shallow institutions in which no one puts much trust. Their future depends on the answers to three critical questions: will the Communists and nationalists form the majority, or at least the dominant bloc, in the new Parliament? What do they believe in? What, if they do win, will they do with their beliefs? The first would appear to be easily settled. The polls all show the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in first place among the myriad parties and groups contesting the election, with a share as high as 25-30 per cent. No one else has consistently half as much, but the party now approaching 10-12 per cent is the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO), a nationalist grouping co-led by a retired (but youngish) general whose reputation rests largely on his defence of the Russian communities in Moldova.

Other nationalist groups are also expected to poll moderately well. The Liberal Democratic Party has faltered in the past year, and Zhirinovsky’s lustre has faded, but most pre-election pundits expect him to poll something between 5 and 10 per cent. The Derzhava (Power) Party of former vice-president General Alexander Rutskoi, and Vlast Narodu (Power to the People), a party recently formed by Nikolai Ryzhkov, the former Soviet prime minister, may also get about 5 per cent. The Agrarian Party and Women of Russia tend to vote with the Communists. If the rule which stipulates that a party must receive at least 5 per cent of the vote to have any representation is revoked – it is presently under discussion – then a range of smaller and sometimes more extreme nationalists and Communist groups may also gain some representation.

It is thus easy, on the basis of the sums, to arrive at Communist-nationalist scores which top 50 per cent of the Duma. It is possible that a Communist-nationalist dominated opposition to a President with further reformist measures in mind could be over two-thirds – the proportion needed to introduce constitutional amendments. Deputies elected on the party-list system will make up only half of the Duma. The other half will be elected from single-mandate constituencies, and will typically be independents. In the current circumstances, that means they are up for sale – both literally, in that they will sell votes on crucial issues to commercial interests, and ideologically, in that they will tend to gravitate to the influential blocs.

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