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.

Working out what the Communists and nationalists think is much less easy. In the course of a reasonably full and entirely amiable interview in November, Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, ducked every issue of consequence. He said he was for a mixed economy but would not say to what extent or in what sectors he wished to renationalise, or on what terms. He said he was for a parliamentary system (he expressed admiration for Britain’s) but did not say if he would (as logically he should) rip up the existing strong-presidential constitution and start again. He said he was for a renewed union of the former Soviet states, but did not say how he would effect it. Asked if he was rich, he laughed and said that the reformers had promised that the privatisation vouchers issued in 1992 would ultimately be worth the price of two cars; they were now worthless. Asked if he was a Marxist-Leninist, he laughed and replied that Jesus was said to be the first socialist. It was professionally reassuring to note that Russia’s star TV griller, Yevgenny Kiselev, fared no better when he had Zyuganov as a guest on his show, but politically, it was not reassuring at all. Others in the Communist leadership have been less vague. Alexander Shabanov, a deputy described by the Party’s spokesman as the main ideologue and programme drafter, said that in many sectors – transport, communications, wholesale trade were at the top of the list – everything would be renationalised. They would certainly unpick those privatisations which they regarded as criminal. They would exercise state control over banks, including the Central Bank.

Shabanov’s apparent certainty may be no more revealing than Zyuganov’s merry elusiveness. These days in Russia, even the Communist Party, which has formally abandoned democratic centralism, has no control over its members. Zyuganov, who drops in references to chats with Bill Clinton and working agreements with Russian prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin, and who recently went down well when he addressed the Moscow branch of the American Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t want to tie his hands. Even on the stump in his home town of Orel before an audience of the faithful, he is careful to say that he will not abolish private property. He will not have the majority of Duma seats, and is looking to form a coalition which could favour Grigory Yavlinsky’s liberal-centrist Yabloko group and/or the KRO. In any case he means to give as few hostages to fortune as he can manage. The rhetoric, therefore, is all about the poverty and shame of Russia under the present regime – a rich enough field for any populist orator. At present, the main message the Communists have may well be that they have none: they are a party being propelled to power or considerable influence, at least, with a ruined revolutionary ideology but no coherent reformist programme to take its place.

The intentions of the nationalists are no easier to divine. Zhirinovsky has always been quite clear about his extreme lack of clarity, threatening to cover the Baltic States with radioactive dust and then denying he said anything of the sort. He is consistent in his willingness to use force to defend Russians in the former Soviet states, in his dismissal of democracy and his proclaimed intention to establish an authoritarian state, at least for a while. He has also held onto the idea that internationally Russia should revert to its alliances with the radical Middle Eastern states. He is not the most extreme of those in the nationalist arena: to his right, there are overt and militant anti-semitic and fascist groupings around such figures as General Albert Makashov. Zhirinovsky’s anti-semitism is more muted, generally little more than street prejudice. Some commentators are writing him off already – pointing out that he has been unable to deliver anything to his supporters except his antics, scandals and foreign trips. He is certainly unlikely to repeat his success of two years ago, but he is not yet out.

The parties seeking to shift the nationalist mainstream away from Zhirinovsky – Vlast Narodu, Derzhava and above all KRO – have their differences. No more than the democratic groupings can the leading figures of the right wing agree to co-operate with each other. They share with the Communists a belief in state control, in renationalisation, in an anti-Western foreign policy, in a more militant assertion of Russian rights abroad. They pay their nominal respects to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose compromised leadership is in tune with their own generals, former Communist officials and former Marxist intellectuals. General Alexander Lebed, the co-leader of KRO and the most arresting of the nationalist leaders apart from Zhirinovsky, has given some good speeches in the past months. In early summer, when KRO was formed, he told the party’s founding congress that Zhirinovsky was Russia’s shame, that Russia must not be viewed as a threat by its neighbours and that the only cure for Russian ills was hard work. It could have been said by a liberal: indeed, it often has been said by liberals, but has little resonance in their mouths.

Already well liked because, as commander of the Russian 14th Army, he protected the Russian and Ukrainian communities in the Transdnestrian area of Moldova, Lebed became even more popular as a result of his opposition to the war in Chechnya, voiced publicly and uncompromisingly before the intervention and during the conflict itself. Lebed’s position demonstrates at once the strength of the nationalists and the weakness of the former liberals. The nationalists have been able to issue a vague call for national revival based on popular resentment at the precipitate loss of power and authority just before and since the collapse of the Soviet Union: the liberals, whose foreign policy in the years 1991-93 was far too slavish an imitation of the West, especially the US, cannot now recover that lost ground, no matter what they do. The Chechen intervention is partly to be understood as an effort by the Yeltsin Government to claw back its erstwhile nationalist pretensions. And of course it failed. Had he pursued national interests more strongly from the outset, Yeltsin might have faced the challenge of the evil General Dudayev more calmly, and waited until the opposition generated within Chechnya (which was considerable) unseated the General and installed a government with which he might have done business.

It is now a widespread, and probably correct, assumption that the Communists and the nationalists will collaborate after the elections, but in formal terms they should be enemies and in practical terms they may be. They are together because they hate Yeltsin and the democrats who supported him, and because they wish to ride the wave of hostility towards the kind of market which is establishing itself in Russia. The leaders of the nationalist factions are all former senior Communist officials who have been on record over the past four years as opposing ‘wild capitalism’, claiming allegiance to a mixed economy in which the state would play the major role and capitalism would be confined to shops and small enterprises. Rutskoi in particular has long made plain his detestation of most aspects of market behaviour. Lebed claims to support reform, but when questioned, falls back on statist solutions; Ryzhkov, too, is more frankly statist than he was as Gorbachev’s prime minister. None, except perhaps Ryzhkov, has a clue about modern economic practice and none has thought it necessary to learn. They are unlikely to clash with the Communists on the basics of economic policy.

They have different concepts of the nation, however. While the Communists wish to reassemble the Soviet Union, many of the nationalists wish to strengthen Russia by extending the Russian empire. The ending of the Union, now regretted, it seems, on all sides, was at the time welcomed by many because it meant an end to paying for the other republics and, as Russians saw it, deferring to them, giving them higher marks in school and university and tolerating their corruption. The other side of the suppression of nationhood in the Soviet period was, indeed, a massive practice of positive discrimination, especially in education, in order to promote ‘native cadres’. The backlash against it could not be openly expressed as it is in the United States at present, but it certainly assisted Yeltsin in his battle against Gorbachev and it formed one of the main themes of Zhirinovsky’s patter as a Russian growing up in post-war Kazakhstan. For the moment there is more to unite than to divide Communists and nationalists. But they are a fissiparous, suspicious bunch, who have almost as much contempt for each other as for their enemies. Unity will be a large issue if they win; but not the only one. The Constitution, framed by Yeltsin to bolster his power, will impede the Duma: the Presidency is the post to hold. The President can override his Parliamentary opposition, has personal charge of all the Security and Armed Forces and can govern by decree.

To do so, however, the head of state must be a self-confident and energetic figure. Yeltsin is exhausted, has had two heart attacks of unknown severity and is prone to disabling depression. He is famously pneumatic, but his five years of office have seen a steady decline in his powers. Energy and self-confidence are not to be expected. With a simple majority of the 450 seats in the Duma, the Communists and nationalists could block government bills and pass their own; while with two-thirds – not unlikely on their present showing in the polls – they could change the Constitution and impeach the President. Yegor Gaidar, the former prime minister and head of the liberal Russia’s Choice Party, said in an interview that he would expect a Parliament with a reactionary majority to block the budget and other key bills, pass measures designed to stop and reverse privatisation and increase subsidies to the military industries, agriculture and other lobbies on good terms with the Communists and nationalists. Gaidar believes it would also try to declare illegal, or even treasonable, the agreement between the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine in December 1991 to form the Commonwealth of Independent States, and thus destroy the Soviet Union; and it would want to call to account those responsible for the assault on Parliament in October 1993 – the main ‘culprit’ being Yeltsin.

Revenge, in Gaidar’s view, will be as much a guiding principle as any desire to reconstruct the economic or political system. He does not think that there will be a return to what he calls the ‘stable socialism’ of the post-1953, pre-1985 kind, but fears that the efforts to reward friends and punish enemies will quickly exceed civilised limits and begin a spiral of destabilisation. He also said, however – and this was the only optimistic part of his forecast – that it is possible that the natural supporters of the liberals and democrats, the under-forties, and more especially the under-thirties, will turn out to vote as they become more aware of the danger of the Communists emerging as the dominant force.

One of Gaidar’s allies, Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and now head of an economic institute, hearing that I was leaving Russia for London (fortuitously) the day after the elections, said I was wise to do so. When I seemed amused he warned me that I was not taking the matter seriously enough. He said that figures like Gaidar, and the first Deputy Prime Minister, Anatoly Chubais, were in danger of their lives, as were others of their circle and persuasion. Illarionov tends to pessimism but is normally prepared to entertain other possibilities. This time, the best scenario he would endorse was Gaidar’s.

They are not alone in their pessimism. Over the past few weeks, a group of business people and political analysts have held a series of informal meetings with journalists and others, aimed at spreading the idea that the elections should be postponed. The leader of the group is Kakha Bendukidze, the head of the Nipek Corporation – one of the largest financial groups in the country. Bendukidze is a man of great intelligence and force. He used to run a biology laboratory and, like a few of the new business class, he has preserved his academic links – funding political-intellectual seminars, arguing late into the night, pursuing debates through his reading. His obsession appears to be the absence of an honest ethic in Russian business and what he wants above all is a sufficiently long period of stability for a class of responsible property-owners to develop. He believes that the bulk of the population votes in a purely emotional, symbolic fashion and has said repeatedly that it is irresponsible to submit such issues as democracy and market relations to the hazard of an electorate as ignorant and bewildered as the Russian one. Among his supporters are a number of other wealthy businessmen, a few members of the press, of whom the most prominent is Mikhail Leontiev, a columnist on the Sevodnya newspaper, and a couple of Presidential aides. The chairman of the Federal Assembly, or upper house, Vladimir Shumeiko, has also spoken in favour of postponement.

The party leaders, however, with the exception of Irena Khakamada, head of a small liberal group, have recoiled from the idea of postponing the elections, since endorsing it would make them seem to lack confidence. Both the President and the Prime Minister appear committed to the elections. Frequent parallels made with Weimar and the accession of Hitler have so far failed to strike a chord. Bendukidze believes that the country is marching blindly towards a tragedy. He has a further, more particular cause of fear in the form of a controlling interest in Uralmash, the country’s largest heavy engineering plant, an acquisition that the Communists certainly begrudge him. Two of his colleagues are a big Moscow estate agent and the head of an import-export bank – both professions deeply disliked by the likely victors in the elections. To cap it, Bendukidze is a Georgian and the same colleagues are respectively a Tatar and a Ukrainian Jew: they feel vulnerable racially as well as professionally. But their alarm – so far – has not been shared.

Two things will, I think, save Russia from the worst of Gaidar’s or Illarionov’s imaginings. First, consumption: a choice of food, clothing, electronic products and entertainment goods which people still see as fabulous, even where they cannot afford them on a regular basis. A middle-class lifestyle is also appearing – refurbished shops and supermarkets, a boom in package holidays, a range of new publications catering for apolitical and consumerist tastes. This lifestyle, coveted for decades, is now here. It is unequally available, to say the least, but few who have it wish it to disappear.

Second, there is no alternative. The Communists and the nationalists do not merely do obeisance to democracy, the market and the West because they wish to conceal their true intentions, but because they do not know what their true intentions are, and want to rule nothing out. The country is not nearly productive enough to afford the range of social democratic provisions which are common in the West (whether or not the government is social democratic) and to reintroduce state control would impoverish it further. If they do not know that now, they soon will. Too many of the leaders have done well for themselves through corruption or business or both to wish to go all the way down the road they claim to believe in. To cancel the elections would be to confirm the worst fears of the electorate about the corruption and cynicism of their leaders and representatives. Besides, the main opposition parties would then have the advantage, which they would exploit to the hilt, of appealing to the culture of victimhood, which is strong in Russia. Everything is possible, but as this is being written, it seems that the President and Government will allow the elections to continue and hope for the best. Which is the position we must all take.