How low are Western governments ready to stoop to keep “our czar” on the Moscow throne, and can Boris Yeltsin really be re-elected? These questions spring to mind–as Russia’s crucial electoral campaign gets into full swing. Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the reformed Communist Party and tipped as the most likely winner, claims that “the powers of the present president are the equivalent of those of the czar and the general secretary combined.” This is an exaggeration. But without genuine checks and balances, the prerogatives of the Russian president are, at least on paper, incomparably greater than those of his American or French counterparts.

They were not so wide when Yeltsin was elected five years ago. They were reshaped in 1993, after the shelling and storming of Parliament, when a Constitution made to measure was endorsed through a referendum (with the figures actually twisted to insure a quorum). At the time, Western commentators were unperturbed by this revival of authoritarian rule: A strong hand was needed to drag Russia to the market, and democratic niceties could be sacrificed on the altar of capitalist construction. The snag, from that point of view, was that the system was still too democratic, since ultimately the czar had to face the verdict of the people. That day of reckoning-June 16-now looms perilously on the horizon.

It is perilous for Russia’s rulers and for their Western backers because the people failed to conform to expectations. Faced with the collapse of production, the cancer of corruption, the yawning gap between rich and poor, their real incomes slashed and their savings wiped out by galloping inflation,,the ungrateful creatures did not ask for more of the same medicine. Indeed, the striking feature of the parliamentary elections last December was the overwhelming rejection of the politicians connected with the so-called shock therapy prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and practiced for the past four years [see Katrina vanden Heuvel, “Russia versus Yeltsin,” January 29]. The odds are that they will vote in June in the same fashion. Not only is Zyuganov well ahead of the pack in all opinion polls, which show him capturing between 15 and 25 percent of the vote, but Yeltsin is quite often last in a bunch of four that hovers around 10 percent and includes Grigory Yavlinsky, the free trader critical of the regime; Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the wolf undisguised in “Liberal Democratic” clothing; and Aleksandr Lebed, the general hankering after Soviet grandeur. Thus ”our man” is not even sure of being one of the two contenders who will fight it out on June 30, if, as seems likely, nobody gains an absolute majority two weeks earlier.

Worn out by alcohol and two recent bouts of heart trouble, Yeltsin, 65, is entitled to a pension. He chooses to soldier on, presumably driven by personal ambition and certainly prompted by his shifting camarilla, led at this point by Gen. Aleksandr Korzhakov, his tennis partner and head of the presidential security guard. For this gang of courtiers with power and no responsibility, known as the “collective Rasputin,” political defeat spells judicial proceedings and the prospect of prison. Were they-now to discover that the mighty machine of the state, the backing of the banks and tighter control over the media (because the, second channel of state television had not been as subservient as the first, its head, Oleg Poptsov, was just kicked out of his job) are not enough to produce a “miracle” at the polls, they might be tempted to put off the whole exercise altogether. The December 1994 invasion of Chechnya was even then perceived as an attempt at diversion; this bloody war could now provide the pretext for a putsch and the introduction of martial law. The suspense will survive till the very end. We are watching an electoral campaign that may not be allowed to run its full course. Yet even today we get a revealing glimpse of the regime and its ruler, of the Western backers who mean profits when they say democracy, of Russian society, both awakened and bewildered by the shocks, which knows what it rejects but is still barely groping toward a different future.

Yeltsin, described by his outgoing press secretary as having only one passion–power–is true to himself in this contest. The party boss from Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), who gained fame under Gorbachev as the scourge of the privileged and once in power became the darling of the yuppies, is no man “to go to the bottom with his principles around his neck.” One cannot help feeling a sneaking admiration for the chutzpah of his electoral platform. He claims credit for the extension of Gorbachev’s glasnost. He also demands gratitude for laying the rather vague “foundations of a market economy.” But for the terrible cost of that transformation, he puts the blame on undefined “reformers” or on a government “that has failed to carry out the tasks in the sphere of social policy.” Yeltsin admits to some errors over Chechnya, only this and nothing more. And, since the Communist Party did well pleading for the victims, he decided to steal its clothes. He now says justice must be rendered “first and foremost to the weak and the underprivileged. This is our main objective for the next five years” (next three months, correct the wits). To revive the legend of the good czar betrayed by bad servants, Yeltsin inaugurated the year with a couple of symbolic substitutions: the replacement of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, known as the Western stooge, with the crafty survivor Yevgeny Primakov; and the appointment of Vladimir Kadannikoy the down-to-earth boss of AvtoVaz, Russia’s main car producer, as First Deputy Prime Minister and financial overlord of the economy in place of Anatoly Chubais, the hero–if one may say so–of privatization.

This move was greeted by Western diplomats and commentators as a provocation. When Russia’s Parliament was shelled, they watched unperturbed. When Yeltsin invaded Chechnya, they advised him to finish the job quickly and, when he failed to do so, put up with the massacres. But the removal of Chubais, the last prominent shock therapist, proved too much for them. The U.S. papers, in particular, urged Secretary of State Warren Christopher to teach Primakov a lesson and prompted the masters of international finance to remind Boris that he who pays the piper…. For a spell one almost felt like coming to Yeltsin’s rescue. After all, to pay wages long overdue, even if it spoils the inflation record, is not criminal. No rule stipulates that Russia’s foreign secretary must believe that what is good for General Motors is good for his country and, if you are a Russian, to have misgivings about the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe is not entirely absurd. Last but not least, why should it be forbidden to remove from office a man associated with what many people think is the greatest robbery of the century, Russia’s privatization, especially since its latest phase, the shares-for-loans scheme, involving the transfer to friendly banks of Russian blue chips (like Norilsk Nickel and the oil company Yukos) for peanuts, is described even by the Western sympathizers of Chubais as biased and murky?

The critical lashing did not last, however. Western embassies quickly reverted to their dubious conviction that Yeltsin is our best card to keep Russia safe for capitalism. President Clinton begged international bodies to help. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl traveled to Moscow to express his warmest support. The Council of Europe endorsed Russian membership as if the Chechnya war were a human rights campaign. Then Michael Camdessus, managing director of the I.M.F., brought to Moscow a loan bigger than expected ($10.2 billion for three years, $4 billion for 1996); no effort was made to conceal that this was a campaign contribution.

The West is banking that Yeltsin will fool his compatriots and not the moneylenders. But it is far from certain that he can fool the Russians once again. The shifting of blame is too obvious, the discovery of the social conscience too sudden; and the Western connection may prove a boomerang. The hated economic policy is perceived by the Russians as imposed from abroad. Describing the shock therapists as the only “democrats,” official propaganda has turned that term into a dirty word. This is why it is silly to suggest that Yavlinsky the “reformer” should join hands with Yeltsin and other “democrats.” If he does, he will share guilt by association and lose the support he has. It is also the reason the reformed Communists are doing well. For a while they toyed with the idea of putting up an outsider, say Yavlinsky, as a joint candidate. The deal, which would have involved a drastic reduction of presidential powers to the benefit of the Duma, the lower house in which the Communists and their allies have a virtual majority, did not come off. While opting for their own leader-Zyuganov, not a charismatic figure but gaining in stature-the Communists are trying hard to broaden their coalition.

With presidential manifestos still unpublished, the positions can only be defined roughly. The Communists say they are for the market and not against privatization, which will have to be reversed where it has led to a sharp drop in output or has involved serious fraud (part of the broader campaign against corruption). Claiming no fetishism about forms of property, they want to subsidize state firms that are potentially viable; the key now is to boost production. Their opponents retort: Behind this smokescreen they wish to restore the past. The Yeltsinites want to keep on privatizing, but now talk also about correcting “abuses.” They promise to stick to the inflation-fighting agenda of the I.M.F. but also to pay workers back wages and distribute payments all over. They don’t say how they will cope with this contradiction or why voters should trust their words rather than their record. Yavlinsky tells the electorate to reject the distant and the recent past, and vote for him against the “two evils.” He and Lebed have a handicap: They possess neither Yeltsin’s machinery of state nor the party organization of the Communists. Excepting Zhirinovsky and Yeltsin, all the candidates are in principle in favor of a negotiated settlement in Chechnya. Yeltsin, surrounded by warmongers, claims he has “no intention of conceding to a deal with bandits” and seems close to Zhirinovsky in wanting to wipe the Chechens out.

Three months are an eternity in politics, but at this stage it is safer to bet on Zyuganov than on Yeltsin. One should not conclude from this, with awe or with glee, that the ghost of Communism is now haunting Russia. This has nothing to do with Marx–or with Lenin, for that matter. The Russians, too, rejected “really existing socialism,” and they are not dreaming now of long lines or the gulag. Instead of the promised capitalist cornucopia, they were shown dazzling goods beyond their purse and a revolting gap between haves and have-nots, the two-tier pattern of the Third World that the international financial establishment is trying to spread across the planet. The Russians did not like it and the Communists have surfed to success on the tide of discontent. But they, too, give the impression of not knowing where they are heading. In their parliamentary platform they lumped together as villains Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Trotsky and Stalin (whom they defend on other occasions), picking as heroes Gagarin, the cosmonaut, and Stakhanov, the notorious record-breaking worker from the thirties. When Zyuganov tells business executives in Davos that he favors a mixed economy, it is not only to please his foreign audience but his own mixed electorate. While the bulk of his support is provided by angry workers and desperate pensioners, it also includes the managers keen to control as capitalists the factories they used to run as members of the nomenklatura.

This is not a clear-cut fight between reactionaries and progressives, capitalists and proletarians. If Yeltsin is surrounded by scoundrels, this does not turn the reformed Communists into angels. Some of their party or nationalist allies you would not want to touch with a barge pole. The editorialist of Pravda insisting that the late Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was a Jewish, not a Russian, poet is a good recent example. Propagandists who seize on such features to vituperate against “reds and browns” are much more discreet about the fact that the xenophobic Zhirinovsky is now Yeltsin’s chief ally not only on Chechnya but on, say, the election of the speaker in the Duma.

The dividing lines in this election are blurred because the struggle for power so far has been fought mainly at the top, among the privileged, between the financial lobby around Yeltsin trying to rob property and the managers clinging to it. This does not mean that the unprivileged have not been involved. Just last month the miners and schoolteachers went on strike to defend their vanishing pay packets. But up to now the working people have not been able to broaden their narrow interests into the wider context of a changing society. This is not surprising. Russia is in the throes of a deep upheaval. Nominally 70 percent of all property has been privatized, but the process is really very far from complete. Indeed, the restructuring, with the resulting unemployment, has barely begun; the Yeltsinites are fibbing when they claim that the worst is over. In this society in flux, many have not been able yet to grasp their real interests and find an adequate political expression. The confusion is well illustrated by the presence, at the beginning of March, of some sixty contenders in the starting blocks of the presidential stakes. More may still join, though others, including probably Mikhail Gorbachev, will drop out before the start of the race.

From this confusion the pessimists draw the conclusion that, with the shock therapists now doing to democracy what the Stalinists did to socialism, the poor Russians will never find their bearings. The optimists reply that, on the contrary, the Russians are learning and learning fast. They have grasped the true nature of “really existing capitalism” much earlier than one could have expected four years ago, when Yeltsin’s youthful and cocky lieutenants began to preach and practice the monetarist gospel. If Yeltsin and his clique win and tighten the financial screws once the election is over, the risks of a bloody explosion are high. If the other side, dominated by the Communists, takes over, social tensions will be relaxed for a while and the threat of an outburst postponed. Yet it is only in office that the Communists and their allies will show whether they represent a true alternative policy or mere palliatives.

Above all, Russia needs time. Time to disentangle the socialist idea from its old association with the gulag, and time to shed the new Stalinist nostalgia. Time for classes to crystallize their interests; for parties to produce programs, for people to express their real preferences. In short, time for the country to emerge from the present period of politics from above. It is idle to expect Western governments will struggle abroad so that people there can take power into their own hands. (It is also difficult to see why an American President would prefer a so-called reformer presiding over a Russia tom apart, and hence explosive, over an alleged “Communist” who, with greater protectionism and state control, promises a slower road to capitalism.) Yet since our rulers do pay so much lip service to democracy, they may be requested to respect its rudiments and allow the Russians to proceed with their education instead of interfering with the electoral process to maintain, by hook or by crook, the czar of our choice. Between now and the ides of June we must keep a careful watch on Yeltsin, the collective Rasputin and their Western patrons. Stay tuned.