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.