Nothing is over, not even the counting; given the prevailing mood of mutual suspicion there will be plenty of disputes over the final result. In one sense the verdict is clear: Boris Yeltsin did win this referendum. But, contrary to initial announcements from Moscow and the Western headlines built upon them, he did not get the hefty majority that, according to his advocates, would give him a mandate to bypass the Constitution.
There is no denying his success. It’s astounding that after more than a year of political disarray and economic catastrophe, 66 percent of Russia’s electorate bothered to go to the polls and that somewhat more than half of them said da to Yeltsin and to his economic policy. Those results showed that Russians reject the previous regime and that so far there is no credible alternative to Yeltsin. But this kind of popularity poll has no direct political consequences. The next two questions dealt with early elections for President and Parliament, and required a majority of all registered voters. Both votes fell short of the mandated majority.
Yeltsin’s victory seems somewhat less impressive when one considers the media’s bias in his favor and the bribes he offered the electorate. Under Mikhail Poltoranin, Yeltsin’s propaganda chief, the media’s one-sided presentation of the issues was striking. And so was the silence of Western preachers of democratic virtue, who apparently lose their eloquence when “our side” does the sinning. Then there was Yeltsin’s sudden discovery of a social conscience. He promised billions of rubles to young mothers, students and, above all, to the many Russians whose savings had been wiped out by inflation.
The Russian President’s support came mainly from the cities, notably Moscow and St. Petersburg. He did not do as well in other areas, from the Altai region of Siberia to Voronezh in central Russia. What is even more perturbing, he fared badly in autonomous republics such as Bashklria and Tatarstan, Russia, beyond any doubt, is deeply split. Whatever Yeltsin’s stooges and our editorialists may claim, support by less than 38 percent of the electorate can hardly be taken as a ringing mandate for Yeltsin to introduce a new Constitution by unconstitutional means.
It’s unclear what lessons Yeltsin himself will draw from the results. Will he keep his social pledges, which clash with the deflationary policy of his financial advisers? Will he heed the advice of his inner circle and launch an offensive, as his call for a constitutional convention suggests, bypassing Parliament and changing the Constitution by decree, on the assumption that he can count on Western support as long as he sticks to the market and is subservient on foreign policy issues? Or will he seek a compromise with the champions of a slower road to capitalism, notably the industrial managers regrouped around Civic Union? Such a search will now be more difficult because of the blows exchanged in the electoral battle. One of the leaders of Civic Union, Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, accused Yeltsin’s civilian and military protégés of corruption and named names. (He did so, however, only nine days before the referendum, and was then denied an opportunity to make his case on television.)
The questions about Yeltsin’s strategy are the same as they were before the vote. And the battle among Russia’s privileged ones over power and property has merely entered a new and more intensive phase.