THE WORLD / RUSSIA : The Pretenders Waiting for Yeltsin to Depart

<i> Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of Russian history at Ohio University, is a contributor to "The Diplomats" (Princeton University). He is working on a book, "Selling Stalin," about Soviet propaganda. </i>

The parliamentary elections next month are most significant as a bearer of omens for the far more important presidential elections next June. When President Boris N. Yeltsin seemed firmly in control of events, and stoutly in the democratic camp, his liberal supporters were comfortable with conferring unchecked powers on him. Now, when the Russian people’s mood may be turning ugly, some former Yeltsin supporters are having doubts.

The chances of Yeltsin himself running for reelection are steadily slimmer. His health, which has long been dicey, is now a major political issue. His recent bout with heart disease was quite serious. So ill was Yeltsin that, following his latest stay in a hospital, he felt compelled to hand over the “power ministries” to his prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. Then, to compound the confusion, Yeltsin, fearful that the temporary transfer of authority would stoke anxieties about his ability to govern, restored the ministries to himself. It is a legitimate question whether the average Russian was assured or alarmed by this charade and the prospect of a seriously ill president trying to rule as though he was in full vigor.

Even if he were fully healthy, Yeltsin would almost certainly lose an election, barring some enormous political shift. The economy, following several years of hard times, is showing signs of health. Inflation is much reduced, though not entirely under control; industrial production has begun to rise for the first time since the end of communism. Most important, privatization of industry, though riddled with corruption and uneven, has transferred more than half of Russian businesses into private hands. This has created, for the first time in Russian history, a growing middle class with a stake in preserving a free market.

At the same time, however, Yeltsin gets little credit for this economic turnaround. There is a widespread, and well-founded, impression that the economy’s few gains have been made despite, or at any rate independently of, the president and his staff.


In any case, many wonder why Yeltsin would even think of running for reelection. One reason stems from the sad fact that Russian politics has rarely had a safe retirement program. Many of the president’s opponents want not only to oust their hated rival; they would like to place him on trial. Yeltsin’s nationalist critics claim that the president has sold out Russian national interests, especially to the United States, and that his role in the dismemberment of the Soviet empire amounted to treason. Even though such sweeping charges are groundless, Yeltsin may believe he must remain in power or face the prospect of disgrace, even trial.

The field of political alternatives to Yeltsin gives little ground for optimism among those who hope that Russia will evolve market-oriented policies and a moderate foreign policy. There is, to be sure, a moderate element, though it is weak and divided. The most powerful reformist party is Our Home Is Russia, in which the key figure is Chernomyrdin. This party has lately tried to burnish its image by, among other things, hiring the American rapper Hammer. Chernomyrdin’s advisers believe, probably rightly, that the youth vote favors continued political and economic liberalization, since young people have been more adaptive to change. Thus, the stodgy Chernomyrdin tries to link his party’s political future to images of Western popular culture.

The party that most clearly threatens to turn back the clock is the reconstituted Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Having recovered from its post-collapse disarray, and benefiting from the vigorous leadership of its leader, Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communists seem headed for an impressive showing in the parliamentary elections. Although Zyuganov promises to retain private-property laws and claims that his party has shaken off its “totalitarian” baggage (a phrase he actually uses), it is unclear how he can reconcile his new-found enthusiasm for democracy with the party’s nationalist slogan, “Russia, Labor, People’s Power, Socialism!” Most worrisome, Zyuganov wants to restore the old Soviet Union, something that can scarcely be achieved through peaceful means.

The Communists’ supporters are as old as Chernomyrdin’s are young, suggesting that the political fate of Russia reflects, in part, a generational rift. Older people, who made their peace with the Communist regime, or served loyally in its ranks, will never reconcile themselves to the pace of change; and they are appalled by the flood of what Russian Nobel laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn has called the “liquid manure” of Western popular culture. Although Solzhenitsyn is a bitter opponent of communism, his distaste for Western glitz is widely shared and helps to explain the rapidly growing xenophobia and anti-Americanism in Russian society. This resentment cannot be explained in purely rational terms; it is visceral, based less on what the outside world does than what it is and represents. Much of Russian society yearns for a social cohesiveness and national sense of purpose that are threatened by the atomization of modern culture.

The figure most likely to benefit from this yearning is Alexander I. Lebed, the Russian general who operated what amounted to a private army in the former Soviet province of Moldova. Lebed is the foremost among several nationalist figures, a field that includes Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, whose erratic behavior has contributed to the fracturing of his party, and Boris V. Gromov, an Afghan war hero. Lebed first came to prominence when he supported Yeltsin during the failed August, 1991, coup. Since then, he has come to loathe the president for supposedly selling out Russian national interests by insufficiently supporting ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics. Lebed also faults Yeltsin’s government for failing to maintain Soviet-era military might, an argument enormously enhanced by the failure of the Chechen war.

It is not easy to predict what will happen should a nationalist such as Lebed or Gromov become president. Neither has any high-level government experience, nor can one imagine them learning on the job that Russia’s future is best served by continued economic liberalization and openness to the outside world. Sadly, it is more likely that, having been swept to power on the wave of nationalism, and promising quick solutions to systemic problems, they might stir up problems with former Soviet republics and relish the conflict with the West that would inevitably follow. In other words, it is possible that they might follow the path of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. One can only hope that they take some notice of Serbia’s economic destitution and Milosevic’s current political woes.*