Russian voters will have 10 candidates to choose from in Sunday’s presidential election, and those who disapprove of the lot have the option to vote for none of the above. In reality, Russia’s second contested presidential contest is now a two-man race. Boris Yeltsin, showing remarkable energy given his health history, is bidding for a second term. Gennady Zyuganov, the neo-Communist, offers the politics of nostalgia for those who are dispirited by the revolutionary changes of the post-Soviet era. Zyuganov promises to restore massive state subsidies to key industries and to wage a more aggressive foreign policy, including seeking restoration of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin, meanwhile, has simply promised virtually everything to everybody.
Yeltsin’s standing in the polls has risen sharply in recent weeks and now, exuding an incautious confidence, he predicts he will win 50% of Sunday’s vote and so avoid a runoff in early July. Zyuganov counters that Yeltsin can win only by stuffing the ballot boxes and warns that a tainted outcome would send his outraged supporters into the streets. Electoral hanky-panky is expected, both in the precincts--there are 93,000 of them--where the old Communist infrastructure is still heavily represented, and higher up the electoral line, where Yeltsin appointees will add up the vote.
Washington and its European allies, while avoiding making any open endorsement, clearly hope Yeltsin will win. But a Yeltsin victory in either the first or second round of voting would be no assurance that relations between Russia and the West in coming years will be non-confrontational. Yeltsin is clearly preferable to Zyuganov and to all the other candidates, with the exception of Gregory Yalinksky, who heads the only free-market party left in the parliament. But Yeltsin’s increasingly disturbing behavior--his growing autocratic tendencies, his expedient willingness to jettison vital economic reforms before they have had a real chance to work, his unrestrained readiness to raid the central bank and the treasury for his own political gain--inspires little confidence in either his commitment to democratic governance or his ability to keep Russia stable and moving forward.
The strong showing by extremist parties in last December’s parliamentary elections, especially the emergence of the Communists, the Duma’s biggest party with 22 seats, almost immediately prompted Yeltsin to shift direction. He fired many of those who had been guiding Russia’s transition to a market economy and all but halted privatization efforts. And he signaled a tougher, more nationalistic line in foreign policy by replacing Andrei V. Kozyrev, his moderate foreign minister, with Yevgeny M. Primakov, a former foreign intelligence chief who seems to prefer emphasizing Russia’s areas of difference with the West rather than its areas of agreement.
There’s no doubt that a Zyuganov victory and a return to power by the apparatchiks of the Soviet era would drag Russia backward domestically while raising alarms abroad, nowhere more insistently than in Ukraine and the Baltic states of the former Soviet Union. Washington and its European allies would find themselves facing security issues that all hoped had ended with the demise of the Cold War.
A Yeltsin win, on the other hand, would not in itself assure Russia a bright and stable tomorrow. The world’s largest state suffers more now than under Communism from corruption, crime, wide economic and social disparities and dramatically lower health standards. Yeltsin’s ability to deal effectively with this formidable agenda is still to be demonstrated.