While Voting for Stability, the Russians Got Yeltsin

Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin) and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

Russia's voters Wednesday voted for the Good and rejected the Bad; unfortunately, what they are going to get is the Ugly. The stable, democratic prosperity so many Russians dream of will remain nothing more than a dream as Boris N. Yeltsin begins his second term as president.

Rumors about Yeltsin's fragile health swept the world when he disappeared from public view between the first and second rounds of voting. Some thought he faced renewed heart trouble; some just thought he was celebrating after the arduousness of the campaign; his aides claimed that a "sore throat" kept Yeltsin off the campaign trail in the closing days.


The tight wall of secrecy around Yeltsin, and the fevered rumors outside it, only underline that Russia's government is still far from anything that West European or North American societies would recognize as a democracy. A Kremlin camarilla of courtiers and sinister generals surrounds an aging, unsteady president and sometimes rules Russia in his name.

Now the election is past, and the Kremlin is again master of the country. The Kremlin's shady clique of industrialists, financiers, generals and policemen can wipe the mud of politics off its Gucci shoes and get back to its real concern: dividing Russia's remaining wealth among its friends and supporters.

The next real question in Russian politics has nothing to do with the voters. Will ex-general and ex-candidate Alexander I. Lebed manage to establish himself as Yeltsin's anointed successor, or will he fall victim to Kremlin intrigue? Nobody knows--but look for lots of headlines as the struggle works itself out.

So much for stability and democracy. The outlook for prosperity is no better. Yeltsin's reckless campaign promises, combined with the virtual collapse of tax collection efforts in the last two months, have emptied the Treasury. Some predict a financial crisis almost immediately; others think it will wait until fall. Some say it will mean a return of inflation and a collapse of the ruble; others that it will involve a collapse of the banking system.


Having said all this, let's not forget: Yeltsin's win was the best possible election result both for the Russians and the rest of the world. Yeltsin may not be much of a democrat, and Russia's economy may not yet be on the mend, but Yeltsin, at his worst, couldn't do the damage that Gennady A. Zyuganov's Communists would do if set loose on the country.

The Russian campaign was a battle between the four major forces in Russia. Call them Blacks, Blues, Reds and Browns. The Blacks--named for the color of the limousines and BMWs they drive--are the smallest and most powerful. They are the winners--the oil, gas and banking executives, Mafia dons and other operatives who have managed to grab hold of Russia's most valuable resources in Yeltsin's first term. There aren't many of these people, and they don't always agree among themselves, but they are the most powerful day-to-day force in Russia--and they are Yeltsin's strongest and most enthusiastic supporters.

Next come the Blues: the idealists, democrats and entrepreneurs who want Russia to Westernize. In the end, they had no choice but to back Yeltsin against Communists like Zyuganov and fascists like Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky. With Yeltsin at the helm, they can at least hope that Russian economic and political change will gradually create a better climate.

The Reds, of course, are the Communists, and the Browns are the ultra-nationalists--ranging from home-grown Nazis to the somewhat more moderate figures associated with Lebed.

The political campaign that just ended in Russia was a fight between the Blacks and the Reds. The Blacks--along with their reluctant but helpless Blue allies--control a little more than one-third of the vote. The Reds have about a third; the Browns have a little less.

The Browns were the swing vote in the campaign. Since the Brown vote was divided in the first round between Zhirinovsky and Lebed, there was no chance that a Brown candidate would make the run-off. That left the Reds and the Blacks to vie for the Brown vote in the second round.

The Reds tried to fuzz over the differences between Russia's anti-democratic left and equally anti-democratic right with what they called "the national patriotic bloc." Like the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, this was a united front of the totalitarians against the democrats.

The Yeltsin strategy was to turn the second round into a referendum on communism--uniting Blacks, Blues and as many Browns as possible into a coalition that would frustrate the Reds. Fortunately for Yeltsin, and everyone else, the Browns hate the Reds as much as they hate the West. Communism, many Russian Browns believe, was a Jewish plot to wreck Russia.

Yeltsin's deal with Lebed was the climax of this strategy--and it worked. The Blues and enough of the Browns held their noses and voted for Yeltsin; the Reds were left gnashing their teeth; the Blacks can celebrate four more years at the trough; the Blues can hope for better times.

So where is Russian politics headed?

The Reds were better organized this time; but the Browns pose a long-term threat. The Reds are strong among embittered pensioners and in the agricultural boondocks, where daily life is still controlled by unreconstructed collective-farm bosses. This election may have been the Communists' last real chance for power; with life expectancy for Russian men now at 59, the senior citizen vote is a disappearing asset.

The Browns, on the other hand, could be here to stay. Nationalists tend to be younger and less nostalgic than the Communists. They aren't trying to restore a failed system; their utopia has yet to be tried. As the Reds fade toward senility and irrelevance, economic discontent and bitterness at the nation's humiliation will continue to lead part of the younger generation--especially outside the privileged enclaves of St. Petersburg and Moscow--toward ultra-nationalist politics.

There is a ray of hope on Russia's right: God. Russian nationalism has deep links with the Orthodox Church. To the degree that Orthodox social ideals can affect Russian nationalism today, we could see a conservative nationalist movement that looked less like the Nazis and more like Bavaria's Christian Social Union.

But if God has a vote in Russia's future, so does Mammon. If life improves, however slowly, for enough people in Russia, the Blues will gain strength; the Reds will dwindle away, and the Browns will become more like an ordinary populist movement and less like a psychotic replay of the Third Reich.

In the meantime, the Blacks will continue to grow rich as long as Yeltsin survives. For Russians, this spectacle of greed and corruption is deeply distressing. For the rest of the world, it's unpleasant, but there is at least this silver lining. The Blacks don't want to pick fights with the West; they just want to make money. As long as Yeltsin is president, there's little chance that Russia's relations with the West will return to anything like the open hostility of the Cold War.

Given the last 80 years of Russian history, that's as much as we could hope for; and it's reason enough to toast Yeltsin's win on this holiday weekend.*

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