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With Yeltsin Gone, Putin Seems Destined to Be Next President

Michael McFaul is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an assistant professor of political science and Hoover fellow at Stanford University

In an act of political mastery, President Boris N. Yeltsin’s surprise resignation on New Year’s Eve makes Russia’s new acting president and current prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, the overwhelming favorite to win the presidential election, rescheduled for March 2000. Ironically, the near-certainty of Putin’s victory underscores how little is known about him in Russia as well as in the West.

Even before Yeltsin’s stunning move, the results of last month’s parliamentary elections had greatly boosted Putin’s presidential ambitions. Of most importance to Putin and his allies was the collapse of the Fatherland-All Russia Party, headed by former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov. Only a few months ago, Primakov seemed poised to win the presidential election in a landslide. As a symbol of stability at a time of uncertainty, he had rocketed in the polls. Having navigated Russia through a financial crisis that began in August 1998, Primakov earned a reputation as a pragmatist who would chart a “centrist” reform course. He joined the Fatherland-All Russia electoral bloc to jump-start his presidential bid.

His plan proved premature. Worse, Primakov’s participation in the parliamentary elections inflicted real damage to his presidential prospects. During the fall campaign, the Kremlin’s media empire launched a full-scale negative campaign against Primakov and his bloc. The former prime minister was said to be a feeble invalid, a lackey of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Chechen sympathizer and a closet Communist. The negative campaign, in combination with Putin’s spectacular rise in popularity as a result of his leadership of the Chechen war, helped undermine popular support for Fatherland-All Russia. Add a poorly run campaign--and you get the 13% that Primakov’s bloc won, a total well below expectations. Primakov may still be a viable presidential contender, but he will start his run in a far weaker position than he enjoyed before the parliamentary vote.

The strong showing of the Communist Party further benefited Putin’s political stature. Three months ago, the Communists limped into the parliamentary campaign divided, broke and worried about their future. To survive, some leaders believed the party had to break with communism and transform itself into a social-democratic organization. Privately, this faction hoped that the Communist Party would endorse Primakov, not party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, as its presidential candidate.

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But the Communist Party’s parliamentary victories, the most in the election, put real pressure on Zyuganov to run again as the party’s presidential candidate. After all, Zyuganov and his party garnered twice the popular vote that Primakov won. Many Communist leaders now believe Primakov should endorse Zyuganov.

This is exactly what Putin’s presidential campaign wanted. As a former KGB chief, foreign minister and prime minister, Primakov is a more formidable candidate on paper than Zyuganov. Opinion polls show that more than half of Russia’s voting public would never vote for a Communist, and Primakov is sufficiently nonpartisan to appeal to a wide and diverse electorate. Thus, the Kremlin wanted to turn the presidential vote into a two-man race between Putin and Zyuganov.

Putin’s presidential campaign was also helped by the surprising showings of the electoral blocs Unity and the Union of Right Forces. Unity, a virtual party created by the Kremlin to weaken Primakov and Fatherland-All Russia, won nearly a quarter of the popular vote, primarily by riding Putin’s coattails. The Union of Right Forces, a coalition of liberal reformers, many of whom served in earlier governments, performed above expectations, winning 8% of the popular vote, in part because of Putin’s endorsement. Both these coalitions will support Putin as acting president, and given the balance of power in the new parliament and Yeltsin’s resignation, Putin is unlikely to face much opposition.

Can Putin be stopped? Most analysts in the West believe his future is tied directly to Chechnya: As more body bags begin to undermine support for the war, so, too, will Putin’s popularity decline. In the long run, strong opposition to the war may emerge, as it did during the last Russian invasion of Chechnya, in 1994-1996. To date, however, this war is different.

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First, the rationale for intervention has changed. In 1994, Russian citizens did not understand why their military invaded Chechnya. Polls showed a majority did not believe that preserving Russia’s territorial integrity was a worthy aim. In contrast, everyone, rightly or wrongly, understands the current offensive to be a counterterrorist campaign against “bandits” who attacked Russian territory (Dagestan), the first time since 1941. These same “terrorists” allegedly bombed innocents in Moscow and elsewhere. Consequently, public support for the war remains high.

Second, the current conflict is a different kind of war. Russian forces are greater: 100,000 compared with the 30,000 that fought before. Russian tactics differ, too: Russian generals are avoiding casualties by relying more heavily on aerial bombing. Additionally, the Russian military has slowed the pace of fighting to avoid casualties but also to ensure that the popular war does not end too fast. A spring victory would give a nice preelection boost to Putin’s campaign.

Third, the electoral dynamics of the current war contrast with those of Russia’s 1996 presidential race. Then, Yeltsin’s chief pollster argued that the war had to end for Yeltsin to be reelected. Yeltsin agreed, and on March 31, he signed a temporary cease-fire. In 2000, there will be no similar electoral pressure to end the war. On the contrary, the war is popular, and no major presidential candidate advocates negotiating with the Chechen authorities.

Finally, Russia’s three national TV networks support the war, in contrast to the 1994-96 campaign. Furthermore, few print journalists report from Chechnya because the Russian government has restricted their movement. Even if the Russian military began to lose, most Russians would never know it.

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Still, three months is a long time in Russian politics. After all, last September, Primakov looked unbeatable, and Putin seemed miscast as a national leader. Furthermore, Putin’s current popularity may have been peaking too fast, and to sustain his political momentum, he would have needed a few more miracles to hold onto his 80%-approval rating. On New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin delivered one.

What would a President Putin do once in office? The scary truth is, we have absolutely no idea. In contrast to the more predictable Primakov, Putin is a real unknown. Rhetorically, he has pledged to continue market reform, abide by the democratic process and improve U.S.-Russian relations. His endorsement of the liberal, pro-Western Union of Right Forces was a positive step, and his first post-parliamentary election act was to call for the ratification of the Start II treaty, another encouraging sign. In practice, however, his only real achievement to date is war in the Caucasus.

As demonstrated again by last month’s vote, elections have become a normal part of Russian politics over the last 10 years. Gone are the days when we worried whether an election would occur or not. Ironically, however, the consequences of the parliamentary elections and Yeltsin’s resignation have become far less predictable. If Putin becomes the country’s second elected president, Russia’s future will be even more uncertain.


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