Parliamentary International Forum

The Russian Presidential Election: Prospects for Domestic and Foreign

June 4, 1994

Dr. Sergei Plekhanov

In the past 2-3 years, we heve been observing a trend in the postcommunist world: in country after country, the political forces which replaced the ruling Communist parties in the late 1980s-early l990s and implemented radical market reforms, hav e been defeated at the polls by reconstituted Communists, who were able to mount credible enough critiques from the Left and present themselves as parties which would pursue reforms in a less painful and more socialy acceptable way. Poland is perhaps the most striking case, where the hero of the antiCommunist revolution, Lech Walesa, supported by the Catholic Church, was defeated in the 1995 presidential election by social democrat Alexander Kwasuiewski, a former Communist official. Most recently, parliam entary election in the Czech Republic, a country often viewed as the showcase of successful postcommunist transition in Eastern Europe, resulted in a defeat of the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus.

In none of the Eastem Europea n countries where the former Communists staged a comeback, however, did that turnover of elites entail any significant changes in the course of transitior. While it remains to be seen whether those newlyminted social democrats will do any better in gaver nment than their predecessors, the fact is that their goal is not the overthrow of capitalisttype economies and pluralistic political systems installed after 1989, but rather their more efficient management.

The forthcoming precidential decision in Russia will show to what extent this trend will be reflected in Russian politics. In the December 1995 parliamentary election, the Russian Communist Party won effective control of the lower house, the Duma. Will the Russians now give the Communists co ntrol of the Kremlin, too? And, if they do, will Zyuganov be another Kwasniewski, a Westernoriented social democrat, or something quite different?

Roosevelt or Stalin?

It is widely expected that the Russian president ial election will not be decided on June 16, since neither President Yeltsin nor Gennady Zyuganov are likely to gain an absolute majority in a field of 10 canditates. The second round, a runoff between Yeltsin and Zyuganov, is virtualy inevitable. The bes t the Communists can do in the first round is to gain an edge over Yeltsin  and the more significant the edge, the more chance Zyuganov will have in the runoff. If Zyuganov is significantly ahead of Yeltsin in the first round, that is likely to be interp reted as a sign that Yeltsin is on the way out  and that may sway allegiance of important forces in the state apparatus  among the military, security forces, regional elites, etc.

As far as the mass electorate is concerned, it is highly volatil e at this moment, and no serious observer is ready to predict the outcome. There are many voters who are unhappy about Yeltsin, and many who are afraid of the Communists' return to power. About 20-25% of the voters are reliably for Yeltsin, and about the same number will certainly vote Communist. But half the electorate have not made up their minds. Opinion polls indicate that about 25% will decide in the last 23 days before the vote, and the remaining 25% will make their decisions right in the voting b ooths.

The Russian Communist Party recently unveiled its economic platform. The historic parallel it draws for today's Russia is not Russia in 1917, but the United States in the Great Depression. Just like America back then, Russia is going throu gh a deep economic crisis generated by laissez-faire capitalism. And, just like Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, Gennady Zyuganov, if elected, will resolutely use the power of the state to regulate economic life to stimulate growth and help solve socia l problems. The fact that Russian Communists are evoking the image of the grest Western liberal reformer Roosevelt and not advocating a Leninist destruction of capitalism, but its Keynesian modification, is interpreted as a sign that in Russia, just as in East Europe, the return of Communists may not promise a return to Communism. After all, what most people in postcommunist societes want, as public opinion studies indicate, is a market economy with a welfare state, the Swedish model, capitalism with a hu man face  but not a return to total state control in the name of "real socialism".

Unfortunately, this benign scenario of Zyuganov as a latter-day FDR presiding over the construction of welfare capitalism in Russia does not look plausible. For o ne thing, the Russian Communist Party is the main ultraconservative force in Russian society. It was formed in 1990 to unite all those elements in the Soviet Communist Party who were opposed to Gorbachev's reforms, and create an effective vehicle for stru ggle against him. In other words, East European exCommunists who have won in recent elections and the Russian Communists come from the opposite sides of the barricades, politically and ideologically. One striking festure of Zyuganovstyle Communism has b een admiration for Stalin as a great leader who was able to turn Russia into a superpower. The ongoing rehabilitation of Stalin by the Russian Communist Party is a phenomenon almost nobody predicted, and it merits the closest attention. It is a harsh ideo logical challenge to Russian democracy, since we are talking not about some fringe groups, but about Russia's strongest political party with a membership of half a million and an electoral base of 20-30 million people.

Of course, preoccupation w ith the problem of creating an efficient state in Russia characterizes not just the Communists but all major political forces. The Soviet state collapsed in 1991, and the new Russian state which has been forming ever since leaves much to be desired. Rule of law is still yet to be established, as is a sound and stable delineation of functions among the various levels and branches of the government. Russia has a heavily bloated bureaucracy, but it lacks a competent and committed civil service. Above all, Ru ssia has gone from one extreme to the other as far as the state's economic role is concerned: whereas in the USSR government spending accounted for 70% of the GNP, in today's Russia this share has declined to 1820% (in a typical Western economy, the stat e's share is 3550%).

Some expansion of the state's role in the Russian economy is inevitable, whoever wins the election. But what distinguishes the Communist approach is a real cult of the state, combined with a deep hostility toward the market. In a nutshell, they view the market as a deadly weapon which was successfully used to destroy the great Russian (Soviet) state, and the state as the only tool that can restore Russia's greatness. This cult of the state is rooted deeply in Russian traditi ons, and it is an appeal to traditionalism, as well as skillfill manipulation of the wounded pride of Russian nationalism which made it possible for Zyuganov's Communists to come back from wilderness as a major force.

Will the empire strike back?

In foreign policy, Zyuganov style restoration of a powerfull Russian state would mean serious attempts to bring former Soviet republics back under Moscow's control, as well as a much less cooperative posture visavis the Wes t. In his books, Zyuganov revives the old Slavophile idea of Russia as the centre of its own Eurasian "civilization", distinct from and opposed to the "Atlanticist" West. As they blast Yeltsin for betraying Russia's historic mission and turning the countr y into an American satellite, the Communists are arguing for a more independent and assertive foreign policy, including creation of new alliances as counterweights to US hegemony. Naturally, this posture calls for a restoration of the Soviet militaryindu strial complex, and a remilitarization of the Russian economy and society.

If Zyuganov should become Russia's next presitend, these ideas would be very hard to put into practice, given the stiff resistance that such policies would encounter both inside and outside Russia. But serious attempts to implement these policies will be made. Therefore, a Communist victory would significantly heighten the intensity of political conflict in and around Russia. Russian democracy will be put to severe tests. Should Yeltsin stay in office, the tests are going to be quite challenging, too, since his policies are also reflecting, even if in a more moderate form than the activities of Russian Communists, the authoritarian and nationalist trends gaining strength i n Russian politics. So, irrespective of the outcome, this election will not resolve the protracted struggle for Russia's soul and Russia's future.

Notes from Ambassador Kinsman.

International reactions and links.