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Press Review: Russia Elects

  • Don Hill

Prague, July 4 (RFE/RL) -- "In Russia's excruciating march toward free-market democracy, there are no total victories -- just great sighs of relief," Washington Post correspondent Lee Hockstader writes in the newspaper today.

Hockstader and much of the Western press looks -- in the words of one writer -- with "cautious optimism" on yesterday's victory in the Russian presidential elections of incumbent Boris Yeltsin.

The Washington Post writer continues in his analysis: "Yeltsin's. . . triumph over his Communist rivals in (yesterday's) runoff election is a stride toward building a new, more-liberal society and a crushing defeat for the forces that would re-create some likeness of the past. But the irony of Russia's seemingly decisive election may turn out to be that it has settled things for no more than a few months. The vote marked not only independent Russia's first chance to pass judgment on a democratically elected leader in 1,000 years, but its third free nationwide election in the past six months. No matter how flawed or inelegant, the practice of electoral politics -- for so many years just a remote aspiration for Russians -- is rapidly becoming habit. Yeltsin's mandate to continue democratic and free-market reforms seems clear even if many Russians voted for him not in euphoria but in fear of the alternative."

The New York Times says in an editorial today: "The forces of democracy and reform won a vital but not definitive victory in Russia (yesterday). It would be satisfying to declare the final defeat of Communism and the triumph of democracy and enlightened leadership. But Russia's reality does not justify euphoria today. Wary optimism seems more appropriate. . . . Yeltsin barely wheezed across the finish line this week. He appears exhausted, if not again seriously ill. . . . Strong, dynamic leadership will be required to keep reform on track. The Russian economy, while in better shape than a few years ago, remains shaky, and Yeltsin's (6,000 million dollars) in budget-busting campaign promises will not help stabilize it. The country is also badly divided, with better than 35 percent of the electorate favoring a return to communist governance. . . . Russia's democracy is imperfect, but considering the tyranny that prevailed until five years ago, it stands as a remarkable achievement. Though noted often in recent weeks, this point bears repeating today: For the first time in history, a free Russia has freely chosen its leader. That alone is cause for optimism."

In an analysis in the U.S. newspaper Newsday, Susan Sachs writes today: "Yeltsin's. . . victory is a relief to those Russians who feared a Communist-led government would launch a reactionary attack on the country's fledgling market economy and its new political freedoms. But it also brings into sharp focus a worrisome question that persisted during the final days of the campaign: Is the ailing Yeltsin strong enough to rule? As the votes were being counted, official Washington breathed a sigh of relief and President Clinton, in a written statement praised the election as a 'triumph for democracy.' The preliminary voting results underlined, however, that substantial parts of Russia's heartland remain deeply ambivalent about Yeltsin's stewardship."

The London Times editorializes today: "Yesterday should have been an occasion for every Russian to celebrate. In their long history, this was their first chance to decide in genuinely democratic elections which leader they wanted. . . . The campaign was vigorously fought, above all by a physicallly rejuvenated Mr. Yeltsin, who gave. . . every appearance of having rededicated himself to democracy."

The Times also denounces the idea of a coaltion government involving the Communists, saying: "There is no middle ground that could reconcile (the communist approach) with Mr. Yeltsin's reforming agenda. . . . Mr. Yeltsin was right as well as courageous to press ahead with elections, even when everybody expected him to lose. A government of national unity effectively would annul the voters' verdict."

James Gallagher writes today in the Chicago Tribune: "Russian voters slammed the door (yesterday) on a return to the communist past, giving President Boris Yeltsin a new term and the country's flawed democracy another chance to find a path to a better future. . . . (The) outcome made it strikingly clear that Russians remain bitterly divided over what their new political system should be and what sacrifices they are prepared to make in the years ahead. . . . Despite Yeltsin's triumph, realpolitik quickly took hold. A senior aide to Yeltsin indicated that the president could not afford to ignore the Communists when forming his new government, particularly because the Communist-dominated parliament has the power to approve or reject the president's choice of prime minister. In Washington, the Clinton administration breathed at least half a sigh of relief, happy about Yeltsin's apparent victory but still unsure about the seriousness of his health problems."

On the issue of Yeltsin's health, the Suddeutsche Zeitung today carries an analysis signed by Thomas Urban. Urban writes: "Critics in Russia are throwing out the question: What will happen if Yeltsin cannot continue as president? At the moment it appears that Prime Minister President Viktor Chernomyrdin would take over authority for three months, after which time a new election would take place. Newly appointed Security Secretary Alexander Lebed is pleading with Yeltsin to appoint him to the vice president position. This way the same leadership could be maintained, and the risk of a new election could be avoided as could the risk of communist rule. . . . Unless a catastrophe occurs or a crime is committed, the president is not removable."

The Wall Street Journal Europe says today in a staff-written report: "Now begins the high-stakes battle to succeed Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Lebed, as the president's new national security adviser, has emerged as the leading candidate. But more entrenched powers -- Mr. Yeltsin's inner circle, the Communists, industrial captains and regional overlords -- won't take the power bid of Johnny-come-lately Lebed sitting down. . . . The election process also has highlighted the extent to which Russia remains divided between those who benefit from the country's new freedoms and those who have been embittered or impoverished by them."