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Analysis From Washington - What Russian Results Show

  • Paul Goble

Washington, July 5 (RFE/RL) -- The results of the Russian presidential election are being celebrated by leaders throughout the world, but there are three reasons to think that this latest triumph of democracy as it is being described may not be the last word in that country.

First, Boris Yeltsin won only 54 percent of the vote. That is only impressive if one believes he was ever as far behind as the unreliable polls had suggested and if one ignores his sometimes brazen exploitation of the powers of incumbency to dispense favors, to control the election process, and to manage the news.

Moreover, he assembled his winning coalition in the second round not by reaching out to democrats and reformers but rather by bringing on board as chief of his Security Council Aleksandr Lebed, a retired general and erstwhile presidential candidate whose recent comments about religious groups, Jews, and others have disturbed so many.

And during the campaign, Yeltsin put off a number of difficult decisions on foreign and domestic policy, thus allowing him to promise on some occasions to support one position and on other occasions to support another. Now, he will be forced to choose, and some of those choices are going to be both difficult and unpopular.

Indeed, one of the steps that Yeltsin will have to take quickly if he plans to return to reform will be to bring the Russian state budget into better balance. In order to win votes, Yeltsin increased spending and conspicuously failed to collect taxes. As a result, Russia's budget deficit is now far greater than the size Yeltsin had promised the international financial community in exchange for loans.

Second, despite a mediocre candidate in the person of Gennady Zyuganov and the success of Yeltsin in converting the campaign from a referendum on his stewardship in office into a vote on the horrors of the Soviet system, the Communists received over 40 percent of the vote.

Much Russian and Western analysis of this vote suggests that it shows that support for communism as an idea is falling and that Gennady Zyuganov simply could not add to his base. Both of these conclusions are not without their difficulties.

In the first case, the notion that support for the communists is falling presupposes that it was far larger in 1991 and has only fallen since then. Or, in a fallback position, it presumes that only the pensioners who have suffered from the reforms voted for Zyuganov.

In fact, support for communism was far smaller in 1991 than it is now -- the system had been entirely discredited and Yeltsin had in fact banned the party itself.

As a result, there is some justice in the claims of Communist parliamentarian Viktor Ilyukhin that the vote this week represents "a remarkable party comeback" just five years after Yeltsin banned it. And 40 percent of the vote means that the Communists received the support of more than just the old and downtrodden.

Moreover, if the Communist candidate did not add much to his base in the first round, at least Zyuganov unlike Yeltsin did not reach out to politicians such as Lebed.

And the communists will remain a power in the society both because they are the largest party in the Duma and because they received so many votes this time. As a result, they will continue to influence Moscow's policies whether they are invited to join a coalition government or not.

Indeed, as one of Zyuganov's senior strategists said, "the most important thing" about the election "is that Yeltsin has accepted many of our ideas."

And third, while turnout remained high -- something very much to be welcomed -- one voter in 20 took the opportunity to vote for "none of the above" and thus to reject both Yeltsin and Zyuganov. While not an enormous percentage, such votes, along with the one-third of the electorate that did not vote this time, suggest that there remains significant alienation in the Russian political system.

Consequently, two cheers for this latest "triumph of democracy" in Russia. Yeltsin's victory is something to celebrate given the alternatives. But any third and final cheer should be held in reserve.