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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Two Kinds Of Elections

Washington, 20 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The upcoming presidential ballot in Russia will be like the last two elections there: a vote about the nature of the country rather than one on the policies that the government should follow.

And that pattern will hold even though the communists against whom former President Boris Yeltsin defined himself and his regime so skillfully have declined in importance and even though no new major challenger to the party of power has yet emerged.

As a result, Russia's transition to a more normal democratic system, one in which voters select among candidates who advocate different policies but accept the fundamental rules of the game is likely to be delayed for yet another electoral cycle.

That is the judgment of Grigory Yavlinsky, the presidential candidate of his Yabloko faction and a fierce critic of acting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policies.

In an interview last week in Moscow's "Novaya gazeta," Yavlinsky noted that "today's campaign is not a competition of programs, of who will lower taxes more by 7 percent or 15 percent. It's a question of whether a country such as Russia will continue to exist."

Yavlinsky's suggestion challenges a widely held assumption that the decline of the Communist Party has fundamentally changed the electoral situation in Russia.

In all his races, Yeltsin positioned himself as the defender against a return of the old order, a position that forced many of his critics to support him even when they did not agree with his policies or approach.

The declining electoral strength of the communists, many Russian and Western observers had suggested, meant that Russia was moving toward a more normal democratic system, one in which no political figure would be able to play that card to prevent the rise of a genuine opposition.

But instead, Putin is using the supposed threat of terrorism and state disintegration and the call for the creation of a strong state in much the same way that Yeltsin used the threat of communism to undercut the chances of his opponents to gain support.

On the one hand, Putin's efforts in this direction may be nothing more than smart politics. Incumbents always try to control the agenda to their own advantage, and Putin, who had virtually no support when he was named prime minister, is now the overwhelming favorite to win.

But on the other hand, Putin's actions, as Yavlinsky suggests, appear to entail three more disturbing aspects. First, they allow Putin to portray his opponents as soft on terrorism even as he claims that he is committed to democracy.

Yavlinsky himself was subjected to withering criticism, including suggestions that he was not patriotic, when he suggested earlier in the campaign that Moscow should seek a negotiated settlement in Chechnya.

Second, they allow Putin to play the politics of either-or rather than more-or-less, to suggest that those who are not with him are somehow not interested in Russia's future even though he has been unwilling or unable to put out programmatic statements about what he plans to do.

Indeed, by portraying himself as the embodiment of the state and thus as someone who does not need to articulate a program, Putin effectively stifles any chance for the kind of debate about policy that is at the core of democratic choice.

And third, Putin's approach, his dismissive attitudes toward campaigning, not only reduce public attention to the issues but allow him to do what Yeltsin did so successfully, to portray himself as a democrat even though he is not acting like one.

Indeed, his team is already using the praise he has received from Western leaders as a democrat and a man they can do business with to eliminate questions about what he intends from the public debate.

None of this is to say that anyone knows just where Putin will take Russia or whether the more apocalyptic suggestions of Yavlinsky and others are correct.

But it is to note that this presidential election, one that so many had awaited as promising the first democratic transition in Russia's history, is proving to be another kind of election, one that has far more in common with the authoritarian past than with a hoped-for democratic future.