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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Victory Not A Mandate

Washington, 28 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin claimed a narrow victory in Sunday's Russian presidential race, but his initial comments suggest that he recognizes that he did not get the kind of mandate that might have led him to act without regard to other political forces in the country.

If that in fact proves to be the case, then, this sobering result of the electoral process may turn out to be the most important consequence of what has been anything but an ordinary democratic election.

Speaking at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on Sunday evening, Putin noted that the Communist party and its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, had done far better than the polls had predicted "even though -- let us be direct and honest about this -- they did not have many opportunities in the media, especially the electronic media." And he added "there are many people in the country who are not satisfied with the state of things. People are tired, things are tough for them, and they expect better things from me. But, of course, miracles don't occur."

On the one hand, Putin's remarks highlight the ways in which this election to succeed Boris Yeltsin was substantively undemocratic -- even though the actual voting appears to have been more or less procedurally correct.

But on the other, Putin's open acknowledgement of the continuing strength of his opponents may lead to a new and different relationship between the executive and legislative branches of the Russian government, one that may not generate more reform but one that could in the end contribute to the institutionalization of democracy in Russia.

Many people in both Russia and the West had expected the Russian presidential vote in 2000 to complete both the destruction of communism and the institutionalization of democracy. It has done neither. The communists remain the largest opposition party, entirely capable of playing a major role in the life of the Russian Federation far into the future. And democracy remains far from fully institutionalized as well.

Instead of proving to be the first genuinely democratic transfer of power in the history of Russia, the handoff from Yeltsin to Putin guaranteed that the vote in 2000 would be anything but that.

First, Yeltsin's timely resignation allowed Putin to exploit the powers of incumbency and the popularity of his campaign in Chechnya without his opponents being able to rally their forces against him.

Second, as Putin himself implicitly acknowledged last night, the government's ability to control the still largely state-owned electronic media from which most Russians get their news and information allowed him to define the terms on which the election would be contested.

And third, despite his occasional swipes at regional leaders, the oligarchs and other members of the party of power, Putin has been able to use the powers of incumbency in ways that have led most of them to back him largely out of a sense on their part that they have no choice to do otherwise.

All of which suggests that there are still far too few competitively available political resources in the Russian political system for it to be called an institutionalized democracy, even though this vote -- like others since 1991 -- could come to represent a step in that direction.

The reason for such relative optimism in the end is also contained in Putin's remarks, in his acceptance of the fact that there are other political forces in Russia that he must attend to and work with.

Because his remarks in the first instance concern the communists, Putin's words may simply presage a further rapprochement between him and the Communists. Putin has already shown himself prepared to move in that direction as when he backed the election in January of a communist as Duma speaker. And at least one defeated presidential candidate, Grigoriy Yavlinsky, suggested that there was really no significant difference between Putin and the Communist leader Zyuganov.

Such an alliance almost certainly would presage a backing away from some aspects of economic reform. But it would not necessarily mean a retreat from democracy, given that almost 80 percent of the electorate voted for either Putin or Zyuganov. Indeed, it might become the basis for a new and more cooperative relationship between the legislative and executive branches, albeit one that few of those committed to reforms would find attractive.

But on the other hand, this new recognition by Putin of the power of those who oppose him -- nearly 50 percent of the total electorate -- could lead him to try to build the kind of coalitions that are the very essence of the process of democratic government rather than ignoring and isolating those who oppose him as his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, often did.

If either of these developments does take place, then the Russian presidential election of 2000 may prove to be a breakthrough, even though so many aspects of it were anything but.