During the Soviet period there was a flattering joke among Russians. A high-ranking KGB general asks a high-ranking military general, “Do you know why the Americans can’t beat us?” The military general answers, “Because we have the most powerful army in the world.” “No,” says the KGB general, “they can’t beat us because even the KGB doesn’t know how much power we’ve got.”
These days in Russia nobody knows how many people are going to vote for Boris Yeltsin or Gennady Zyuganov on Sunday. Many forecasts are based on the opinions from metropolitan areas like Moscow or St. Petersburg. But Russian suburbia remains the major puzzle. Mostly data achived from rural areas indicates that Communists have strong support there. Even in places where 96 percent of the population is happy with the policies executed by democrats, 85 percent would still vote. Why do people intend to vote for Communists? Aren’t “those Russians” happy with freedom and a free market economy?
Evidently the main problem is that the old system of economy and public life was not only rejected but significantly destroyed under Mikhail Gorbachev and later, Boris Yeltsin. Meanwhile, the creation of new economic and public order would require many years, billions of dollars and laws which have to be adopted and consistently enforced all over Russia. As a result of new Gorbachev policies, the economic ties of interdependence with other former Soviet republics were cut off, industrial production in both civilian and military fields was seriously reduced or shut down completely so millions of people lost their jobs. Over the last eight years the value of Russian currency went down 5,000 points ($1 equals 5,000 rubles) and the majority of Russians lost their life savings. The level of crime and corruption has reached an unprecedented scale. Even the latest CIA reports indicate that organized crime threatens Russia’s economy.
Another serious problem is drugs and the rapiod spread of AIDS. According to recent data from the Russian Ministry of Health, AIDS has almost completely covered the whole region of Crimea, once a beautiful resort on the Black Sea. High losses in the Chechen war also contribute votes to the Communists. According to some reports the number of casualties is higher than in the Afghan war. Most funds and western investments are spent in big cities and never reach the rural areas. Many Russians compare the current situation with the Great Depression in the United States and consider that only Communists are able to bring back economic strability and public order.
There was a saying in ancient Rome, “bread and entertainment” for the people. That is why the Roman emperor Neron sacrificed almost 2,000 Christians to please the public after Rome was burned down to ashes. What can Yeltsin do to convince the majority of Russians that he still can give enough bread and entertainment to the public?
Last December the Russian parliament reverted back to the control of the Communist Party and later this year, Communist deputies enacted a resolution that calls for the reinstitution of the old Soviet empire. Yeltsin realized that democracy is not embraced easily anymore. To compete successfuly with the Communists Yeltsin recently dismissed most of the pro-democracy figures in the Russian government. Particularly, foreign minister Kozyrcv was viewed by the parliament as too pro-American and was replaced by former member of the Politburo and the director of Russian intelligence, E. Primakov. The parliament supported Yeltsin’s choice. According to Primakov, his priority from now on will be the re-establishing of economic and other ties with the republicans of the former Soviet Union. Actually a month ago, Russia and Belorus as a result of new foreign policy concluded an agreement about the creation of common economic space. At the end of May, Yeltsin initiated peaceful negotiations with the Chechen opposition leaders to end the war.
So far a little progress has been achieved. In early June Yeltsin signed almost 17 different decrees aimed at improving economic and social conditions of the Russian population.
The Russian government, for example, starting on July 10, is going to compensate partially for losses of people’s savings in state banks.
In 1997 Yeltsin promised to give loans and provide assistance to rural areas.
Yeltsin is also going to increase pensions, salaries of state and academic workers, to allocate more funds for educational purposes, to assist the development of different industries.
Yeltsin also announced his decision to end compulsory military service by the year 2000 and to clean up the middle echelons of state and government institutions from corruption, etc.
As a result of these last-minute arrangements his rating has jumped four to five points. So the present correlation of votes between Cykganon? and Yeltsin is 24-35. Although Yeltsin is 11 percent ahead of Zyuganov these figures don’t necessarily reflect the true situation. The problem is that democrats aren’t well-organzied all over Russia. The Communists and the Russian mob can be considered much better organized. Communists, for example, until today, have their influential organizations not only everywhere in Russia but all over the former Soviet Union.
On the other side, the Communists are more consolidated than the democrats. Out of 10 candidates competing for the presidency, two are Communists. One is ultranationalist Zhirinovksy, and the rest are democrats or nearly democrats. On June 11 one of the two Communists announced that he gave his votes to Zyuganov. Zhirinovsky also is going to join Zyuganov but the democrats are still pulling the power blanket in different directions.
For the last three months there were a lot of speculations, opinions and forecasts in the United States regarding the outcome of presidential elections in Russia and the attitude of the U.S. government toward them. Some administration officials, for example, suggested that “If the U.S. is serious about promoting democracy in Russia it must be prepared to accept the verdict of the voters, even if they choose the candidate who least serves American interests.”
Some Republicans, on their part, repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction at “too” close relations between Clinton and Yeltsin, and that Clinton has become fixated on doing politics with Yeltsin instead of paying more attention to other candidates.
Does it mean that democratic values outweigh American interests? Can America pursue Russian policy in the democratic spirit without being fixated on Yeltsin?
Is Russia an exception for U.S. foreign policy? Not at all. The U.S. ambassador to Russia, T. Pickering, has already had several formal meetings with the Communist leader. Although the American diplomat expressed doubts about Zyuganov’s desire to promote democracy in Russia, Pickering at the same time repeatedly declined to confirm that the U.S. government supports Yeltsin during the elections.
On June 11, Russia became exposed to a new phenomenon — terrorism. A bomb exploded in a subway train in Moscow killing four and leaving 11 people in extremely critical condition. The Russian authorities viewed this accident as an attempt of hostile forces to prevent elections. The Communists’ radical wing, headed by Anpilov, accused Yeltsin of conspiracy in connection with this incident.
The Communists keep accusing Yeltsin of his intention to falsify election results. In that case, according to the Communists, they are not going to respect election results until all express massive protest. Can it mean that they are getting ready to start a civil war in case they lose the elections?
If that happens, Yeltsin may decide to impose marshal law to avoid major civil war all over Russia. Should the United States support Yeltsin in that case? Is there any other choice?
Since 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the United States was willing to dismantle the Soviet system and eliminate the nuclear threat as soon as possible. But behind the euphoria of perestroika neither the United States nor Russian democrats realized that the Soviet monster is still alive and the democratic process would be in much better shape today if it would go at a slower pace, stage by stage, like in China. That would definitely be in the U.S. interests. Should Communists come to power, no remedy will stop them from reshaping the world. Boris Yeltsin is the first democratically elected president in Russia’s more than 1,000-year-old history and he deserves full support from the western world.
Alexander Eugene Alexeev of Bangor is a former member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.