Voters To Reshape The Political Landscape In Russia Today

December 12, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Today is the flip side of the coin for Russian politics.

Just two months ago tanks were firing in the streets. Today a nation goes to the polls.

Two months ago desperate men, armed and single-minded, took Russia to the brink. Today opponents vie for television advertising time.

In October the question of power was put to a test of blood and force. Now, Russians by the millions are peacefully creating a new parliament and deciding on a new constitution.

The country heads into today's elections in a state of exhaustion and cynicism. But from this vote will come the new shape of Russian politics.

The Yeltsin factor

The central question probably comes down to this: Does President Boris N. Yeltsin still have that old magic?

For him, the most important part of today's balloting is the referendum on his new constitution. He has to have a majority of those voting, and at least a 50 percent turnout, to get it approved.

In the past, whenever the going has gotten rough for him, he has been able to turn to the Russian people and draw on their support.

But the proposed constitution, on which he has in some ways staked his authority, has stirred little excitement.

Thursday night Mr. Yeltsin warned that the danger of civil war that existed in October could return if the constitution fails.

Yet plenty of respected reformers are against it, arguing that it creates a presidency with near dictatorial powers.

Mr. Yeltsin's biggest effort in the past week has been to get out the vote, to pass the 50 percent barrier. In addition to Thursday's address he flew down to the Caucasus early in the week, where he defused a movement among restive regions to boycott the elections entirely.

Possibility for chaos

If the constitution should nevertheless go down, Russia will be thrown into an uproar. The country will have a new two-chamber legislature with no legal grounding. Mr. Yeltsin will have been repudiated. Power will flow to whoever can make a believable claim for it.

Yegor T. Gaidar, head of the Russia's Choice bloc and a Yeltsin ally, said in St. Petersburg late last week, "The most important thing for us is to adopt the new constitution."

Otherwise, he said, "the country may find itself amid the same chaos and disorder on Dec. 13 as we had before the October events.

"Then everything depends on whom the defense minister may choose to obey."

If the constitution is approved in today's vote, but by only a slight margin, it is almost a certainty that the new legislature will sense Mr. Yeltsin's vulnerability and begin to tinker with it.

And this is a legislature -- composed of an upper Federal Assembly and a lower Duma -- that Mr. Yeltsin is going to have to live with. He can't dissolve it as he did the old Soviet-era Congress of People's Deputies. He called the election. He designed the new system. He justified himself once in the eyes of a majority of Russians when he disbanded the old parliament and attacked its die-hards, but he couldn't do it a second time.

Can't dissolve this one

"Russian democracy would not survive one more dissolved parliament," Mr. Gaidar said.

It should be an interesting legislature, at any rate. Thirteen parties or blocs are putting up candidates.

Russia's Choice, the favorite going in, has put on the slickest TV ads, in which children feature prominently. They represent the future. The ads are designed to appeal to young adults.

The Communists are led by Gennady Zyuganov, who announced Friday that Russia was being weakened by a worldwide "behind-the-scenes" conspiracy directed by Washington.

A centrist group of industrial managers called the Civic Union advocates a "Chinese model" of economic reform, but critics say its program would be more likely to re-create the Ukrainian economic catastrophe on a Russian scale.

Extreme nationalist

A captivatingly extreme nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, has handled himself best on television and suddenly seems to have everybody talking. He wants to restore the old Soviet Union but he has dropped an earlier proposal to conquer Finland.

He excoriates people from the Caucasian republics, much to the delight of the many racists in Russia today. He denounces the West and advocates close ties with Iraq and China.

A Yeltsin ally, Mikhail Poltoranin, tried to stir his troops Friday by declaring that Mr. Zhirinovsky Liberal Democratic Party is now the second most popular party in the country, after Russia's Choice.

He warned that further dithering by the democrats could propel Mr. Zhirinovsky into the presidency within a year.

Mr. Zhirinovsky, by the way, strongly supports Mr. Yeltsin's proposed constitution, precisely because it creates a powerful presidency -- he hopes someday to fill that post himself.

In principle there are five pro-reform parties fielding candidates, although one of them -- the Women of Russia -- is an offshoot of an old Communist Party organization.

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