Russia's choice Crucial election: Duel between Yeltsin and Zyuganov is a referendum on reform.

June 13, 1996

WHEN RUSSIAN voters go to the polls this Sunday to elect their new president, they can choose from among 11 candidates. But only two, the incumbent Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, the communist candidate, count. And they offer the voters a fundamental choice.

If Mr. Yeltsin wins re-election, Russia's experiment in crafting a post-communist society roughly modeled after western democracies will continue. Should Mr. Zyuganov win, the country would face political and economic uncertainty as his communists attempt to undo many of the market reforms. As a wave of violence in Moscow suggests, this will be a closely contested election.

Many Russians are not exactly admirers of President Yeltsin. Yet the fear that Mr. Zyuganov would restore a "dictatorship of the proletariat" is felt so strongly that the president's popularity has been soaring in recent polls.

Russians are justifiably leery about Mr. Zyuganov, a colorless dogmatist who shows little inventiveness or imagination. Trying to maximize his support among the discontented from Stalinists to nationalists, he has not been candid about what kind of communist he is or the policies he would follow. For example, which industries would he renationalize? Would he outlaw private banks?

Mr. Zyuganov looks like an unreconstructed communist, who takes his Leninism seriously, believes in monopoly power and regards Stalin as the greatest Soviet leader. Mr. Zyuganov is such a believer in state planning that he advocates six-year plans, even though many economists say the Soviet era five-year plans failed because of their excessively long time frame in a world of fast-moving production changes.

The first five years of post-communism have not been easy in Russia. Millions of people have lost jobs or the security of a system that gave people few material choices but also kept them from becoming destitute. At the same time, the new freedoms and weak state controls have increased crime and disorder. At best, today's Russia is a democracy in the making.

Yet few Russian voters should have any real desire to return to the days of Soviet power, repression and shortages. Although they may not like Mr. Yeltsin very much, they ought to understand that his re-election best assures that Russia will continue strides toward modernization and prosperity.

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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