Russian vote pits future vs. past Presidential choice is between more reform or centralized system

June 16, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In the second democratic presidential election in Russia's history, Russians today will make a choice between pushing ahead with painful democratic reforms or turning back toward the communism they so dramatically rejected five years ago.

Voters will be choosing among 10 candidates, and unless one of them unexpectedly wins an outright majority of the votes, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff next month.

The two leading contenders are President Boris N. Yeltsin, who has overseen Russia's move toward an economy that promotes private enterprise, and Communist Gennady Zyuganov, who proposes moving back toward a Soviet-style, centralized system in which economic and social decisions are made from above.

Neither of the front-runners represents pure communism or capitalism, but the two-part election is in effect a showdown of Russians' preferences between the two systems.

The election campaign has been typical Russian theater, full of deep-voiced bombast and lavish pork-barrel spending. There have been cases of sudden religiosity, with one formerly atheist candidate kissing Russian Orthodox priests, another being baptized and a third renewing his wedding vows.

There have been rumored plots of coups, riots and electoral fraud, plus the ominous violence of two bomb blasts in Moscow in the past 10 days.

For most of the nation's 105 million registered voters, democracy has offered an era of economic hardships.

Only a slim percentage of the population has received the prosperity promised by Yeltsin's democratic reforms, while the gap between rich and poor has widened.

Living standards remain low, much of industry is crumbling, and personal savings have been consumed by high inflation.

Russian image suffers

And the nation's self-image has suffered humiliation in everything from the daily reports of military losses in the breakaway Chechen republic to the cheap, imported Western chicken that has become a dinner-time staple.

The young and the urban are the democratic reform's strongest base. For them, hard times are tinged by optimism about reform's promised benefits.

HTC The elderly and those living in provincial areas are the base of the Communists. For them, hard times are tinged with pessimism that reforms will ever help them.

Other candidates include Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the former Soviet president; Grigory Yavlinsky, a democratic reformer who is a Harvard-educated economist; Svyatoslav Fyodorov, a democracy-minded eye surgeon; Alexander Lebed, a nationalist retired army general; and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the extreme nationalist who led his Liberal Democratic Party to success in 1993 parliamentary elections.

Most public opinion polls have shown Yeltsin pulling ahead in recent weeks. But the polls themselves are of uncertain accuracy.

A CNN-Moscow Times survey June 8 placed Yeltsin ahead 34.5 percent to Zyuganov's 15.9 percent. They were followed by Yavlinsky, Lebed and Zhirinovsky, each with 6 percent to 7 percent. Gorbachev -- architect of "perestroika" that led to democracy -- received less than 1 percent.

Yeltsin's support seems a miraculous comeback from his low ratings of just 4 months ago, during his rehabilitation from two mild heart attacks and before the beginning of his coast-to-coast campaigning.

He has lured voters by lavishly doling out cash in the form of subsidies to factories, increased pensions, back wages -- and sometimes cash right out of the pockets of his campaign aides. On one occasion, the candidate was shown on television promising a car to an impoverished miner.

Yeltsin, 65, was the hero of Russia's struggle for democracy. Five years ago, he climbed onto a tank to oppose a coup attempt by Soviet hard-liners. He went on to win the presidency in June 1992.

But his image faded with the economic reforms that devastated state industries and caused high inflation. His inability to end the rebellion in Chechnya alienated many of his supporters. And his heart problems, combined with embarrassing incidents attributed to drinking, led to an image of an ailing leader on his last legs.

Yeltsin aide Georgy Satarov said that campaign research showed the president's poor image was due to the perception that "he regularly broke promises, that he is ill and that it's unclear where he is leading the country -- that he has no program at all."

Nonstop campaigning

But his nonstop campaigning has proved that his health is better, Satarov said. And his pork barrel giveaways are "to show the president is doing his best." The president is portraying himself as the last bastion of democracy against a Communist comeback.

Zyuganov, who engineered Communist dominance in the December parliamentary elections, is known for tailoring his speeches to the audience at hand, from fringe neo-Nazi nationalists to the grandmothers who want the old Soviet security.

Zyuganov's Communist platform calls for renationalizing the energy sector, more state planning, more state subsidies for industry and strict protectionism.

This will be the first time in Russia's 1,000-year history that a democratically elected leader has submitted to a democratic succession process. And given the mostly unchecked power of the presidency, there has been speculation that cheating will help Yeltsin win.

Analysts say this would not be hard, because the president has strong powers to make or break local leaders. But rural leaders generally have strong Communist loyalties and control the vote counts in those areas.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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