Peaceful election for Russia

June 21, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- An optimist would say that all went remarkably well in the first round of the Russian presidential election. Boris Yeltsin's pretensions and excesses were punished by a drop in support and a narrow escape from defeat.

Gennady Zyuganov's relative success motivates Mr. Yeltsin's supporters to turn out in July to vote in the second round of the election.

Gen. Alexander Lebed's unpredicted success and his willingness to support Mr. Yeltsin in the second round imply a guarantee that Mr. Yeltsin will be kept to the reform road. The general has also been set in place as prospective successor to the president. Pavel Gratchev's dismissal from the defense ministry gets rid of one of the less presentable members of the president's entourage.

Honest election

It is important is that the election took place peacefully, and according to international observers it was honest, overall -- everywhere but in Chechnya, and Chechnya is still in a war Mr. Yeltsin created, on advice of Mr. Gratchev, but which Gen. Lebed has opposed as senseless and an outrage against justice.

The former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev argues that the serenity and success of the vote has also demonstrated that elections are now established as the sole source of legitimacy for the country's leadership.

This has never before been true. Throughout the history of the Russian nation, legitimacy has been inherited or divinely conferred (by God himself in the case of the czars or by the omniscience and omnipotence of dialectical materialism in the case of their Soviet successors).

Or it was seized through revolution, coup and repression. Never before has it rested on the free vote of an electorate with unrestricted franchise.

There are those who would like to undo that innovation. There was an initiative during the lead-up to Sunday's vote to form an unelected "grand coalition" of the president's party with Mr. Zyuganov's followers, allegedly to save the nation from violence.

Thirteen of the new Russia's biggest bankers and industrialists supported this idea, which originated in nationalist circles close to Mr. Zyuganov, interested for their own reasons in a substitution of oligarchical for elected power.

The proposal may be pressed again, since the second-round outcome remains so uncertain. That such a plan succeeds is a pessimist's scenario.

A optimist's assumption about the second round of the election would be that the Communist vote will not greatly increase between now and then -- or at least will not do so to an extent that would permit Mr. Zyuganov to overtake the president.

Evidence of the Communist electorate suggests that it is naturally limited by its social and demographic character. It is largely composed of older people whose lives under Soviet authority had been hard, but who also saw themselves during the war, and in the postwar years, as part of a heroic enterprise not only to save the nation and defeat fascism, but to liberate mankind itself from its chains.

These people are now the impoverished, the excluded of the new Russia. They are people whose own lives have been robbed of worth, and their sacrifices deprived of meaning, by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Spare a tear for those trampled by history.

Can Gen. Lebed transfer his votes to Mr. Yeltsin? One exit poll of those who said they voted for the general reported that 44 percent would transfer their vote to Mr. Yeltsin, and 34 percent to the Communists. However, before Sunday's vote, the Moscow economic weekly Vek offered a cautionary tale about what happened in December in a gubernatorial election in Siberia.

The pro-Yeltsin candidate led in the first-round vote at nearly 23 percent, with the former first secretary of the regional Communist Party behind him at 18 percent. A week later, the Communist won the runoff with 54 percent of the votes cast.

The explanation is that the turnout fell from 67 percent in the first vote to 43 percent in the second, with the main fall among the more progressive urban voters.

Dangerous abstentions

Participation in last Sunday's vote was around 70 percent. The danger of abstentions, particularly among those who voted for the reformer Gregori Yavlinski -- and by city-dwellers in general, who are inclined to prefer the country to the voting booth on summer weekends -- is the reason Mr. Yeltsin is trying to get the second round shifted to July 3, a Wednesday.

It also is true that participation isn't everything. An originality of the Russian system, worth adopting elsewhere, if only for the satisfaction it offers the voter, is that one has the possibility of casting one's vote "against them all."

Another presidential election is to take place in four years. By that time, the Russian political scene will be dominated by the political class and generation that emerged after the Soviet Union's collapse.

If this election finishes well, they will have been formed in the robust conditions of multiparty competition, in a Russia where institutions of democracy and constitutional practice have been reinforced and deepened. That, too, is an optimist's scenario, but a reasonable one.

(NOTE: In a recent column I said that the Helsinki Federation for Human Rights supported postponement of the scheduled September elections in those part of Bosnia where conditions are unfavorable to freedom of the vote. The International Helsinki Federation in Vienna assures me that it has made no such proposal. My apologies.)

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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