Russian election leads to questions Speculation touches on Yeltsin's health, appointees, successor

July 07, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Being a part of history can be nerve-wracking.

Medical professor Viktor Frolov -- one of 70 million Russians to vote in the landmark presidential polling on Wednesday -- couldn't get to sleep on election night.

He channel-surfed the television until 3 a.m., he said, "just to be sure."

To be sure, that is, that democratic reformer President Boris N. Yeltsin had beaten Communist Gennady Zyuganov.

And, he said, to be sure that Russia's second-ever democratic presidential election wasn't going up in a cloud of smoke with tanks clattering into the streets and shells whistling through the summer night.

He could have slept early.

But power shifts in Russia are white-knuckle affairs to a degree that Americans -- with their 200-year electoral tradition of baby-kissing, hot-dog roasting, and Roberts' Rules of Order-debating -- can't imagine.

After all, the last time Frolov went to bed early on an election night he thought democratic reformers had won, and he woke up to learn that extreme nationalists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky had scored an upset.

The way 60-year-old Frolov sees it, the last time Russia's democrats "beat" the Communists was when Yeltsin shelled a recalcitrant Parliament to smithereens in 1993.

"I know that even in a well-planned experiment there is the factor of the unexpected," says Frolov, who is the dean of Friendship University's medical school.

The only thing unexpected about last week's election was how smoothly the duel between capitalism and communism went.

Nearly 70 percent of Russia's 108 million voters came to the polls -- a level of public interest that's rare in other democracies.

Among other things, the Yeltsin campaign stirred fears that extreme Communists were planning street violence during or after the elections that marked the first time in Russia's 1,000-year history that a democratically elected president submitted to the succession process.

As it turned out, Yeltsin won another four-year term mostly fairly and squarely, international observer delegations declared.

(Though they did duly note that the Russian media -- fearful of a return to Communist restrictions on the press -- was unmitigatedly pro-Yeltsin.)

Now comes the rush to define the meaning of what happened.

Was this election the death of communism? Or was the Communists' 40 percent vote a comeback of the party that was banned briefly after the fall of the Soviet Union five years ago?

Was it a mandate of Yeltsin's painful economic reforms?

More immediate speculation will focus on what's next. What kind of government will Yeltsin form after his swearing-in Aug. 9?

Might there be another landmark election sooner than thought if Yeltsin's ill health -- which kept him mysteriously out of sight in the last days of the campaign last week -- keeps him from serving out his term?

When will the Kremlin fireworks start between Yeltsin's possible successors -- Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, and the third-place finisher in the first round of the presidential elections, retired Gen. Alexander Lebed?

Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who had a hand in shaping Yeltsin's economic reforms early in his first term, was bullish in his estimation of the election results.

Even though Yeltsin's market reforms so far have had more losers than winners in terms of improvement of life, he says market reform momentum from the election "cannot be underestimated."

"It was the last referendum on communism -- we can forget any return to a communist system in Russia again," he says.

"It was not only democracy but the market economy that won. The question now is not what direction the Russian economy is going, but how fast."

There is great concern that Yeltsin's pork-barrel electioneering will cause an economic crisis by this fall.

But Aslund believes Russia has reached "financial stability" -- with the annual inflation rate lowered to just 40 percent in recent months, and with the budget deficit reduced to 4 percent of GDP.

The economy can only improve -- with new foreign investments -- with the electoral mandate of market reforms, he suggests.

The fate of the Communist Party in the face of a mandate for capitalism isn't certain.

Certainly, the 40 percent share of the vote captured by the Communists reflected an abiding affection for the economic securities of the Soviet era.

Most political parties are weak in Russia -- perhaps none more than the democratic reform parties, which are all formed around single-minded leaders who have been criticized for not uniting in one party.

The Communist Party, on the other hand, has strong grass-roots structures but no charismatic leadership. And now it has the image of loser.

"The Communists are finished as far as regaining power, but I think they are becoming the civilized opposition," says Andrei Piontkowsky, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies.

"I think they'll always have a comfortable number in the Duma," the lower house of the Russian parliament, where they now have the most deputies.

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