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What's at Stake in the Russian Presidential Election?

The Russian presidential election pits a flawed reformer against a defender of the Communist past. This is an oversimplification, but it begins to describe the center of the battlefield, a battlefield on which the two major candidates, Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, duke it out with each other while simultaneously dodging blows from a pack of lesser candidates.

Recent polls have shown widely fluctuating tallies for Yeltsin, the reformer, and Zyuganov, the Communist candidate who runs with the backing of a left-wing coalition. Generally following behind, in third place, is Vladimir Zhirinovcky, the far-right, ultranationalist leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia. The familiar personality of Mikhail Gorbachev, who as Soviet party chief in the 1980s started the momentum toward democracy, is given no chance of victory.

The likeliest result is that no candidate will achieve a majority of the total vote in this first round of balloting, and therefore a run-off election will be necessary.

The Battling Reformer

Boris Yeltsin
Incumbent President Yeltsin has the support of the party known as Our Home Is Russia, the third-largest party in the Duma (parliament), behind the Communists and Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats. Mr. Yeltsin's radical reforms have restructured Russia's economy and, according to many analysts, set a course that will eventually restore Russia to a place of economic power after decades of failed Communist policies. At the same time, however, the reforms have impoverished nearly half the population and caused many to look back at the Communist period as a time of relative well-being and stability. Crime has increased spectacularly, and corruption is rampant among officials and the rising class of private enterpreneurs. And yet Russia is democratic as it never was before.

Yeltsin himself is a dynamic but volatile personality, a former Communist who has been accused of opportunism in his conversion to democracy and economic liberalism. He suffered two heart attacks in 1995 and is known to have a sometimes-serious drinking problem. But in many ways overriding these personal weaknesses is the image of Boris Yeltsin in 1991 standing atop a tank in front of the Russian parliament building, railing against those forces who sought unsuccessfully to overthrow the fledgling democracy.

A New Kind of Communist?

Gennady Zyuganov
Yeltsin's shortcomings begin to explain Mr. Zyuganov's appeal. Zyuganov has a mixed record, both in action and in his pronouncements. He is attempting to promote himself as a moderate Communist in the European social-democratic stripe, hence the alignment of a broad left-wing coalition, the Popular Patriotic Forces, behind him. And yet, Zyuganov makes no secret of his preference for restoring something of the past. He has, for example, spoken nostalgically of the defunct Soviet Union and the old boundaries which extended to include 15 now-independent countries. He has made no bones about his distrust of the U.S. and NATO, and has expressed the feeling that Russia today has become a political vassal of the West.

And on the Far Right...

Many analysts fear the potential threat of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the candidate of the Russian far right. If Yeltsin and Zyuganov should falter, or if either of them should preside over a seriously failing government, Mr. Zhirinovsky's appeal to xenophobia and scapegoatism could propel him into leadership.

Hot Sources of Information

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For a load of background information on the Russian election and all the major candidates, turn to Russian Presidential Elections - 96, a Magellan 3-star Web site. For news about Russia on an ongoing basis, connect to the Maximov searchable news index. And for analysis, try Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Posted June 16, 1996.
© Copyright 1996 OBS