UN Photo/Milton Grant
- Conventional wisdom in the Russian election today is largely doom and gloom
- By far the most detested and politically damaging aspect of Russian economic transition has been inflation
- Yeltsin's victory on July 7 will almost inevitably result in a campaign of civil disobedience -- perhaps violence -- by the Communists' sympathizers
Conventional wisdom in the Russian election today is largely doom and gloom. A recent Time magazine cover's grave query ''Back to the USSR?'' was pretty much answered by the combination of colors -- red, black and yellow -- in which the question was posed. Not to be outdone in the gaudiness department, the New Republic bled bright red all over its cover on the Russian elections.
Relax. Conventional wisdom is wrong. President Boris Yeltsin will neither postpone the polling nor ''steal'' or cancel it. He will win, fair and square, in the second round on July 7 because in the past few months, and especially since April, the stars in the Russian political firmament have been steadily lining up in a favorable configuration that all but assures his victory.
That this constellation remains barely visible to the American public is not surprising, given the amount of fog generated by our reporters and editorialists. We are apprised of every twist and turn of the many disaster plots and subplots that daily sweep through Moscow. We are treated to minutest details of Yeltsin's use of the bully pulpit to discredit his Communist opponent, his ''pork barrel'' pre-election policies and the ''unfairness'' of his political ads. (Naturally, we are shocked by such outrages in a 5-year-old democracy.)
This preoccupation with the trivial at the expense of the substantive brings to mind a fable written by Russia's Aesop, Ivan Andreevich Krylov, almost 200 years ago. A man visits a city zoo and later enthusiastically reports to a friend his impressions of all the tiny creepies and crawlies he had seen. ''But what about the elephant?'' the friend interrupts impatiently. ''Surely, he is a true miracle of nature!''
''Elephant? What elephant?'' was the answer. ''Damn! I think I missed the elephant!''
The elephant of Yeltsin's victory, meanwhile, is right in front of us, cheerfully swinging its trunk and trumpeting every now and then for good measure. The formidable brute stands on these four legs: the improving economy; the longing for continuity and the fear of communism; the peculiar strengths of Yeltsin's political persona, and the president's skillful pre-election politicking."By far the most detested and politically damaging aspect of Russian economic transition has been inflation."
By far the most detested and politically damaging aspect of Russian economic transition has been inflation. This April it was the lowest since prices were freed in January 1991: 2.2 percent monthly with a projected annual rate of 34 percent (compared with 131 percent in 1995 and 300 percent in 1994). After four years of restructuring, privatization and shedding of many unsalable commodities, Russia's industries are poised for solid growth predicated on political stability. Tens of billions of dollars stashed in the West by Russian capitalists are beginning to return to be invested at home.
It has been a story of Yeltsin's political life since 1987 that when everything appeared to be lost his enemies' missteps (mostly Mikhail Gorbachev's) secured his resurrection. Such is the case today. No matter how much (and rightly) they are upset by the venality and haughtiness of the regime, or resent the gross inequities and ostentatiousness of what Marx called ''primary (capitalist) accumulation,'' most Russians will, in the end, prefer this to a reactionary takeover. As in Dr. Johnson's famous adage about hanging, the prospect of being ruled by an unreconstructed Communist ''concentrates the mind wonderfully.'' It is the results of this ''concentration'' that we are seeing now in Yeltsin's steadily improving poll ratings.
Yeltsin always has been best under fire. In the past, when political pressure mounted, the graphite turned into diamond. He grew strong, confident and trusting of his marvelous political instincts. Looking like a political corpse as recently as last fall, he quickly relearned democratic politics and swung into the democratic campaign mode. Of the latter, Yeltsin's knowledge and mastery may be unique among today's heads of state. He sought, and received, a popular mandate four times in five years: in 1989 (election to the Soviet Parliament), in 1990 (election to the Russian Parliament), in 1991 (Russian presidential election) and in 1993 (the national referendum on his performance).
His near-miraculous revival and his vigorous campaigning confirm that, with his back against the wall, he still can (even if only for a few months) rekindle the old fire.
Finally, Yeltsin is moving to the election in a pattern of clever and popular political steps. He has paid most (if not all) of the back salaries and pensions previously withheld because of the fear of inflation. He signed a decree privatizing land. He has ordered an end to military conscription (the bane of young Russians' and their parents' existence for almost 150 years) by the year 2000. Finally, he sat down with the leader of the Chechen rebels and signed a truce agreement.
Depending on the results of the first round today, Yeltsin could enact a few more political stratagems. He could fire the much-criticized defense minister, Pavel Grachev, and replace him either with popular Gen. Boris Gromov or, if he feels he needs his votes badly, with presidential candidate Gen. Alexander Lebed.
Similarly, if the vote is too close for comfort, he could offer the prime ministership to the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky -- another contender, whose enormous ego will most certainly compel him to sell the birthright of Russia's best ''clean'' hope, bestowed by U.S. columnists, for a mess of real Kremlin power. (Peace in Chechnya was Yavlinsky's condition for joining forces with Yeltsin.)"Yeltsin's victory on July 7 will almost inevitably result in a campaign of civil disobedience -- perhaps violence -- by the Communists' sympathizers"
Another source of strength in the second round will be voters of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the populist demagog who doesn't like the Communists, supports private property and markets and, when push came to shove, always sided with Yeltsin.
A final note of caution. Yeltsin's victory on July 7 will almost inevitably result in a campaign of civil disobedience -- perhaps violence -- by the Communists' sympathizers. Add to that Yeltsin's habit of falling apart after major victories and sinking into depression after the manic pace of the preceding campaign, and you have a recipe for a very volatile summer. The leaders of the world's industrial powers (and, certainly, President Clinton) ought to tell their schedulers to mark their calendars with a fat red line from June 16 through the end of July: Be ready for anything and don't leave town.
Leon Aron is a resident scholar at AEI.