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Assessing Russia's Democratic Presidential Election

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Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project


The Russian presidential election that occurred this summer was the single most important election of 1996. For the first time in over 1000 years, the Russian people voted in a democratic election to select the leader of their country. The candidates offered markedly different views on the path that Russia should take, and the Russian people voted against returning to the past and for a normalized future. Although the election was not perfect by Western standards, it was a significant step forward for Russian democratization.

For the past two years, Harvard''s Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project has tracked Russian election developments and maintained high-level contact with many of the key players in these elections. In this article, we present our assessment of what happened in the Russian election; why Yeltsin won; to what extent the election was free and fair; what the election signals for Russia''s future; and what all of this suggests about the state of Russian democracy.

The Russian Presidential Election: What Happened?

The official second round results of the elections show that Russian President Boris Yeltsin received 53.82% of the vote to Gennady Zyuganov''s 40.31%. "None of the Above" received 4.83%. Largely through his tactical alliance with retired General Alexander Lebed, who had finished third in the first round of voting with 14.52% of the vote, Yeltsin managed to improve upon his own first round results of 35.28% to Zyuganov''s 32.04%. Voter turnout in both rounds of the election was significantly higher than Western elections with 69.8% of the voters turning out in the first round, and 68.89% in the second. In both rounds of the election Yeltsin ran strongest in large cities, where reforms had taken hold, and in the north and far east. Zyuganov did best in the depressed Red Belt the agricultural and rural areas across Russia''s south.

Why Yeltsin Won

The Yeltsin campaign was a remarkable act of political jujitsu. When the campaign began in January, Yeltsin''s public approval rating was 6%. On June 16, he won 35% of the votes casts; on July 3, he managed 54%. Most elections are decided by voters'' answer to the question Ronald Reagan stated best: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The best simple predictor of votes in any district is whether voters'' real income increased in the six months prior to the election. When the answer is no, they almost always vote the "ins" out. Had this been the issue in the Russian election, Yeltsin would have lost big, since 80% of Russians are economically worse off than they were before Yeltsin came to power.

Yeltsin''s campaign succeeded in turning this traditional question on its head. The dominant question in voters'' minds became, instead, "If the Communists return to power, will you be better off six months or four years hence?" People voted not for Yeltsin, but against Zyuganov. (Lest this Russian behavior seem unique, recall the observation about the 1980 U.S. election that Carter would have lost bigger if he had run unopposed.)

A second related strand of the Yeltsin campaign successfully equated his Communist opponent not only with the bad old days of food lines and gulags, but also with instability in Russia immediately ahead. While this theme was sounded subtly at the beginning of the campaign, the television ads in the final days before July 3 said "Nobody thought in 1917 that whole families would be executed and whole peoples and preserve Russia, don''t permit the Red Troubles."

A third factor in the campaign was Yeltsin''s phoenix-like resurrection. In January, most people saw the president as old, sick, and drunk a spent force. During the campaign, he demonstrated sobriety, focus, and energetic leadership, as symbolized by more than 30 trips to Russia''s far flung regions and dancing on stage at pro-Yeltsin rock concerts.

Fourth, the campaign was one of "promises, promises." Upon his arrival in any region, Yeltsin would announce "My pockets are full," and in the manner of the old tsars would dispense patronage and promises including payment of back wages, vacations, reconstruction of churches, tax relief, and whatever else the campaign managers identified as likely to induce support.

Fifth, the Yeltsin team recognized prior to the first round of the election, that Alexander Lebed was a force that had to be coopted. In April and May, talk of a "Third Force" of candidates uniting Lebed, Yavlinsky, and Svyatoslav Fedorov worried the Yeltsin reelection team. They set out to win Lebed''s loyalty and thus scuttle the Third Force. After Lebed''s meeting with Yeltsin on June 9, television coverage of the retired general expanded dramatically most of it decidedly positive. The Lebed campaign also received financial and strategic assistance from the Yeltsin camp in exchange for Lebed''s support in the second round. The addition of Lebed to the Yeltsin team added a law and order component to the president''s reelection effort and prevent a unified nationalist vote from rallying to the opposition in the second round. The effort to gain Lebed''s support was the most significant strategic move of the campaign.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Yeltsin''s domination of the press ensured victory. The Yeltsin campaign succeeded in enlisting the national TV channels (ORT, RTR, NTV) and most of the written press as agents in campaigning to defeat his Communist rival. The reasons for their support are numerous (see below). They include an effective appeal to self-interest to preserve the right for a free press to survive, both subtle and more heavy-handed financial and administrative influences, and direct payments for positive coverage in what Russians have come to call "dollar journalism."

What was America''s role in the Russian presidential campaign? Alessandra Stanley''s July 9 New York Times article debunking Time Magazine''s cover story puffing the role of four American campaign consultants to the Yeltsin campaign was, in our view, on target. The Time story created a flurry of resentment in Moscow about campaign advisors'' self-promotion, especially among the core members of the team who in fact organized and managed Yeltsin''s campaign. Where America and the West played a legitimate role in assisting the Yeltsin campaign was through supporting Russian economic reform by the announcement of the new $10 billion IMF loan; demonstrating respect for Yeltsin as a great world leader; and avoiding lightning rod issues such as NATO expansion during the campaign.

Was the Election "Fair and Free"?

Most international observers gave the Russian presidential election passing marks. But many distinguished between the fairness of the campaign on the one hand, and the vote count on the other. In attempting to address this question, we will consider a number of specific strands of the electoral process.

Was press coverage of the campaign "fair and free"? In a word: no. The most systematic review of television campaign coverage concludes strikingly that "the 1996 election marked a step backward from 1991." How could this be? In 1991 there were two national networks: RTR supported Yeltsin, while ORT criticized him freely and broadcast the views of a range of opponents. As a preliminary report from the European Institute for the Media (EIM) concludes, the national networks "marginalized Yeltsin''s opponents with the exception of Zyuganov, and toward the end of the first round Lebed; avoided discussion of Yeltsin''s record over the five years of his presidency; concentrated on the Soviet period of Russia''s history claiming that it would be repeated if Zyuganov won; and did not discuss the details of either Yeltsin''s or Zyuganov''s proposals, whether they involved the economy, defense policy, the war in Chechnya, etc."

Key indicators of the gross unfairness are reflected in two measures. First, EIM found that Yeltsin earned 53% of all media coverage of the campaign, while Zyuganov claimed only 18%. Second, EIM evaluated the bias of the stories. For each positive story, EIM gave a candidate 1 point; for each negative story, it registered a -1. In the campaign for the first round of the presidential elections (June 16), Yeltsin scored +492; Zyuganov scored -313. In the final round of the election (July 3), Yeltsin scored +247; Zyuganov scored -240.

The causes for this lopsided coverage are more complex and less easily identified.

First, the campaign persuaded most journalists of their own vital self-interest in preventing a return of the Communists. A Communist victory could indeed well have meant an end to a free press as Russia now knows it. As one journalist explained, "I am not sure the West understands that a political battle without any rules is raging in Russia. If the Communists win, the media will lose its independence. We have no choice."

Second, the government continues to own two of the three national channels and to provide the majority of funding to most independent newspapers. The government left no question that the payer of the piper was calling the tune. For example, in February, Yeltsin fired independent-minded RTR director Oleg Poptsov and replaced him with Eduard Sagalaev, the president of TV6, who towed the government line during the campaign.

Third, the campaign effectively enlisted the emerging business elite in Russia, including Vladimir Gusinsky (owner of Most Bank and of Independent Television, NTV, that had, prior to the campaign, criticized Yeltsin''s actions in Chechnya). Igor Malashenko, Gusinsky''s appointed head of NTV, joined the Yeltsin campaign and led the campaign''s media relations. (Imagine an equivalent of the head of NBC, CBS, or ABC serving as a member of the President Clinton''s reelection campaign strategy group, meeting with them every morning and every evening, and discussing what should be the lead story in the press!)

Fourth, Yeltsin''s government and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov exercised administrative guidance and leverage reminiscent of older times. Owners, publishers, and editors were informed that newspaper licenses and Moscow leases for facilities were "under review." Syvatoslav Fyodorov, the famous eye surgeon and a candidate for president in the first round, found his major eye clinic in Moscow closed after which, probably not entirely coincidentally, he toned back his campaign and eventually supported Yeltsin.

Finally, the campaign also paid people directly for positive coverage. After hearing one of the campaign strategists explain how brilliantly the reelection team had managed to get their desired stories in the press as a result of his persuasiveness, We remarked that a journalist we knew had said that journalists were also being paid, in the case that we heard of, $1,000 for a television story. The campaign strategist did not deny this, but said that it was coincidental. Our response was that it was like the man who boasted about his seductive powers but also left $1,000 on the table.

Was the financing of the campaign "fair and free"? Clearly no. The election rules specified that a campaign could spend up to $2.9 million. Private estimates of the cost of Yeltsin''s campaign range well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Yeltsin ran continuous television spots that were purchased at $15,000-$30,000 per minute. He employed a large campaign staff, traveled extensively, and distributed enormous amounts of high-quality campaign material. In addition, the government found it necessary to force the Central Bank to provide it an extra $1 billion to fund the campaign promises before the election.

Was the election open for all competitors who wanted to run? Yes. To become a presidential candidate, an individual had to collect one million signatures and have them certified by the Central Electoral Commission. Eleven were certified, including an oddball businessman, Vladimir Bryntsalov, and former weigh-lifting champion, Yuri Vlazov.

Were voters able to vote freely? Yes. Access to polling places was convenient and safe. International observers reported few, minor, and inconsequential violations on this score. (Unfortunately, many of the international observers simply observed this part of the process and offered their judgment about the free and fairness of the entire election simply on this dimension alone.)

Was the vote counted fairly? The answer appears to be yes. But the evidence available is not conclusive. There is no question that there were serious thefts of votes in some areas. In Chechnya, for example, the Central Electoral Commission counted one million votes, despite the fact that international observers believe that fewer than 500,000 adults live in Chechnya. Even more remarkable, precisely 70.0% of people were reported to have voted for Yeltsin! Similarly in Tatarstan, it is clear that votes tallied for Lebed, Yavlinsky, and Zyuganov in the first round were, when summed by the regional election officials, transferred to the Yeltsin column. In addition, the reported voter turnout in a number of regions is implausible. In a pro-Zyuganov television advertisement made by the celebrated Russian film member Stanislav Govorukhin, that was in fact not shown, Govorukhin told of his own local voting station in the first round of the campaign where, he asserts, the turnout was 49% of the district at 9:00 PM but an hour later when the poll closed, it was reported to be 70%.

On the basis of the information available to observers about how many people voted, and who voted, and whom they voted for, one has no better basis for judging the vote count fair than one did in the case of Chicago in the U.S. in the 1960 Presidential election. Nixon accepted the verdict of that vote, though after-the-fact analyses make plain that Mayor Daley voted enough "dead souls" in Chicago to assure Kennedy''s victory in Illinois, and thus Kennedy''s victory over Nixon in the presidential campaign.

Yeltsin''s Health and the Campaign

Imagine that one of two contenders for the American presidency simply dropped out of sight for the week prior to the election, his spokesman saying that he "had a cold." For a candidate whose health has been a major question over the past year (his being in a hospital or convalescing for almost three months during the year prior to the campaign), this would almost certainly prove electorally fatal. That it was virtually not a topic for discussion in the Russian media, nor even among Russians privately, tells volumes about the state of Russian politics and political culture. We now know that President Yeltsin was in need of a quintuple coronary by-pass, however at the time of the election, the story of a sore throat was accepted by the electorate.

It is clear that Yeltsin is unlikely to serve out his term as president: This is a simple actuarial matter. At 65, he is now eight years beyond current the life expectancy for Russian males. One of the saddest and most striking facts about the period since the beginning of the current Russian revolution is that the life expectancy of a Russian male has dropped from 65 to 57.3. Furthermore, this fact is not lost on any of Yeltsin''s potential successors. When told by a Der Spiegel interviewer that he sounded like he was planning to become president in the year 2000, Alexander Lebed responded "even sooner". Should the Russian President become incapacitated, or die, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin would become acting president. He must then call new presidential elections within three months. However, in what could become a potential sticking point, the term "incapacitated" is not defined in the Constitution.

Potential Successors

Contenders to succeed Yeltsin include Chernomyrdin, Lebed, Luzhkov, Zyuganov, Yavlinsky, and Chubais. Contenders'' handicaps are highly dependent on the scenario for succession.

Victor Chernomyrdin: The current Prime Minister''s star is rising once again. Yeltsin announced the Chernomyrdin''s reappointment immediately after winning. The Communist-dominated Duma, presumably working under the assumption of "the devil we know," reconfirmed Chernomyrdin in August. The Prime Minister has earned a reputation as a learner, a stabilizer, and a dependable force. As the constitutional successor, should Yeltsin die or be incapacitated, he would attempt to use the power of incumbency as Yeltsin did. He also enjoys the backing of Gazprom (which he used to head) and Russia''s energy sector. He has established an effective working relationship with the West through the Gore/Chernomyrdin Commission and the IMF funding of the Russian deficit. At the polls, however, when he was tested in December''s Duma elections, he showed poorly winning but 11% of votes in the competition among parties.

Alexander Lebed: Lebed''s eerily authoritative deep voice, his unique rhetorical style in which each word appears to emerge almost painfully but pointedly, his sterling reputation as a corruption fighter and patriot, and his commanding aura were all summarized well in his major television campaign ad, which showed him before a serene backdrop with the caption, "Where Lebed is, order exists." In a deal that was evidently struck before the first round and that led to financial support, access to unpaid television coverage, and strategic campaign advice, Lebed finished third with 15% of the votes in the first round, was immediately appointed National Security Advisor and head of the Security Council, and carried the major burden of the campaign for Yeltsin in the second round (Yeltsin having disappeared).

Lebed makes no secret of his principal interest: namely, power. He believes that he is a man of destiny destined to lead Russia to a restoration of its greatness. His political beliefs are ill-defined, sometimes primitive, flexible, but with a demonstrable capacity to learn. His guiding stars seem to be order, realism, anti-corruption, radical military reform, and in time, a restoration of Russian greatness. Immediately after his appointment, he showed a remarkable capacity to put his foot in his mouth: each day''s one-liner was even more outrageous than the last. Yet his "only Nixon could go to China" actions of bringing a cease-fire to the previously intractable Chechen problems demonstrate his talents, especially in the military/security realm.

Lebed''s position in the Administration position depended solely on Yeltsin''s favor, and when the general became more of a liability than an asset because of his unwillingness to play by established bureaucratic rules, he was dumped. However, Lebed remains the most significant challenger to Chernomyrdin for the presidency. Although his political organization is weak, he remains the most popular politician in Russia with a 35% popularity rating, the highest since Yeltsin after the coup in 1991 (72%) and Gorbachev at the start of glasnost (51%). His closest contemporary rival is only half as popular (Gennady Zyuganov with 15%). Should Yeltsin depart the political scene quickly, Lebed might be best positioned to run and win. Nevertheless, the longer that Yeltsin remains in power, the more questionable it is that Lebed can sustain his current image.

Yuri Luzhkov: The renowned Mayor of Moscow rules the capital as Richard Daley ruled Chicago. Luzhkov has a well-earned reputation for getting things done; "Moscow works" as folks there say. He earned an astounding 90% of the popular vote when he stood for reelection on June 16 a Guinness world record, according to the mayor. Indeed, Yeltsin''s campaign in Moscow during the first round showed Yeltsin and Luzhkov on billboards with the presumptive line, "Moscow has made its choice." Speculation had Luzhkov succeeding Chernomyrdin as Prime Minister after the Yeltsin victory, although Luzhkov is reported to have expressed more interest in continuing what he is currently doing. Since the public announcement of Yeltsin''s illness, Luzhkov has increasingly expressed opinions on federal issues. He has recently argued that Sevastopol in Ukraine, should be an entirely Russian city housing the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and has also ventured into the regions to increase his national profile. With his broadening image as a doer who can make reforms work, Luzhkov is considered a serious contender for future rounds.

Gennady Zyuganov: In the first round of the election, despite the handicaps described above, Zyuganov succeeded in winning at least 32% of the vote. In the two-man runoff, he waged a lackluster campaign, only part of which is explained by his inability to get access to television. In the wake of defeat, the Communist party has entered a struggle for its soul and slogans, the Zyuganov-wing leaning toward social-democratic ideas and rhetoric on the one hand, and hard-line traditional Communists seeking to keep the faith on the other. Were the new electoral campaign to begin tomorrow, Zyuganov would be a serious contender. By the year 2000, given the age of his supporters, life expectancies, and sharp divisions within his party, he will most likely become a historical footnote.

Grigory Yavlinsky: His performance in the first round of the election was disappointing (he came in fourth with 7.4%). Thereafter in the second round, Yavlinsky''s support of Yeltsin was undoubtedly complicated by his mercurial and at times adversarial relations with key members of the Yeltsin government. Yavlinsky established as conditions for his party''s backing Yeltsin''s reelection efforts the dismissal of Grachev (Defense Minister), Korzhakov (personal security chief), Yegorov (Chief of Staff), Soskovets (First Deputy Prime Minister), and Chernomyrdin (Prime Minister). After all but Chernomyrdin were indeed fired, Yavlinsky''s decision to not support Yeltsin unambiguously strained, perhaps to the breaking point, his relations with many pragmatic Russian reformers. These reformers saw the Yeltsin-Zyuganov choice as a matter of life and death for the forces of light in this Russian revolution. Yavlinsky''s attempt simultaneously to stand up for his democratic supporters'' values and views on the one hand, and to bargain for a possible role in the government on the other was unacceptable to many. Despite this, Yavlinsky remains the most visible democratic reformist alternative to the Yeltsin government. Should members of the current government be sufficiently tarnished by the performance of the reelected Yeltsin Administration before the next elections are held, Yavlinsky could once again become a long-shot contender.

Anatoly Chubais: When Boris Yeltsin was first elected Russian president in 1991, he achieved what no one had ever accomplished in the Soviet Union a political comeback. His victory in 1996 was even more impressive. Anatoly Chubais is the second Russian politician who can legitimately claim a successful political comeback. Summarily dismissed from his position as First Deputy Prime Minister after the Communist victory in Duma elections in 1995, Chubais was brought back to assist the Yeltsin campaign. His superior organizing skills proved to be a decisive factor in its victory. Yeltsin announced two weeks after his reelection that Chubais would be his new Chief of Staff, responsible for running the Kremlin on a day-to-day basis and overseeing his schedule. Observers considered this appointment a victory for reform forces. Although he continues as one of the most disliked politicians in Russia, Chubais'' understanding of how the Kremlin game is played and his organizational skills ensures that he will remain a major player in the Russian politics.

The Challenges Ahead

Challenges for the Yeltsin Administration over the next four years are daunting. First, the long promised bottoming out of the economy still remains elusive. Overall, the economy continues to shrink. Although inflation has been dramatically reduced (.3% per month in September), Yeltsin''s extravagant and unfulfilled campaign promises and the chronic problem of wage arrears hint at worse news on the economic front in the future. Twice since the election the IMF has sent a warning shot over Russia''s bow by refusing to dispense its monthly allowance because of inadequate tax collection.

Second, despite recent progress, Chechnya remains a thorn in the Administration''s side. With the departure of Alexander Lebed, the Russian most trusted by the Chechens, it remains to be seen whether the Khasavyurt Accord will hold without the General''s presence. Should the peace treaty hold, Russia has a five year window to convince the Chechens that their interests lie in remaining within the Russian Federation. Russia''s best opportunity to promote such sentiments is through assisting economic rebuilding and development of Chechnya.

Third, crime and corruption remain a daily part of Russians lives. From the contract killings and street crime which prevent Russian citizens from feeling secure, to the wide-spread corruption that permeates Russian business and hinders economic development, the Yeltsin Administration must step up its efforts to halt this cancer that is undermining Russian society. General Lebed was scheduled to take the lead on this issue. With his departure, the issue has again become bogged down. The Administration needs a figure with impeccable credentials and a strong hand to carry out a public fight against crime and corruption.

Fourth, more than anything, Russia needs stability and normalization. After a year of historic elections, Russia requires a period of rest where it can continue with its mammoth process of transformation. To promote this normalization, political balancing is needed. When healthy, Yeltsin has been able to balance the powerful factions serving under him. With his health questionable this fall, the political rivalries have become more overt, chaotic, and paralyzing. Once Yeltsin recovers from his surgery, he must act to stem the political maneuvering. Yeltsin has called for 1997 to be a year of "accord and reconciliation". A healthy Yeltsin at the state''s helm would be the most significant step the president could take to ensure this.

What Does All This Suggest About The State of Russian Democratization?

In a phrase, Russian democracy is a "work in progress." There is no question that the Yeltsin government feared the possibility of a loss; looked seriously at the option of postponing the election (an option advocated by Yeltsin bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets); reached out to multiple sources of power in Russian society (business leaders, the media, regional governors); and listened carefully to public views through polls, focus groups, and the testing of campaign ads. We can testify firsthand that even on the election day (July 3), when having lunch with several people in the first circle of the campaign, there was considerable anxiety about the outcome.

There is also no question that Russia''s emerging free press was given a most painful Hobsen''s choice. Had Zyuganov won, or indeed had he come to power, the likelihood of chaos in Russia that would end the free press as it existed prior to the election and as it is emerging now after the election would have been great.

One bottom line is the question whether, after all this, should Yeltsin have lost, would he have relinquished power? The answer is impossible to know with any certainly, but our group''s judgment is probably not. In some sense, then, one could make the controversial conclusion that the Communists were Russia''s true democrats by conceding defeat.

Despite serious blemishes, however, the presidential election was a step toward normalization of Russian democracy. For the first time in their history, Russians had the right to throw their leader out, and for the first time, a sitting leader subjected himself to the will of the people. Contrary to dire predictions heard early in the year, the election did take place and proceeded peacefully with the losing candidate accepting the victory of the winning candidate. While not totally free and fair, the election achieved a remarkable level of openness for the country''s stage of transition. In sum, Russians have a right to be proud of the first presidential election in their thousand year history. They must now turn their attention to the more mundane and difficult challenges of continuing their transition to a democratic society.


For Academic Citation:

Allison, Graham T., and Matthew Lantz. "Assessing Russia's Democratic Presidential Election."

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