Rethinking Yeltsin's Reelection
By Julia Duchovny The Moscow News
Was Yeltsin's victory in 1996 a miracle or the result of shady manipulations? Ten years on, political players voice their doubts
July 3 marks the 10 year anniversary since Russia's first president Boris Yeltsin was reelected for a second term, in a strike that many in the West saw as a final victory over Communism. Indeed, the tumultuous reelection of a grossly unpopular candidate helped pave the way for Putin's Russia of today, through Yeltsin's de facto appointment of an unknown former KGB agent as Prime Minister in 1999. Now, however, that turning point in Russia's post-Soviet history is becoming increasingly controversial.
While Western leaders have expressed dismay with what they see as Putin's backtracking on democracy, few commentators in 1996 questioned the fairness of a controversial two-round election campaign that began when Yeltsin's rating was at a dangerously low 8 percent. Ten years later, Russian pundits and political figures have come to admit that the top priority was keeping the communists - led by the popular presidential candidate Gennady Ziuganov - out of the Kremlin.
"There were probably falsifications," Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation think tank, who was instrumental as a member of Yeltsin's campaign staff, told Moskovskie Novosti this week. "In any case, state resources were used to their full capacity.... I was very satisfied that we had accomplished something that was practically impossible."
An Ailing Incumbent
Touted in the West as a democratic leader, Yeltsin fought on through the Nineties with a liberal, pro-market course in an often besieged political environment, with a team of currently unpopular reformers like Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. In 1993, Yeltsin used the military to quell a coup in an anti-reform Parliament which he subsequently disbanded - a major blow to the strong communist and nationalist opposition. And while he did manage to avoid a potential revanche, it undermined his popularity.
By spring of 1996, doubts began to surface that Yeltsin was too weak to continue. In the previous years, the ailing and heavy-drinking president had stunned Russians with eccentric behavior that included attempts to direct an orchestra during his 1994 visit to Germany, oversleeping during visits with world leaders, and even urinating outside of an airport. Ill with heart problems, he delegated the task of the election campaign to his "family" - a group of oligarchs and actual family members who fought to raise Yeltsin's popularity rating ahead of the June 16 ballot.
One of them was the now exiled media tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who used his ORT Channel 1 to launch a massive advertisement campaign. The now ubiquitous "Vote or Lose" slogan was actually a take on the MTV-sponsored 1992 "Choose or Lose" campaign in support of U.S. President Bill Clinton. MTV reportedly refused to take part in the Yeltsin campaign when approached by Kremlin officials because they did not believe he had the potential to win.
Still, in the first June 16 ballot, Yeltsin won just 35 percent of the ballot, with Ziuganov trailing at 32 percent. A rerun was called. In a notorious set-up just days after, security agents arrested two top campaign officials, Sergei Lisovsky and Arkady Yevstafiyev, on accusations of trying to carry a box filled with cash out of the Government Building. The move, allegedly organized by FSB head Mikhail Barsukov and Yeltsin's bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, was seen as an attempt to delay the elections and prevent Gennady Ziuganov from winning. Days later, Yeltsin fired both Barsukov and Korzhakov. In a final "practically impossible" victory, Yeltsin, who was too ill for public appearances, was re-elected with a surprising 54 percent, against Ziuganov's 40. Some claimed people who voted for Alexander Lebed, another popular contender, in the first round, gave their votes to Yeltsin in the second.
Rethinking the Impossible
What was behind the miracle? "We have information that Ziuganov won in the first round, but was just one vote away from the necessary 50 percent," Viktor Ilyukhin, one of the Communist leaders, told Gazeta.ru this week.
But Ziuganov himself is skeptical about what he calls "rumors" of his victory - spread by communists and ultra-nationalists alike. "It was a psychological attack to scare my supporters away [by] making them believe that I was unable to stand up for my victory," he told Moskovskie Novosti. "But all regions south of Moscow voted for me, while all of [sparsely populated] Siberia and the Far-East voted for Yeltsin. The country was split."
Still, Ziuganov insists that there were falsifications - a court in Dagestan actually upheld his challenge of the local results. He also says that he was denied campaign airtime that he had paid for. "We had a tape that showed how the electronic ballot counters were programmed in a way that you could input any result you wanted. The television people were scared." Ziuganov says that he was escorted out by armed security men.
Falsification or not, pro-Yeltsin officials agree that they had taken the only option they had. "What was the alternative?" asks Nikonov. "Either do nothing... or support the communists."