May 12, 1996


Gregory Freidin

The most recent calls for the postponement of the June presidential election in Russia have brought into sharp relief three fundamental and interrelated problems facing the country's young democracy: the language of politics, the rules of the political game and the national ideals that lend legitimacy to the unglamorous daily business of government politics. What form the national idea will take depends on who is elected president, but the problems of language and rules hold the key to understanding the campaign dynamic.

Indeed, in what language should the political elite of the new Russia seek the confidence of the electorate? In contrast to American politicians, who speak the same political language and need to worry only about the choice of "issues," Russian politicians are vexed by the choice of at least three different political languages. The ritual language and symbols of the communist era were discredited during perestroika. Before long, the effectiveness of perestroika rhetoric suffered a similar fate, overtaken by Boris N. Yeltsin's powerful blend of anti-communism, Russian nationalism and what appears to have been a hasty and perhaps naive embrace of Western-style democracy and market capitalism. Now, the power of this democratic reformist language has been diluted by the failure of the reformers to deliver on their promises. In effect, the language of Russian democracy has turned into a new form of ritualized speech tenuously connected to Russians' everyday experiences and convictions. Indeed, the presidential campaign can be seen as essentially a language-authenticity contest between Gennady A. Zyuganov and Yeltsin. Both are firmly planted on the country's political stage, each partly stealing from the other's act, with the audience hard put to believe a word of what is being said, yet having to judge the performers' relevance to Russia's reality.

The V-day celebration last week was a case in point. It takes a seasoned Kremlinologist to see a crucial difference between the red banner with a hammer and sickle that flew over Zyuganov's head as he spoke to his supporters and the red banner with a star that flew along side the post-communist Russian tricolor as Yeltsin was reviewing the military parade from atop the Lenin mausoleum. How will the ultimate judgment be made?

"The difference between them and us," said Russia's premier satirist, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, "is that they write across the whole length of a fence, 'We are for Zyuganov!' but we cannot write on the same fence, 'You are a-------!' " The satirist was right about dividing the Russian electorate into two polarized camps, one aggressively relishing its preference for Zyuganov, the other squirming from the embarrassment of having to share a country with such ignorant folk and too fastidious to stoop to conquer. Yet, Zhvanetsky's aphorism may be misleading in that it suggests that the supporters of reform cannot be equally provocative. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

If only the reformers could respond with Zhvanetsky's earthiness, they would not have to worry about the upcoming presidential election. In fact, their profound disdain for Zyuganov's supporters, a disdain exemplified by their unwillingness to express, or to learn to express, their understanding and beliefs in a lucid popular idiom, has been perceived by the electorate disenfranchised by their reforms as an insult more stinging than the most offensive expletive.

For better or worse, the only candidate who can close the "cultural gap" between reformers and a word-weary electorate is Yeltsin. Inarticulate, practically tongue-tied, Russia's first president can draw liberally on the rhetoric and symbols of the democratic reformers, communists and the nationalists--all three were in evidence in his V-day statements--and still sound authentic in his impromptu comments interlarded with his folksy and utterly genuine sounding "You get what I mean." What people get is that Yeltsin is not an ideologue possessed by an idea or a mission, that he is not a schemer and, most important, that he is who he is--a Russian man of power who can be wrathful, even ruthless, as much as he can be generous; whose tastes are unpretentious and down to earth, and who is not greedy or vain. Therefore, he can serve as a relatively impartial, yet compassionate arbiter of competing interests.

Zyuganov's strategy is to become a vehicle of all the political forces that are opposed to Yeltsin's pro-Western, modernizing orientation: Lenin, traditional Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islamic fundamentalism, radical communism, proto- or old-fashioned fascism, anti-Semitism, welfare statism, limited capitalism, limited socialism. The list could go on, as long as its common denominator is the reaction to the Western, modernizing reforms with which Yeltsin has been identified. Zyuganov's problem is that he speaks the language of a second-rate Communist Party propagandist, a language that, granted, is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, not because Sovietese has recovered any of its authenticity, but thanks to the nostalgia for the old days.

Where Yeltsin can use some help is in convincing the electorate that, as a former athlete, he would, on the whole, respect the rules of the game he himself has done much to establish. However unpopular the Soviets and however contradictory the Russian Constitution, Yeltsin's bold move to dissolve the Soviet-era parliament, in October 1993, created an ominous precedent. Few, if any, among the reform politicians who supported Yeltsin then have not since had second thoughts about the wisdom of violating the most sacred rule of democratic politics. The call for a postponement of the presidential elections, made last week by Gen. Alexander V. Korzhakov, Yeltsin's chief body guard and close confidante, has brought these anxieties into focus. And yet, in a paradoxical way, Korzhakov's sensational statement has done much to relieve these anxieties.

All the constitutional machinery that has been put in place since the adoption of the new constitution in December 1993--most notably, the constitutional court, the central electoral commission, the state Duma--dismisses the idea of postponing the elections not only as an unconstitutional act, but as something that would simply be impossible to carry out in today's Russia. Also, given the army's reluctance to intervene in 1993, few expect it to come to the defense of the president ignoring his constitution. Whether Korzhakov's call was stage-managed by Yeltsin and the general, or whether Yeltsin simply took advantage of Korzhakov's political naivete, the general's misstep gave the incumbent a perfect opportunity to identify himself with the newly established democratic institutions and, without mentioning the guns of October 1993, to reassure the voters of his commitment to democracy. And if Korzhakov's crie de couer (the general confessed to "suffering with himself" before making the statement) has also reminded Russia's men of power of October 1993--that is, of the risk involved in challenging Yeltsin--so much the better for the incumbent, who, in one stroke, was able to reaffirm his democratic credentials and force government officials contemplating deserting him for Zyuganov to give the matter another thought.

And all this accomplished without using much language.*

Copyright (c) 1996 by Gregory Freidin