Opinion Section, January 19, 1994

A Vote for Zhirinovsky Meant a Vote for Yeltsin 

Gregory Freidin 

Vassily, the driver of the car who picked me up at the Sheremetyevo airport early in the evening on the election day had already cast his ballot. "Our Vassily here voted for Zhirinovsky," my Muscovite friend informed me with a sigh of resignation as we got into Vasiliy's old Volga sedan. A family man in his late fifties and typical of a certain breed of a dignified, non-drinking segment of the Moscow working class, Vassily made his living as a driver for a firm my friend used to work for and was now moonlighting in the company car to supplement his meager monthly paycheck of about $50.

 "Why did you do that, Vassily?" my friend asked him with a sigh or resignation as we began our crawl into Moscow through the cold stew of ankle-deep slush covering the crowded highway.

 "Zhirinovsky will see to it that people like me receive their fare share of the privatization," Vassily answered curtly and added, "Ours is a rich country, and look at me -- I have worked all my life, and I've got nothing to show for it."

 My educated friend, who was now working for a Moscow bank, at once launched into an argument, replete with facts and figures, that Zhirinovsky's promises did not add up while Gaidar's, painful as they were, did.

 "Now you understand, Vassily?" But Vassily was not impressed and only grimly repeated his reason for voting for Zhirinovsky.

 "But can't you see," my friend grew more animated and offered an even more elaborate defense of Gaidar's program.

 Vassily stood his ground. "Zhirinovsky will give us our fare share," he repeated with grim determination, and that was that.

 I asked him whether he voted for the Constitution. "Sure I did -- our Patriarch Alexis II and the President said I should." "And who did you vote for in your district?" "I can't remember his name, but I read he was a businessman, so I thought a businessman's got to have a head on his shoulders, and I voted for him."

 I saw this little mini-drama was replayed again and again with a different cast of characters and in all forms of mass media as the unsettling returns kept coming in subsequent hours and days. Most striking, none of the Zhirinovsky supporters I have had the opportunity to speak to throughout the week thought that by casting their ballots in favor of this reincarnation of Chaplin's Great Dictator they were voting against Yeltsin. Indeed, they uniformly took umbrage at the suggestion that they might have damaged Yeltsin by their vote. And some had second thoughts. One man, an electrician in his fifties, was reluctant to admit he had supported Zhirinovsky. He had spent the three days in August 1991 defending the White House and proudly showed me his official certificate attesting his heroism in defense of democracy. "I thought that from then on, we'll have peace and concord among our politicians, but all they've doing is fight among themselves, but Zhirinovsky will give us direction and put an end to crime and corruption." One taxi driver in his late twenties came close to voting for Zhirinovsky but drew back at the last moment, repelled and frightened by Zhirinovsky's slogan to extend Russia's borders beyond India and Japan. "I am really sick of these guys," he said referring to the reformers, "they talk and talk, and I can't make heads or tails out of what they say. All I know is that my life is getting harder and harder, but then I said to myself: you are going to get a draft notice if Zhirinovsky wins and voted for Shakhrai." And yes, he did vote for the Constitution.

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On the other side of the class and cultural divide, among the cream of the Moscow elite, the reigning sentiments were anger at the "people" ("Crazy Russia, what hast thou wrought!" ejaculated Anatoly Kariakin, a famous Moscow pundit, as cameras rolled at the televised election night gala in the Kremlin); embarrassment at the apparent incompetence of the reform politician ("They got us with our pants down," one of key Yeltsin advisers said to me with a pathetic smile on his face as a message came from the President's information office down the hall that Siberia and the Far East had voted solidly for Zhirinovsky); and finally, utter shock and puzzlement ("You tell me what we should do?" a leader of Russia's Choice said in reply to my question about the course his party was planning to take in the wake of the rout). All of this added up to the feeling of panic and the approaching apocalypse. Finger pointing ensued in which no one, not even Yeltsin who had ostensibly put himself above the partisan fray, remained unscathed.


The first balanced response came characteristically from the wise man of Moscow and one of the fathers of perestroika, Alexander N. Yakovlev. A professional politician, but a man still true in his demeanor and speech to his of humble, provincial origins, Yakovlev saw the vote for Zhirinovsky as a clear protest of the most vulnerable groups in the population against the rampant crime and corruption, growing poverty, and the failure to demonopolize the economy. Those were the issues, according to Yakovlev, that the reformers ought to be  addressing if they were to learn from mistakes.

* * * 

But the election campaign and its outcome have revealed the reformers' other crucial errors that lie, as it often happens in politics, not so much in the plane of substance, but that of rhetoric and style.

 The most disaffected groups in Russia today are those that are situated at the intersection of two coordinates: low income and the distance from the center. The provinces, especially the far-away provinces such as Siberia and Far East suffer the greatest from the grave deterioration of the traditional links with Moscow and other centers of the European Russia (a round-trip ticket from Vladivostok to Moscow can now be a multiple of a wage-earner's annual income and an inter-bank money transfer can take up to several months, a highway robbery considering 2000% annual inflation). Likewise, the erosion of income among the wage earners, bad as it is in Moscow or St. Petersburg, has hit the hardest those living in provincial Russia where diversification of industry is relatively low, making the employees of both the military and civilian plants more gravely affected by the break-down of the Soviet-era economic ties and cutbacks in the defense budget. It was among these people that Zhirinovsky found their supporters, the people who have suffered the greatest from the reforms, who were apparently disillusioned with communism, and who, despite their humble educational level, still felt compelled to brave the weather and the confusing election system to use the ballot box in order to make their point

 Strange as it may seem to an American, it was precisely this segment of the electorate that the reformers who have the virtual control of mass media, television especially, have altogether failed to address -- with the notable exception of Boris Yeltsin. The Murmansk Region is a case in point. There, Zhirinovsky came first on the party slate, the Constitution was approved by some 60% of the electorate, and Yeltsin's Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev, a key target of Zhirinovsky's vitriol but one closely identified with Yeltsin himself, received the majority of the votes and will be representing the region in the State Duma (one of the founders of Russia's Choice, he refused to run on the party ticket). Clearly, many who voted for Zhirinovsky in the Murmansk region were voting for Yeltsin as well. This outcome correlates nicely with the April, 1993, referendum at which even Yeltsin's _economic_ policies received 51% of the vote. And yet, Yeltsin's economic policies, by and large, were, of course, those of Yegor Gaidar, the same Yegor Gaidar, it will be remembered, whom Yeltsin brought back into the government with great pomp and circumstance a few days before dissolving the Supreme Soviet.

 This apparent absurdity begs a double question: (1)  why was it that Zhirinovsky's supporters did not see the incongruity between their vote for Zhirinovsky and the vote for the Constitution that was meant to renew the President's mandate and grant him and his government decisive budgetary powers; and (2) what was it about Gaidar and his campaign, which included heavy "free" coverage by the state-run television, that reduced his massive initial lead, close to 50%, to a mere 15. A comprehensive answer, needless to say, will have to be based on a detailed analysis of the election returns, but several key factors should be apparent to an informed observer.

 While Yeltsin is known as much for his resolve as for indecision, it is his slam-bang decisiveness, rather than periods of drift, that captures popular imagination or as in the case of the shelling of the parliament building, altogether overwhelms it. In a polity where such surprises begin to look like the norm, even the most outlandishly aggressive pronouncements made by Zhirinovsky appear acceptable as something belonging to a similar genre of political behavior. In Moscow proper, the campaign against the "persons of Caucasian nationality," brutally waged by the city's mayor and Yeltsin's ally, Yurii Luzhkov,  in the wake of the shelling of the "White House," has also contributed to making Zhirinovsky's style acceptable for a sizable portion of the capital's population.

 The crude attempts by Yeltsin's spokesman, Vice Premier Vladimir Shumeiko, to stifle the debate on the draft constitution by depriving parliamentary candidates opposed to this draft of access to television as well as Shumeiko's earlier attempts to impose censorship made Zhirinovsky's brazen threats against the press seem less of an anomaly. Notably, Yeltsin did not remove Shumeiko even after the universal outcry against him and the ruling of the court supervising the election to reverse Shumeiko's decision.

 Yeltsin's recent change of heart about, first, holding a simultaneous election of the president and the parliament, second, about holding presidential elections in June, 1994, and, third, the tweaking of the election law in the early stages of the parliamentary election campaign have served to make inconsistencies and frequent change of course less of a problem for Zhirinovsky's crazy program.

 Either because he anticipated a hostile parliament from the beginning or hoped for a divided and therefore weaker parliament that would not get in his way in the manner of the old Supreme Soviet, Yeltsin distanced himself from the parliamentary elections early in the campaign. The only person capable of mobilizing the majority of the country's population, he altogether decoupled himself from it two days before the election by throwing the entire weight of his authority behind the referendum on the constitution. This downgraded the status of the parliamentary election, making "experimentation" at the ballot box more probable.

 Russia's Choice and especially its leader, Yegor Gaidar, have failed to communicate with those who are most victimized by the reform process.  Gaidar's identification with the "shock therapy" approach to the reform, the "antiseptic" technocratic style, the ambiance of a privileged member of the Moscow intelligentsia elite that he naturally projects in his public appearances, his inability to explain his program in simple terms that could be understood by people who must bear the brunt of what is no doubt a necessary sacrifice -- all combined to make this capable advocate of economic reform into an election time scapegoat. Effective as the President's chief economic adviser, an articulate advocate of his version of reform among people of his own milieu, he could reach only those who had already been converted (the same goes for the other reformists, with the possible exception of Nikolay Travkin and Sergei Shakhrai). Significantly, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who continued with a somewhat softer version of Gaidar's economic program, who is far less articulate than Gaidar, possesses nonetheless the style of a man of the people and get away with administering the bitter medicine of reform without appearing callous or lacking in compassion. His working-class background and his provincial origins show through the ministerial veneer just enough to inspire trust.

 The most odious role in the reformers' rout belongs, paradoxically, to the state controlled television which understood its marching orders as giving as much exposure as possible to Yegor Gaidar while fastidiously limiting editorial commentary on party programs to a minimum (the latter was ordered reportedly by the head of the Election Commission, Nikolay Riabov). As a result, Gaidar as well as the other reformers, none of whom had had the experience of running a large-scale campaign, were left to fend for themselves, deprived of the opportunity to have the independent press assist them in articulating their complicated and, among certain segments of the population, increasingly unpopular message. Zhirinovsky, who unlike the reformers had the experience of running a national campaign in 1991 (he received close to 8% of the vote in the presidential election), was a natural beneficiary of this setup. He could not have asked for a better deal and he flooded the television screen with paid and unpaid outlandish political advertising that played to the fears, resentments, and illusions of the disaffected part of the electorate, unmediated by editorial commentary or reportorial challenge.

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     Considering the relatively low general turnout for the election (53%), which in the absence of Yeltsin's old enemies many thought unimportant, the results of the parliamentary vote, while troubling, is by no means disastrous. Zhirinovsky's  party is unlikely to come anywhere near a decisive plurality in the Duma. The constitution, its numerous flaws notwithstanding, has been adopted, and Russia is no longer "in the state of nature," which commenced when the old Supreme Soviet was abolished by Yeltsin three months ago. The mandate of the president who has been squarely in support of reform, has been renewed even by those voters who chose to support Zhirinovsky. Both the President and the reformers were taught an important lesson in democratic politics.


     Yeltsin must learn to build broad-based coalitions, avoid rather than encourage political polarization, and abandon his style of speaking loudly while carrying a small stick. Above all, he must concentrate on party building at the grass roots and regional level. Without such organization, he may wake up one day to realize that his heroic charisma has passed on to another, less scrupulous populist leader who would be vested with the awesome power by the constitution that Yeltsin designed for himself. In his recent conversation with Vice President Gore, Yeltsin said he was planning to found such a "presidential" party.

 For their part, the reformers must abandon their elitist style and look for their leaders among the politicians who have, not unlike their protector Yeltsin, the capacity for identifying with provincial constituencies and those of humbler social class. Regular visits to hospitals, soup kitchens, and orphanages should do them a lot of good. They must also realize that the shape of the economic reform pales as an issue before such fundamental principles as the right to property, freedom of speech, democracy, and social responsibility. The spectacular showing of the Women of Russia party, with its focus on the fundamentals of social policy, indicates that any political movement in Russia, if it aspired to represent the nation, must bridge the compassion gap and learn to speak the language effective and comprehensible to both the intelligentsia and the "people."


Copyright 1993 by Gregory Freidin