The Referendum: Part New Russia, Part Old Soviet


MOSCOW -- An elections official in Irkutsk drank himself to death the night before the referendum.

A columnist in Moscow stayed home with the flu, so his mother-in-law voted for him instead.

Voters in Khabarovsk were besieged outside polling stations by eager volunteers -- but instead of thrusting sample ballots on passers-by, they were offering stock shares in an enterprising new company in exchange for privatization vouchers.

So goes politics here. Russia is a messy place, and it's no surprise that this was a messy campaign -- part new Russia, part old Soviet; some of it borrowed from the venerable practices of stable democracies and some of it made up on the spot.

Boris N. Yeltsin flew out to Novokuznetsk, in the coal-mining regions of Siberia, for a big campaign swing -- but as soon as he got there he disappeared into a closed meeting with local bigwigs. When the meeting broke up he pronounced himself satisfied, avoided several crowds waiting to cheer for him, and left town.

It didn't call to mind an election campaign so much as a syndicate convention in Las Vegas (but without the casinos, or the molls).

Everyone seemed to think this was normal. This was how the Soviets did business, and for a 62-year-old former party boss like Mr. Yeltsin, who eventually scored a resounding victory anyway, old habits die hard.

But then a few days later the photo op (or something close to it) reared its head after all.

Russian television treated its viewers to a heart-warming profile of Mr. Yeltsin. We met his wife, Naina, at home, who talked about what a great family man he was and, somewhat contradictorily, about how he worked so hard for the people back in his Communist Party boss days that he hardly ever had time for his two daughters.

She talked about how devastated Mr. Yeltsin had been when his first daughter had been born, instead of a son, and then how when their second daughter had come along he had reconciled himself to life and decided he loved girls, anyway.

At that point the warm and cuddly president of the Russian Federation himself walked in, and everything was as fine as could be until the tea came out -- and then he let Naina know in no uncertain terms, but without raising his voice, that it wasn't hot enough. Father and leader.

Mr. Yeltsin's opponents were at a distinct disadvantage all along. Their point was that Russians were fed up with politics and reforms. But people like Ruslan Khasbulatov, the cunning leader of the legislature, knew that if people saw the referendum as a choice between him and Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Yeltsin would win every time. So his strategy was based around the expectation of a low turnout. Mr. Yeltsin might win, but if most people stayed at home who could take it seriously?

Mr. Khasbulatov's campaign, then, was built around not campaigning -- trying not to stir up interest in the voting.

He made one foray, to the city of Voronezh, where he spoke to true believers, but otherwise he kept his head down except for an occasional comment disparaging the whole exercise.

Unfortunately for him, his allies included all the hotheads among hard-line Communists, who made a lot of noise and who in the end brought streams of people to the polls for the express purpose of voting against them.

Mr. Khasbulatov faced another disadvantage, one that Mr. Yeltsin's forces were eager to capitalize on.

Russians are inordinately proud of their Russianness -- which means they tend to despise non-Russians, especially people from the fringes of their empire, and most especially darker-skinned people from the south.

Mr. Khasbulatov is a Chechen, from the Caucasus Mountains, and there was a lot of talk (all unofficial, of course) about how crooked the Chechens are and about what happened to Russia the last time it had a leader from the Caucasus -- a Georgian named Dzhugashvili, who called himself Josef Stalin.

Dirty? Sure. Effective? Absolutely.

As last Sunday's referendum approached, Mr. Yeltsin suddenly discovered that military pay, pensions, students' allowances, all had to be raised.

Fair enough, that's normal politics. But his market-reform allies had another weapon as well. They may believe in free enterprise, but at the moment they are running a system inherited from the Soviets, so when the mayor of Saratov said the price of milk and sausage would be slashed, the next day it was slashed -- by half. He said it had nothing to do with the referendum, just the way Tammany ward heelers used to say the Christmas turkeys they gave out had nothing to do with Election Day.

But the opposition fought back in its own ways. In Volgograd the local council, implacably hostile to Mr. Yeltsin, simply took over zTC the local newspapers and television, firing any editors or managers who objected. One Western correspondent saw stacks of what might be called ready-to-use ballots -- pre-marked, that is -- in the office of a local official several days before the referendum.

The campaign here, such as it was, showed just how totally Russia has given up on political parties, because really there are none.

To most Russians, a political party means a rigid, disciplined, hierarchical, semi-secret organization that single-mindedly puts its own interests ahead of any others -- in the mold of the Communist Party, in other words -- and they want nothing to do with any of it. So there are dozens of factions running around, which consist solely of politicians who have bunched together, and no serious parties, not even the revived Communist Party of Russia.

Mr. Yeltsin said last fall he was going to form a party, and didn't, and has been seriously criticized since then for failing to build a political base -- but in reality the very word "party" here fills most people with loathing, so maybe he was better off letting it slide.

Instead Mr. Yeltsin rounded up a lot of actors, filmmakers, writers, physicists (for some reason physics has given an inordinate number of thoughtful people to the democratic reform movement) and had them spread out across the country for a little agitation and propaganda.

Russians were quite struck by the actors, especially, since it used to be that the only people who came to town during elections were professors of scientific Marxism. Suddenly democracy did seem glamorous, after all.

A few Russians were left totally adrift. One retired woman in Pskov said the week before the referendum that she was waiting to be told who to vote for, but it was worrying her because it seemed as though no one was doing the telling.

In the old days the Communists made sure you voted, and told you how to vote, and anyway it didn't make any difference because there wasn't any choice, and some people found this all very reassuring.

Last Sunday, just 64 percent of the electorate bothered to turn out, which is high by American standards but was viewed here as pretty low.

A few took solace in that figure, though -- it showed that people were no longer scared NOT to vote. Now that's a true measure of democracy.

On hand in the final days of campaigning and non-campaigning were representatives of both the Republican and Democratic parties from the United States. Whether the Americans had come to teach or to learn wasn't quite clear.

Will Englund is a Moscow correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

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