BACK TO THE USSR?
JUNE 14, 1996
The Russian people go to the polls Sunday to vote for one of the 10 canadidates running for that country's presidentcy. The incumbent, President Yeltsin, has run a promised-filled, Western-style campaign the last few months to make his reelection a real possibility, but communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov's call for the return to the USSR has put him in a close race with Yeltsin.
Previous NewsHour coverage of the Russian elections:
June 4: U.S. ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering discusses the elections with the NewsHour.
May 5: The NewsHour interviews Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov
Join an Online NewsHour forum on the Russian elections.
JIM LEHRER: Now the presidential election Sunday in Russia, Boris Yeltsin against a field of nine opponents. Our preview is from special correspondent Simon Marks.
SIMON MARKS: From the way he's campaigned, you would never know that six months ago Boris Yeltsin was being written off by his friends and enemies alike. The Russian president has criss-crossed the country, spearheading the most Western-style election campaign the nation has ever seen. He has fought for reelection with an energy that few thought imaginable after his two recent heart attacks. He's admitted making mistakes and vowed to make big changes, telling the Russian people if they stick with him, good times lie ahead. In cities across the country, the arrival of the presidential motorcade has heralded Boris Yeltsin's untrammeled use of the power of incumbency.
Wherever he's gone, he's made promises, more than $3 billion of them, many made on the spur of the moment, all designed to illustrate that he can help resolve people's problems. He has increased student stipends, promised combine harvesters to farms, found cash for cheated investors, raised pensions, and lowered taxes. He's promised money for more costly items like new homes and schools. He says he'll scrap the draft and create an all-volunteer army.
On the Russian campaign trail, no issue is too small to concern the President. "I'll get you a car," he tells a woman in Northern Russia. "What kind of a car would you like?". "Honestly? Do you really mean you'll send a car specially for me?" she asks. "Yes, I'll spend one specially," says Yeltsin, "a car with the keys, the license plates, everything." "Thank you very much," says the woman, by now an enthusiastic Yeltsin supporter.
DR. VLADIMIR GERASIMOV, Yaroslavl Veterans' Hospital: (speaking through interpreter) He seemed to be very energetic. You can see it. He's a very strong guy. His handshake is very firm. I think he was in a good mood. I really liked him.
SIMON MARKS: Dr. Vladimir Gerasimov met Boris Yeltsin when the Russian leader visited the Yaroslavl Veterans Hospital last month. The hospital was just one stop of a half dozen on the President's schedule that day. In less than 24 hours, Boris Yeltsin promised the people of this city 160 miles northeast of Moscow that he would spend more than $2 million to improve their lives, even though his own finance minister warned the president that by doing so he could wreck the country's budget, reignite inflation, and threaten Russia's agreements with the world's financial institutions. Dr. Gerasimov remembers being surprised by the course of his conversation with the president.
DR. GERASIMOV: (speaking through interpreter) Well, he asked me what problems we had. He said, have you got a computer scanner, and I said, as a matter of fact, we have. So he said, how else can I help you, I said, we've got problems in the urology department, and asked him if he could help us get some equipment. Straight after the visit, we compiled the list because, you see, the president said to us, give me a list, and I said, Boris Nikolaivich, we don't have a list, we didn't prepare one. I didn't know if it would be the right thing to do, to ask, not to ask, I mean, he's the president. So we sent the list off, and literally the next week we had conversations with Moscow about it. And yesterday, I spoke to them again, and they say 60 percent of the equipment is ready.
SIMON MARKS: Boris Yeltsin did not visit the town of Rabinsk on the outskirts of Yaroslavl. Here he has not been able to regain the popularity he once enjoyed. The Rabinsk engine factory is Yaroslavl's largest employer. Its 23,000 workers produce the jet engines that power Russian airplanes worldwide. Four years ago, this factory produced 500 engines a year. Today production is down 70 percent. Workers haven't been paid since April, and for the first time the factory is making layoffs. Engineer Anatoly Kulikov struggles to raise two children on his salary of $80 a month and says he won't put his trust in Boris Yeltsin ever again.
ANATOLY KULIKOV, Engineer: (speaking through interpreter) He promised to put everything back on the rails a long time ago, and I didn't believe him then. Now he promises and promises. Now that he needs us he makes promises. But afterwards, well, we all know what will happen. Money spends around very quickly in Moscow and in Leningrad and a couple of other big cities, but here's there's absolutely nothing.
SIMON MARKS: It's Communist Party Leader Gennady Zyuganov who's hoping to capitalize on the widespread sense of disappointment in Boris Yeltsin. Among rural and industrial voters nationwide, the Communists still have significant support, and the Communist leader is hoping for an impressive vote on Sunday that will propel him into a second round run-off election against Boris Yeltsin. He tells his supporters that he'll turn back the clock, voluntarily restore the Soviet Union, and take key industries back under state control. But Zyuganov hasn't found it easy getting his message across. The country's major television networks have all favored Boris Yeltsin and have been openly hostile towards the Communist candidate, failing to give Gennady Zyuganov anything approaching equal time in their campaign coverage.
Boris Yeltsin has also made effective use of his paid television advertisements, many of which are aimed at nervous citizens reassessing the country's Communist past. In this Yeltsin ad, a woman recalls what life was like under Communism. "We worked for nothing, for absolutely nothing," she says. "As children, we had nothing to eat. I'll vote for Yeltsin. Only he can rebuild our lives." Throughout this election campaign, Boris Yeltsin has admitted to the Russian people that he's let them down during the last five years, but Yeltsin has managed to shift the debate away from his own record and onto that of the Communists. His message to Russian voters is that he isn't perfect, but he is the only candidate running on Sunday who can prevent a return to totalitarianism. Interviews with voters and public opinion polls which have a mixed record in Russia suggest that message has led to a sharp rise in the president's popularity. But he's also been helped by the apparent weakness of many of the other nine candidates on the ballot.
Former military strongman Aleksandr Lebed, once a hot favorite for the presidency, has run a stiff campaign that does not appear to have bolstered his reputation as a popular military hero. Radical reformer Grigory Yavlinsky with his televised dancing girls has left many analysts wondering how he could have been so badly advised.
Rightist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who did surprisingly well in the last two elections, finds himself splitting the nationalist vote with Gennady Zyuganov after the Communists developed nationalist themes to appeal to many Zhirinovsky voters. Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin has consistently captured the newspaper headlines and television air time by signing a peace treaty with rebel leaders from the breakaway region of Chechnya, by visiting the war-torn region, and declaring victory against the separatists, even as the fighting there continued, and by seizing national symbols like Red Square, itself. On Wednesday, Russian independence day, the president celebrated with a rally in the very shadow of the Kremlin where he pressed the case for reelection. Analyst Lilya Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment.
LILYA SHEVTSOVA, Carnegie Endowment: You know, if you compare the perception of Yeltsin in January and now, you can come to the conclusion that he made a brilliant campaign. He was written off in January, February. Now at least part of the people are ready, are going to vote for him, perhaps not because he persuaded them that he'll do it, that he'll pay the service, that he'll fulfill all the promises. People are becoming pragmatic and cynical, but people are looking at him and comparing him with Zyuganov thinking that probably this guy, the old power, is a bit better than the new power because simply they're being afraid of any break of any trend, of any change.
SIMON MARKS: There is one group of people President Yeltsin knows he can rely on, those Russians whose lives have been transformed for the better by the changes he's introduced. Russians like Misha Tkachenko, whose billboard company is backing Boris Yeltsin literally. Now working for a private business in a sector of the economy that once barely existed, he's a convinced Yeltsin supporter.
MISHA TKACHENKO, Billboard Company Worker: (speaking through interpreter) Of course I'm voting for Yeltsin. There's simply no other choice. He's the only candidate that makes any sense. If my company was advertising Zyuganov, I would have refused to put up the posters.
SIMON MARKS: But not all young voters have been energized by the campaign, and in a bid to encourage his supporters to turn out on Sunday, President Yeltsin has arranged a spectacular series of rock concerts under the slogan "Vote or You Lose." In a country where there's no tradition of replacing leaders at the ballot box, Boris Yeltsin has gone from being an underdog to a strong contender. And unlike any previous Russian leader, he is trusting his destiny to the people.