DECEMBER 18, 1995
For analysis of the Russian parliamentary elections, Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks to two veteran Russia watchers. Stephen Sestanovich is vice president of Russian and Eurasian Programs at the Carnegie Endowment, and Dimitri Simes, a Russian native, is president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Starting with you, Steve Sestanovich, how do you read yesterday's elections? Is this the comeback of the Communists and the Nationalists?
STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, Carnegie Endowment: Well, the Communists got a lot more votes than they did last time. They managed to appeal to those who are unhappy with reforms, who are unhappy with the decline of Russia's world power, who are unhappy with crime and corruption and so forth. But if you look a little more deeply, you see that the basic, the large blocks of voters in Russia are about the same size as they were last time. The three hard-line opposition parties-- the Communists, Zhirinovsky, whom we just saw on camera, and the Agrarians, who are the Communist Party's sidekicks in the countryside--they got fewer votes than last time. So there's a migration from, say from Zhirinovsky to the Communists, but the total vote of hard-line opposition is actually down.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that, Dimitri Simes?
DIMITRI SIMES, Nixon Center: Not quite. First of all, there is one fact about these elections, two parties, which got most of the votes. As a Communist in Zhirinovsky's party, that sends a clear message. Second--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is the clear message?
MR. SIMES: The clear message is that Russian politics is becoming increasingly near Communist and Nationalist. Second, still there's something very interesting with arithmetics, and arithmetics is a very precise science. Interpretations of arithmetics are not. If I look, for instance, at the so-called reformers, Mr. Chernomyrdin and Mr. Gaidar, the former vice prime minister, if you look at the two blocks, they, indeed, got approximately as much as Russian choice, Mr. Gaidar's party, got in 1993. But make no mistake, Mr. Chernomyrdin is no Gaidar. He's much more conservative. A lot of leaders of his party are former Communists with Communist convictions today. His No. 2, Nakita Milkelkov, used to be a strong supporter of extreme nationalist vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi. So overall, this duma, in my view, is more conservative, more pro-Communist, and I'm sure that Boris Yeltsin will get the message and will adjust his policies accordingly.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you see it that way now that you've heard his position on it at all?
MR. SESTANOVICH: Well, no. I think it is important to have the right image of Russian politics now. And a lot of press reports I think that are coming out of Russia portray a wave of hostility to reform, a country seething with anger at what has been done, and that really doesn't tally with the election results. You really have pretty stable blocks of voters, perhaps more angry than they were before, perhaps more likely to get effective opposition out of the Communists than they got out of Zhirinovsky. Nevertheless, there is not this lurch toward the Communists, not a lurch toward opposition.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you don't see the trend that Dimitri Simes sees?
MR. SESTANOVICH: I don't think there's a trend there. I think you will probably have a more difficult parliament for President Yeltsin to deal with. But there is, nevertheless, still a kind of stable balance between those who are opposed to reform and those who are promoting it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you see a stable balance?
MR. SIMES: I'm afraid that with our debate, there may be less to it than meets the eye, whether the glass is half full or half empty. Steve is right. There is stable balance. There is also stable balance in the sense that extremists did not do well. In this sense, the fact that Zhirinovsky, that I think approximately 50 percent less Russian voters gave him the vote is very important and very encouraging. I don't think that Russian people want to go back to Communism. I think it is very clear, however, that they are dismayed with reforms as they are conducted by the current government. They don't want to reject reforms. They want to adjust the course. And that, on the one hand, means that results of these elections are not apocalyptic. But on the other hand, it means that Yeltsin can work with this duma and he will get the message. And as Steve said, it is important that Zhirinovsky was reduced down to size, that now the main opposition party are the Communists. Nobody could work with Mr. Zhirinovsky. He's crazy. He is not serious. The Communists are going to be a much more effective opposition.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you both agree--are you both saying, though, that this--the presence of these Communists in the duma is, is not going to be that difficult for Yeltsin to work with, or it is?
MR. SESTANOVICH: You've got six months now until the presidential election, and what happens in the duma is only going to be the expression of a kind of maneuvering by Yeltsin and his allies and the Communists, their allies, for position in that, in that presidential campaign.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But if anything--
MR. SESTANOVICH: My assumption is that both sides will take a somewhat confrontational approach to this. At least, Yeltsin will try to draw a line between himself and the Communists, as he has done in the closing days of the campaign. He and his allies got out in public and said, look, there's a choice here, are you for Communists or against them? You've got to remember what Communists did to this country. That's going to be the--that's probably going to be the theme of the presidential campaign. Now, Yeltsin has got to put together a large coalition of people who are on his side of that issue.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, today the U.S. administration said that these Communists were not the Communists like the Bolsheviks of old. Do you agree with that, Dimitri Simes?
MR. SIMES: No. Well, of course, even Brezhnev was not a Bolshevik. He was an established conservative Communist. But certainly these are not western-style social Democrats, in particular, if you look at people who are out in provinces on the Communist ballot. Some of them were pretty frightening. But I don't think that these people will want to turn the clock back. They will not try to rebuild the Soviet superpower. They know it is undoable. Russia has no resources. They would not want to privatize everything that--re-private, sorry, nationalize everything that was privatized. Mr. Zyuganov told me that that would lead to the civil war. But let me make one point. Steve said something very important which I completely agree with. Yeltsin will run against Communists. But Yeltsin will also try to build a coalition, and Yeltsin being a good politician, to build a coalition, he would have to take from the Communists some middle ground orders and he would have to take from the Communists some of their slogans, and that would affect Russian policy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But let me ask you this. How will it affect--how will this election and how will the scenario you've just described affect the course of reform? Steve, let me hear you on that first.
MR. SESTANOVICH: I think Yeltsin is going to say that reform has got to continue, and he is going to try to build a coalition that is going to be in fact and in its slogans a reformist one. He's at the same time going to say we hear you, we have to, you know, we have to respond to the problems that face our country, there's going to be a lot of talk about crime, there's going to be a lot of talk about cracking down on corruption and so forth. Incidentally, let me add one thing that we haven't really underscored that is in some ways an unexpected result of this election. Yeltsin looks like the clear candidate who is most likely to unify that reformist coalition. There are going to be other people who want to lead it. Gregory Yavlinsky is one of them. But Yeltsin is probably in some ways in a stronger position to claim leadership today than he was yesterday.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But what about Zyuganov, who we just heard on the tape say a few minutes ago that reform will--is dead, it's going to stop, it's gone? Is that going to be a real--is that the opening round?
MR. SIMES: Charlayne, Zyuganov has to address a lot of audiences. He is a politician who wants to impress the International Monetary Fund in Washington, intellectuals and bankers in Moscow, and rural voters in Siberia. He has a lot of different things. I'm sure that under Mr. Zyuganov, the reform would continue and also Mr. Zyuganov, in my view, is unlikely to become president. The question is what kind of reform, but the greatest difference, in my view, between yesterday and tomorrow is going to be not in terms of Russian commitment to some kind of economic reform, but a change in Russian foreign policy which will become more nationalist and more assertive.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Because--
MR. SIMES: Because the majority of Russian voters and those people who were elected to the duma clearly are very uncomfortable with Boris Yeltsin's pro-western orientation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that, Stephen Sestanovich?
MR. SESTANOVICH: Well, you, you see a lot of this happening already. The Russians feel themselves largely hemmed in, isolated, and they have taken a very tough position on the most important issue dividing them between the West, that's NATO expansion. That'll continue and increase.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly, 65 percent of Russians did turn out to vote. What does that say about the state of democracy in Russia?
MR. SIMES: I want to compliment Yeltsin not only on the fact, the 65 percent and out, because it obviously reflects changes instituted by Yeltsin, but elections were, to the best of my knowledge, quite free. It means that Russian democracy is moving forward.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that?
MR. SESTANOVICH: I certainly do.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Thank you very much. We have to leave it there.