Simon Marks interviewed Communist Presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov on May 24th.
United States Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering talked with Margaret Warner about upcoming elections.
In April, the NewsHour looked at the war in Chechnya and its impact on the Russian presidential election.
Simon Marks previewed Boris Yelstin's Presidential campaign on February 14th.
Analysis of the Communist victory in December's Russian Parliamentary elections.
Click here for a menu of past forums.
Communism or Capitalism? Is Russia flirting seriously with the notion of returning to the days of Stalin and the Cold War? With the first round of voting over, and the field of presidential candidates narrowed to two, these questions are in the forefront of the minds of Russians, Americans, and the world.
The incumbent, Boris Yeltsin, who finished first in Sundays election with 35% of the vote, campaigned on a platform of western style reform of the economy and politics that he has spearheaded over the last five years. While he is popular with the young and those who have profited from the new market economy, these reforms have hurt many others on the bottom end of the income scale. The elderly, among others, have watched with anger as their incomes and pensions have become devalued by inflation (132% in 1995) and market forces.
It is largely to these disenfranchised masses that second place finisher, Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov, focussed his attention . By stirring up nationalism - with memories of the days of Stalinist Russia, when the country was one of two world powers - Zyuganov finished a strong second with 32% of the vote. This was achieved despite the glaring accusation that his is the party of "second rate leftovers" from Soviet Communism.
Yeltsin managed an impressive come-back, after trailing Zyuganov by a wide margin early in the campaign. How he achieved this has left many observers skeptical. Can he afford the huge campaign promises he has made? What about his strong arm control of the media?
What isn't in question is that the outcome of these elections will have a profound effect on Russia and it's relations with America, and the world.
Our Forum Asked: What does the outcome of the elections mean for the Russian people; for east-west relations; for the future of Russian politics? What was the effect of western style campaigning in this campaign? What role has the war in Chechnya played? Is the flirtation with communism a serious desire to return to the past or something else entirely? Did any of the lesser candidates; Zhirinovsky, Gorbachev, Lebed or Yavlinsky, play a more important role than their results suggest?
Our forum guest, reporting from Moscow, is Simon Marks, the NewsHour's special correspondent in Russia. Simon Marks has been covering Russia since 1991, and was Moscow bureau chief for Christian Science Monitor Television from 1991 to 1993.
His answers to your questions can be found below
Vladislav Botvinnik of New York City, NY asks:
How would the election of Communists affect Russian-Chinese relations? Would Chinese Communists paradoxically feel threatened by Russian Communists winning the elections in Russia?
Simon Marks replies:
The future of Russia/Chinese relations is hotly debated here in Moscow, where candidates of all political hues have threatened to play 'the China card' unless the western powers are less assertive in their policies towards Russia. But it's not at all clear whether 'the China card' can be effectively played by either Boris Yeltsin or his Communist rival. As your question suggests, Chinese Communists could feel threatened by the instability of a newly-Communist Russia sitting on their doorstep. Equally, many observers argue there's no particular reason for the Chinese leadership to forge close political links with Boris Yeltsin, since China's principal interest here is now economic not political. Nevertheless, the future of relations between Moscow and Beijing remain a much-discussed factor here....and if Russia pursues a more assertive foreign policy under EITHER President Yeltsin or President Zyuganov, you can expect to hear a lot more about it.
Jim Sheridan of Princeton, NJ asks:
What about Lebed? The elections were very close. Everyone now seems to be talking about the importance in the next round of General Lebed and his 15% (?) of the vote. What can we expect from this man? Is he extreme or moderate? Which of the two candidates (Yeltsin or Zyuganov) is he most likely to support in the next round?
Simon Marks replies:
General Lebed is now center-stage in Russian politics. Today, Boris Yeltsin co-opted him into his administration, appointing him National Security Adviser and head of the all-powerful Security Council in exchange for Lebed's backing in the second round of the election. At a news conference here this afternoon, the General made it clear that his responsibilities go far beyond defense and security policy, and that he intends to have a significant impact in all areas. President Yeltsin too, hinted that he now views Lebed as his chosen successor, and today's ceremony at the Kremlin at which Lebed's appointment was officially confirmed had the air of the Yeltsin camp unveiling their 'dream team' for the second round of the election.
Lebed is perhaps the most difficult figure in contemporary Russian politics to characterize. He defies conventional descriptions like "extreme" and "moderate" because he blends extremism and moderation in a wholly unique fashion. Analyst Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment noted earlier this week that Lebed's economic program was one of the most moderate, pro-reform platforms to be offered to the Russian electorate in this election. And yet, Lebed's personality is dour, sinister, and many find him to be extremely threatening. In an interview with the News Hour last year, Lebed told me in his trademark, deadpan bass voice:
"In our country, an iron fist has been associated with cruelty, but I believe that an iron fist is intelligent, powerful, commanding, and cautious".
As we reported on the News Hour on Monday night, it's unclear how much influence the General exercises over his own supporters. Nevertheless, most analysts here believe that Lebed's core supporters are disenchanted Yeltsin followers rather than disenchanted Communists, and in the second round run-off between Yeltsin and Zyuganov they're likely to give the President a significant boost. Kremlin officials argue that Lebed's supporters alone cannot guarantee Boris Yeltsin the majority he needs...but they'll certainly go part of the way to helping him achieve re-election on July 3rd.
One final thought, again from the Carnegie's Mike McFaul in an interview with the News Hour earlier this week:
"The West better start learning about Mr. Lebed. We really know little about him. He's brand new to the political scene here in Russia, and we need to watch very carefully how he develops".
Joanne McPike of Chicago, Illinois asks:
The very worst predictions about Gorbachev's election results appear to be coming true. As of right now, (Sunday afternoon) he has less than 1% of the vote. Why did this once respected statesman run. Did he have a message he felt he needed to convey? Why couldn't he garner more support, even out of pity?
Simon Marks replies:
With 100% of the votes counted, we can now say that Mikhail Gorbachev did even worse than the worst predictions! Latest figures here show he won just 0.5% of the vote, illustrating just how low he has fallen in the public's esteem.
Why did he run? I think for a variety of reasons. Ego certainly plays a role; but so does his sincere belief that he still has something to offer Russian society. On the campaign trail he seemed anxious to explain to voters that, despite the difficulties they face, his reforms began the process that allowed these elections to occur. Time and again he listened to angry voters blame him for destroying society....and then reminded them that before he came to power, they would never have been permitted to speak out.
Many Russian analysts say Gorbachev has mortally wounded his reputation by running and performing so badly. Andrei Kortunov of the Russian Science Foundation told me:
"I think it is a very serious mistake, because in many ways he's become ridiculous, and this is the worst thing that can happen to an elderly statesman".
I take a different view: It seems to me that Gorbachev is very concerned about the way in which history will view him; prior to this Sunday's election, he had never run for public office. Indeed, one of his greatest strategic errors as Soviet President was his failure to put himself to the test in a free election. Now, no one can ever accuse Gorbachev of failing to embrace the democratic process....even if the people's verdict has been less-than-kind.
Steve Mataija, Toronto, Ontario
Zhirinovsky's poor finish
Does Zhirinovsky's poor showing in the elections mean that his influence is in decline in Russia and that we can expect to hear less of his nationalist/fascist ranting?
Simon Marks replies:
Broadly speaking I do think that Vladimir Zhirinovsky's poor showing does indicate that his influence is in decline. Zhirinovsky has surprised observers in previous elections by the size of his vote...this time, there were no surprises. Many of his supporters migrated to the Lebed camp, illustrating that perhaps there is only room for one hard-liner in the Russian political pantheon at any one time. Zhirinovsky's clownish behavior has turned many of his supporters off, and he will find it hard to re-establish his national reputation. But try, he most certainly will, and it's worth noting that he still controls the second-largest party in the Duma, the lower House of Parliament. We'll probably listen less to Zhirinovsky's nationalist rantings...but he'll continue to speak them regardless.
Frederick Swanson of Huron, OH asks:
What do the results really show? Is it an indictment of Yeltsin that 65% of the people voted against him, or does it show that Russians are still very divided about what course that country should take.
Simon Marks replies:
Your question raises one of the most bitterly contested subjects Russian analysts discuss, and the answer depends on whether you view Russia as a glass that is half-full or half-empty.
To my mind the election results most definitely show the deep divisions that exist within Russian society. When nearly one voter in three chooses the return of Communism over a second Yeltsin term, you know there's been a problem with Yeltsin's style and substance of government.
Many of the divisions that exist are inevitable, as an older generation struggles to come to terms with the economics and lifestyle of a different system. But others are political in nature, and focus on the fact that Boris Yeltsin has not been the Washingtonian/Jeffersonian figure Russia craves at this stage of its development. There is still no respected body of law in Russia, no true free press in the western sense, no understanding of checks and balances between governing institutions, and no real understanding of democracy on the part of many of those in power here.
Perhaps it's too much to expect Russia to be any different, given the enormous task the government here has faced. And yet, other formerly Communist nations (the Czech Republic for example), have experienced more wholesale revolutions in their political elites than Russian has witnessed...or is likely to witness given Boris Yeltsin's anticipated re-election.
Rashid Miller of Allston, MA asks:
By American standards, how free and fair were these elections? Yeltsin seems to have being pulling a lot of government levers to get elected. Can we truly see the results the voice of the Russian people?
Simon Marks replies:
International observers sent here by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe declared the election process itself free and fair, based on their observations at polling stations nationwide.
And yet, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has consistently claimed (and continues to claim) that the electoral process is deeply unfair. In a Newsmaker interview with the News Hour two weeks ago he said:
"They clearly won't be free. Because our President has all three state television networks in his pocket. In America it's inconceivable THAT could happen. Our President is using all government employees as members of his campaign team. The military ministries and intelligence services as well. In any other country that would be grounds for disqualifying his candidacy. His team bugs my telephones at home and at work all the time. In your country he'd be punished for that."
In my view, he has a point. The behavior of Russia's television networks during the last month has been deeply disappointing to those of us who believed the planks of a free, responsible press were now in place here. Some of the country's leading television anchors...many of whom have been honored in the west for their role in establishing press freedom, have dealt with Zyuganov in a sarcastic and patronizing fashion while on the air. Igor Malashenko, the President of NTV, the "Independent Television" network, became a full-fledged member of the Yeltsin team....and then denied any conflict-of-interest. (Imagine a U.S. network president working for Bill Clinton or Bob Dole and making a similar claim!?!)
Russian television was also used by the government in more subtle ways. The airwaves have been full of films (both fiction and documentary) showing how dreadful life was under the Communists. In one recent broadcast, an actor playing Boris Yeltsin fought another actor playing Joseph Stalin in a mythical election. Hardly the basis for the free and fair decision-making process western observers claim to have monitored.
The reality is that Mr. Zyuganov's complaints are simply dismissed by many observers who argue that the Communist Party had 70 years in power to organized free, fair elections and failed to do so. Many observers think it's simply tough luck if Mr. Zyuganov now tastes some of his Party's own medicine.
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