Russian Presidential Polls
Communists on the Comeback Trail

It will be another fortnight's wait for the Russians to finally know who their new President shall be. The first round results show that the present incumbent, Boris Yeltsin leads by a slender margin of less than 3% over his nearest rival Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) who has about 32% of the votes. In the third position with an impressive and unexpected performance but way behind in the race with 15% votes is the former general, Alexander Lebed.

By the Russian presidential polling system, the contest then reduces down to the top two contestants in the final round, whose main tactics now would be to garner the support of the remaining contestants in their favour. Depending more on manipulation of support from other candidates, Yeltsin has offered attractive packages to such candidates in return for their support. In any case, the final outcome will be a close one fraught with much bitterness.

These preliminary results have confirmed two most important historical truths of our times. One is that behind these political changes in Russia lies the central role of the working class which had been written off from history by the bourgeois zealots in their exuberance over the collapse of Soviet Union and the regimes in East European countries few years back. Two, the bankruptcy of the globally touted and imperialist-guided market reforms have crumbled in yet another country.

Referendum on Economic Reforms

At the centre of the election campaigns of all candidates, figured the most vital question haunting Russians today, that of economic reforms. Repudiating Gorbachev's search for a 'middle-path' for the Russian economy, Yeltsin bulldozed through with his extreme measures for privatisation. Today, the putrescent economy is in an advanced crisis. By 1995, GNP had already shrunk to less than half of what it was in 1990. With the continuing trends of an acute shortfall in revenues, the 1996 budget deficit has been estimated to be about $36 billions, which is over 60% of the planned expenditure. Last year the prices were rising steadily at about 5% every month. The market has been flooded with imported goods, often unaffordable to the working people, and domestic production has plunged to deplorable levels where only 50% of domestic consumption is from indigenous products. From 1.5 roubles to a dollar in 1990, the exchange rate has risen to above 5000 roubles a dollar.

What has drastically affected the people is the price liberalisation undertaken at regular periods. This has altered the relative prices causing a differential impact across classes both at the level of income and consumption. Further, with real wages reducing to half its value over this period, the working class was being crushed more and more under the impact of liberalisation. Income distribution has become highly skewed with 30 million in a nation of 147.5 million living below the subsistence level.

Assuming power in December 1991, after the failed communist-led coup to remove Gorbachev, Yeltsin embarked on a grand 500-day privatisation plan designed by his former aide Yegor Gaidar, to dismantle the command economy and develop market system in Russia in a most obnoxious way. The privatisation of the mammoth large-scale state enterprises was of course out of question. So the medium and small-scale enterprises (numbering about 40,000) were put up for sale before proceeding to split up the huge conglomerates. With hardly any private accumulation of wealth during the Soviet period, it was all depending on the savings of the people.

To overcome this problem, Yeltsin lured the public with special investment accounts opened in the name of each citizen. Complemented with their savings these would assist the people in buying off these state enterprises, it was said. Soon after this he sprung another surprise by announcing on 29 December 1991 that these accounts would only be operational two years later while also declaring at the same time that almost all the small- scale enterprises would be auctioned off. Few days later there was yet another bomb-shell from Yeltsin. He freed the prices leading to astronomical inflation and wiping out of people's savings. With reduced savings and no investment capability, the people were left out from buying the state enterprises. This generated a new political economy of the black market and criminals. In all their gusto, Yeltsin, his domestic and foreign economic advisors, went ahead with this naked criminalisation of the Russian economy.

Around the same time the public was given vouchers of specified amount as their share in state property which was to be denationalised. Deviating from the earlier plan of making the vouchers non-negotiable and avoiding any speculative trading, the government relaxed these rules and made the vouchers transferable and valid for a limited time. This encouraged the already growing black market and legitamised all criminal techniques to make a fast buck. This led to severe imbalances in society. 10 to 15% of the Russian population hold enormous wealth amassed from the loot and plunder of the state enterprises while Russia's historic working class was reduced down to a dehumanised existence. Crime and violence in society has also affected highly valued cultural and moral values. This accumulated ire against the pro-reform government found expression in these elections.

Along with Yeltsin, his western patrons are also anxious about the poll outcome. Much is at stake for them too. Western powers, concerned about the credibility of their economic package to salvage a collapsing economy and capturing a fertile market, are pressing for faster reforms in Russia. Timed with the Duma elections in December last, the WB-IMF came out with a report criticising the pace of reforms to be slow. Many western observers ward off the communist victories in East European countries, and now in Russia, as posing no threat to their reforms. Calling the communists 'turncoats', they believe that in the given situation of globalisation under the so-called unipolar world order and with the collapse of their respective command economies, the communists would only be too eager to implement their reform packages. For Yeltsin's advisors from the West, like Jeremy Sachs, all the degeneration seen in the era of market reforms was only an aberration in the plan and not an inherent flaw in their approach. With Yeltsin back in power once again they hope to achieve brighter results. However, it seems from the polls that the people have learned a bitter lesson.

Reds on a Popularity Wave

Whatever one might conclude about the true colours of Russian Communists today, be they Communists in the classic mould or Western-style social democrats, their surge in popularity mirrors the aspirations that the Russians have bellied under these troubled times. Their anti-reform poll plank and the promise to bring back many of the Soviet-era social benefits like free education, free medical care, and jobs for all have catapulted Zyuganov to be the nadezhda na zavtra ("hope for tomorrow"). And this in the face of a powerful counter campaign by Yeltsin warning the public of the revival of the "dark days" of Soviet-rule and civl war if the communists are voted to power. The CPRF have in their campaign focussed on reestablishing the social security net, halting further privatisation, re-nationalisation of key industries and a hold on selling of properties.

Vulgar Populism

Losing out on the opinion polls, Yeltsin desperately floated one populist measure after another to charm the voters. It was a last ditch effort to buy the votes. To woo the rural voters he wrote off the collective farm debts of a whooping $5.1 billion and lowered the price for gas in rural areas. Added to this he ordered the government to pay off all wage and pension arrears of state employees amounting to $3.56 billion. No one knows where this money would come from but this is only part of the dream that Yeltsin was selling to the voters. On another visit to Vladivostok he signed a plan for the development of the Far East that would require investment comparable to the country's annual budget! But at many places his trick failed as resentful pensioners and irate workers heckled him over non-payment of wages and pensions.

Nationalism and Nostalgia

Many in Russia today yearn for the socio-economic benefits that they enjoyed in the erstwhile Soviet Union. So when few months back the Duma overwhelming voted to declare a document that sealed the dismemberment of the Soviet Union as invalid, it found widespread public acceptability even though it holds nothing more than a change on paper and was more a symbolic gesture by the communists. There is more than a residual anger for Yeltsin in the way Russia has been obsequiously downsized from a superpower to a nonentity. Bill Clinton side-stepped the Russian objections and deployed the NATO in the ruins of former Yugoslavia all couched in his larger plans to extend NATO to the borders of Russia. Russia and the 12 CIS states may not tread back to the Soviet Union, but the people are bitter over the fruits of market reforms offered to them few years back and this popular nostalgia will only fuel the struggles of the basic class forces in the coming days.