Zhirinovsky's Crude Appeal
Despite late shifts toward reformers, vote for parliament and Constitution in Russia is a defeat for Boris Yeltsin
FOR everyone who had a chance to watch Moscow TV in the month prior to the election, it was easy to predict the loser: Yegor Gaidar and Russia's Choice. It was not so easy to predict the winner.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Russia's Choice, whose leaders were mostly a part of the Yeltsin government, was under attack from all the other parties - not only the communists of Gennadi Zyuganov and the nationalists of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but also the reform economist, Grigory Yavlinski, and the pro-Solzhenitsyn Democratic Party of Russia. The real target of the attacks was not Mr. Gaidar but President Boris Yeltsin himself.
Mr. Yeltsin's policies were defended only by Gaidar and the other representatives of Russia's Choice, and very poorly at that. Gaidar, as Yeltsin's proxy in the election, was not only extremely boring but arrogant in his TV appearances. This arrogance was manifested in his remarks that he and his colleagues were too busy with government work, so they did not have time to answer the accusations of the opposition. Underlying the impression of arrogance was the image, repeatedly shown by the opposition on TV, of the shelling of the Russian parliament by Yeltsin's tanks.
So it came as no great surprise to those who were able to watch Russian TV that Russia's Choice lost the election. What did come as a surprise was the extent of Mr. Zhirinovsky's victory.
But, to do credit to Zhirinovsky, it is necessary to emphasize that his appearances were the most interesting of all the candidates'. He was the best speaker. He entertained the audience instead of speaking like a professor. In some respects, he seemed more like a Western politician than any of the other candidates. Probably he lost himself a few million votes with his racist remarks, such as his call for blond, blue-eyed speakers on TV, which only alienated the non-blonds and the non-blue-eyed without adding anything to the readiness of the nationalists to vote for him.
In spite of some improvements in the position of Russia's Choice after counting the votes for individual deputies, the Dec. 12 elections are still a terrible defeat for Yeltsin. To be sure, he concentrated on putting all of his authority behind the project of the new Constitution. However, the Constitution only barely passed. Zhirinovsky also strongly supported the new Constitution and told his supporters to vote for it. Without their votes, the Constitution would probably have failed; its opponents included not only the communists, but moderate-reformist blocs such as Mr. Yavlinski and Nikolai Travkin.
Zhirinovsky supported the Constitution, not because he supported Yeltsin, but because he had it in mind to replace Yeltsin and become president, with all the powers that the new Constitution gives the office.
The world press, including the democratic press in Russia, has concluded that a huge portion of the Russian people have rejected freedom and democracy in their first free choice and have instead chosen slavery and imperialism. This, however, is a misreading of the situation.
There are two main reasons for the heavy vote for Zhirinovsky and Mr. Zyuganov, that is, for the ultra-nationalists and communists.
First, the country is experiencing an economic disaster that makes even the Brezhnev era look like a period of plenty. Over the last three years, industrial production has dropped 40 percent. The monthly inflation rate has exceeded 20 percent. Overnight, a low-level but very secure existence for millions of people turned into a world of desperate insecurity: more beggars, criminals, rackets, prostitution, and homelessness, while a few dozen people became millionaires sporting BMWs and Porsches.
No matter what one thinks of economic ``shock therapy,'' the ordinary citizen saw no improvement. Just the opposite. Someone can sincerely support the goal of a free-market economy and at the same time doubt that rapid reform can lead a socialist economy to change quickly into a normal free-market economy. We have to keep in mind that, as yet, there is no precedent for a successful transformation of a former socialist economy into a normal free-market economy. We also have to keep in mind that a socialist economy could be and was built from above, but a free-market economy cannot be. In Eastern Europe there is an adage: ``It is easy to transform an aquarium into fish soup, but it is much more complicated to reverse the process.'' When Russian workers voted against the Yeltsin-Gaidar shock therapy, it was not because they liked slavery. Freedom from hunger is also a very important freedom.