Russia's Reds and Right Set The Pace for Presidential Bid
Communists win parliament election but lack power to halt reform
RUSSIAN voters, resentful and radicalized, have dealt President Boris Yeltsin a sharp slap in the face but not derailed their country's fitful democratic and economic reform.Skip to next paragraph
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Sunday's elections to the Duma (lower house of parliament) gave Mr. Yeltsin's fiercest critics an impressive victory. Constrained by parliament's limited powers, however, and hamstrung by their own rivalries, they are unlikely to force major changes on the government, politicians and observers here say.
But the results do raise the stakes dramatically for crucial presidential elections due next June, which will set Russia's political and economic course into the next century.
The front-runners in that race - to judge by Sunday's results - are the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Leading the field easily with nearly 22 percent of the vote in the Duma election, the Communists have emerged with an even stronger hand than opinion polls predicted. And even though Mr. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party trailed with about 11 percent, its second placing gave the party a surprise boost.
As politicians gird their loins for the presidential race, it is the reformers who must scramble to catch up. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's bloc, Our Home is Russia, defended the government's record of cautious reform and won only 9.7 percent of the vote while Yabloko, led by free-marketeer Grigory Yavlinsky, was close behind with 7.9 percent.
However the elections turn out, Yeltsin pledged on Sunday that ''nobody and nothing can force me to abandon the reform policy. There can be no doubt about that.'' Observers expect no serious change of course from the Kremlin in either foreign or domestic policy.
Some nips and tucks are likely, though, as Yeltsin positions himself for a likely run for re-election as president in June. Since many voters are angry at the poor state of their once-prized social security system ''he will pay more attention to social welfare,'' says Sergei Markov, a Moscow-based analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The president is also likely to sack some of the more unpopular figures in his government, such as privatization chief Anatoly Chubais and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, presidential staffer Andrei Loginov predicts.
Lonely in victory
Despite the election results, however, pressure on the Kremlin to reverse or slow reform will likely prove easy to resist because the Communists will stand almost bereft of allies in the next parliament.
Nor can they count on Zhirinovsky, whom they dislike and mistrust almost as much as they do Yeltsin. Zhirinovsky has always voted with the government rather than with his radical rhetoric when it comes to the crunch.
The government's opponents ''can make a lot of noise, but not really do anything serious,'' suggests one Western diplomat.
At press time, only four parties had surmounted the 5 percent barrier to win representation in parliament, though the Duma's final coloring will depend on results in the single mandate constituencies that provide half its 450 members. Those figures are expected only later in the week.