RUSSIA'S battle at the polls is over. Now the politicians are fighting to interpret the results.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his supporters were understandably glowing yesterday after preliminary results showed an across-the-board victory in the four-question referendum held Sunday. A majority of voters gave the president and his reform policies a vote of confidence, rejected a new presidential election, and by a huge majority backed an early parliamentary election.
The vote provides dramatic evidence that despite their travails, the Russian people back an advance of democratic and market reforms, not a retreat. And while Mr. Yeltsin cannot claim overwhelming support, he has demonstrably greater backing than his opponents in the Communist-dominated parliament. He now has formidable weapons in his hands to try to force creation of a strong presidential republic with a new two-chamber legislature.
"It is already clear that the outcome of the referendum gives the president the necessary legal basis to use his political will and press for two things Russia needs: early elections and a new constitution," Yeltsin adviser Gennady Burbulis says.
The president's victory is all the more remarkable considering the tremendous economic collapse that has taken place since his election in 1991, when he got 57 percent of the vote. The economic reform policies initiated since the beginning of last year have put goods on the shelves, but the more than 2,000 percent inflation has robbed most Russians of their savings and reduced their living standards to a level below that of the Soviet era. Curiously, however, while half the respondents in an exit poll co nducted by the CNN television network said they were better off under socialism, only 1 of out 5 wanted to go back to those days.
Two factors seemed most important in helping Yeltsin overcome the discontent generated by his economic reforms: the patience of the Russian people and their deep antagonism toward his opponents in the parliament. On the street and in polls, voters frequently expressed the view that Yeltsin should be allowed to finish the job he started, despite their unhappiness with results so far.
The attempt of the parliament deputies, particularly the hard-line Communists and Russian nationalists, to exploit popular discontent over reforms evidently failed. Instead, the strongest emotions were directed at the parliament, widely disdained as a useless talk shop, composed of people driven only by the hunger for power.
But this message seemed lost on the president's opponents, who are not prepared even to acknowledge that the populace rejected them in this contest.
"This referendum has brought no losers nor winners," parliament Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov told the parliamentary leadership meeting the morning after the vote. "It has split society further and has weakened Russian statehood as predicted."
The parliament head blamed the loss on the government's control of the electronic mass media, accusing the media of "information terror" and comparing the campaign effort to that of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, the Afghan war hero who emerged as the leader of the anti-Yeltsin forces in recent weeks, was quickly at work fiddling with the numbers. "There can be no talk of overall popular support [for the president]," he told the Reuters news agency. Yeltsin won the support of only one-third of the total 105 million eligible voters, Mr. Rutskoi argued, given a turnout of around 65 percent.
THE preliminary results, according to election officials, show an impressive Yeltsin victory by Western standards. The turnout was less than the 75 percent who turned out for the 1991 presidential vote, but was still higher than many expected. On the first two questions, which by the ruling of the Constitutional Court required only a majority of those actually voting, Yeltsin won 59.85 percent support for his rule and a surprising 54.47 percent support for his economic reform policies.
The second two questions - early elections for the president and parliament - required a majority vote of all registered voters, an almost impossible hurdle without a very high turnout. Even given that requirement, Yeltsin emerged as a clear winner - only 28.42 percent of the electorate (around 40 percent of those voting) want him to face reelection but a huge majority of those voting, some 69 percent, want to get rid of this parliament, falling a few percentage points short of a majority of the entire v oter list.
The backing for the president was fairly uniform across the country, ranging from higher levels of about 75 percent in strongholds such as St. Petersburg and Moscow to smaller majorities in other regions. The rural vote tended to be more anti-Yeltsin. The only regions where Yeltsin failed to gain backing were in the Far East, the Amur River basin, the Chita and Altai regions, and in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, where a large concentration of armed forces is based.