Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Applying the 'Walesa Effect'

Over the coming weeks I and a number of others may have to start eating our words about Boris Yeltsin. The truth is he may still win the presidential election.

We have written Yeltsin off many times and he has still survived, and that may be because we have been taking too Western a perspective.

In other countries politicians are forced to resign when they preside over policy fiascos like the carnage at Budyonnovsk and Pervomaiskoye.

But here, despite the fury in the Moscow newspapers -- which are read by only a fraction of the public -- the latest crisis only proved yet again how long-suffering and passive the population is.

There were no demonstrations and no boycotts. Accustomed to disasters and disappointments over the last few years, many Russians may simply have accepted Pervomaiskoye as just the latest humiliating incident among many.

Yeltsin can take comfort from what happened to Lech Walesa in Poland. Walesa, like Yeltsin, had only a 5 percent to 10 percent approval rating a few months before the Polish presidential elections and came within an ace of retaining the presidency as his popularity slowly climbed.

The Walesa Effect will almost certainly start to work here and for similar reasons. First of all, the apparatus of state is being wheeled out in support of the Yeltsin campaign.

Directives have already reportedly gone out to central television with strict orders not to show the president in a bad light and regional leaders are being told to do the same back home. Over the next few weeks, a lot of governors will solemnly declare their support for the president on local television stations.

More importantly, Yeltsin is the only candidate who has the power to influence what is going on in the country. He can try to win over the middle classes and the intelligentsia by constructing a peace settlement in Chechnya and he can try to win over the workers by having their wages paid at last.

Gennady Zyuganov, by contrast, has only the State Duma to play with. It is a powerful election launching pad, but it is not an organization that can alter the political landscape of the country.

Yeltsin will try to play on one important factor in the elections: Unlike the elections to the Duma, the presidential elections end with only one winner. Noble gestures in favor of no-hope candidates could turn out to be positively dangerous. That means that a lot of voters who would prefer Grigory Yavlinsky as president will stop and wonder if their votes might end up propelling Zyuganov into the Kremlin and, at the last moment, vote for Yeltsin.

This is the moment when the contribution of Russia's "Minister of Democracy," Nikolai Ryabov, could be crucial. The chairman of the Central Electoral Commission openly admitted to voting for Our Home Is Russia in December and his political sympathies, dating back to his fights with Ruslan Khasbulatov in the Supreme Soviet, are well known. That means that even before the pressure starts being applied from the Kremlin, Ryabov is interested in a Yeltsin victory.

It would probably be quite hard for the Central Electoral Commission to engineer a Yeltsin victory. The estimate I have heard more than once is that they can give Yeltsin 5 percent of the vote, but no more. That could be especially important in a first round, when there is a whole pack of contenders snapping at Zyuganov's heels with roughly the same percentage of the vote. A small shove could give the president second place and a run-off against the Communist.

This is the position Walesa reached in Poland. Yeltsin would be likely to repeat Walesa's tactic and summon up a fear of a communist revanche -- as ironic as that would sound coming from someone who looks more and more indistinguishable from the communists by the day.

That, I suspect, is not enough to win him the election. But a lot of people may make the kind of decision I saw one voter make in the 1993 election.

Asked who he was going to vote for, he said that his wife was voting for Vladimir Zhirinovsky because she liked his television campaign and that he was tempted to do the same. But actually he was going to vote for the "official" party, Russia's Choice, because he wanted "no more changes" in society.

If he manages to muster a lot of these kind of votes, Yeltsin will be able to match Walesa's recovery. The only trouble is that in the end Walesa lost, of course.