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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Comeback Incumbent?

The impending presidential elections could not come at a more inauspicious time for Boris Yeltsin: The social costs of reform are in abundant evidence while all the benefits from economic development on a solid market basis have yet to make themselves felt. This same situation tripped up the early Polish reformers and helped the new-style left-wing parties come to power in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. In Russia, this situation spells hope for Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party. But anyone familiar with the CPRF, its program, the ideology and psychology of its apparat, knows that it is not a new-style left-wing party, not a party of the Social-Democratic type. Rather it is the embryo of a new totalitarianism.

The Communist Party garnered 22 percent of the vote in December's parliamentary elections. Factoring in potential allies, the party can count on 30 to 35 percent of the vote in the next election. The support for a candidate favoring reform could be significantly more. But in December, a minority triumphed over the majority because the majority was split, demoralized and disoriented. Will this happen again in June?

Today, the conventional wisdom holds that no politician from among the liberal intelligentsia -- including their most popular man, Grigory Yavlinsky -- can withstand the Zyuganovites. Meanwhile, will Yeltsin run? And if yes, what can he do to increase his chances of victory?

Although he hasn't declared himself officially, many of the president's statements dating back to last August smack of campaigning. And every move he has made in the New Year suggests the intention to run again.

Many of these moves have made a depressing impression on the liberal intelligentsia that has supported Yeltsin for five years. The most repugnant was the operation against the terrorists who took hundreds of people hostage in the Dagestani city of Kizlyar before retreating to the village of Pervomaiskoye, on the border with Chechnya. Although the stated aim of the operation was to free hostages, the generals who ran the operation under the command of Federal Security Service chief General Mikhail Barsukov made no secret of the fact that the fate of the hostages did not interest them. In their daily briefings, they said their top priority was to punish the terrorists.

Yet the scale of this terrorist act (hundreds of hostages versus hundreds of terrorists) meant that it would be impossible to save all the hostages if force were used. Only negotiations could have saved their lives. True, the terrorists began by making political demands that could not be met. But later they retracted these demands and made safe passage across the border into Chechnya the only condition for freeing the hostages.

During those tense days, the president received many appeals asking that he make the lives of the hostages his priority in choosing a plan of action. Members of the Presidential Advisory Council (including Yegor Gaidar, Sergei Kovalyov and myself) also wrote. The president did not reply with a refusal, he just did not reply at all to our letter and to many like it. On the other hand, he publicly condemned last summer's agreement brokered under similar circumstances for the sake of saving well over 1,000 hostages in Budyonnovsk. Yeltsin made it clear that he had complete faith in the implausible information his generals were feeding him, and that he supported their actions. Meanwhile, these actions became increasingly cynical. FSB spokesman Major General Alexander Mikhailov said that the hostages were believed to be dead (though he did not say why) and that now the object was to destroy the terrorists. The bombardment of Pervomaiskoye that followed killed who knows how many hostages.

It was this killing that prompted me to resign from the Presidential Council of which I had been a member since early 1993. I did not attach great political importance to this step since the council had never had real power. But it seemed to me morally impossible to be even indirectly associated with such an atrocity.

The next day Gaidar announced that he too was resigning and joining the opposition to Yeltsin. Then Sergei Kovalyov stepped down as head of the president's human rights commission with a sharply worded letter to Yeltsin decrying, among other things, his decision to let the last liberals in his government go. The departures of Sergei Filatov and Anatoly Chubais suggested that Yeltsin was listening solely to his hawkish generals and had turned a deaf ear to the Democrats.

At that point, democratic politicians were back where they started: Yeltsin seemed increasingly to embrace the same Great Power politics the Communists did, yet there was no other candidate capable of stopping Zyuganov.

Presidential aide Georgy Satarov asked critics not to jump to conclusions, claiming that Yeltsin would reestablish the balance between the forces that supported him. The president soon tapped Alexander Kazakov, Chubais's erstwhile deputy, to run the State Property Committee. Then he named AvtoVAZ president Vladimir Kadannikov -- one of the managers capable of understanding the language of market relations -- to replace Chubais as first deputy prime minister.

Finally, on Jan. 29, Nizhny Novgorod governor Boris Nemtsov delivered the signatures of 1 million people in his region demanding an end to the war in Chechnya. Some suppose that, having satisfied the hawks, the president is now prepared to do something for the doves.

But is this so? And can Yeltsin achieve the almost impossible: Woo both the right and left into his camp? He seems more and more energetic every day. Witness his declared intention to pay back wages. This cannot fail to appeal to all voters.

Otto Latsis, a former member of the Presidential Advisory Council, is a political correspondent for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.