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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Voters Get a Helping Hand

It is the morning of July 8. The last votes are coming in from Kaliningrad, and it is obvious that Boris Yeltsin has received no more than 46 percent of the national vote and has lost the presidential election.

On Radio Mayak, Nikolai Ryabov is announcing, "The winner is Gennady Zyuganov," and offering congratulations to the next Russian president.

Yeltsin puts through one last friendly call on the vertushka to Mikhail Barsukov, who is packing up his things at the Lubyanka. Then he leans back in his chair, says to himself, "Oh, well, I suppose I'll have more time at the dacha now," and starts to clear his desk.

But surely this is a fantasy? The nearer we get to June 16, the more I feel that this scene could never happen, that even if Yeltsin loses, he is somehow or other not going to lose.

There is even a new joke on the subject. Yeltsin is addressing an election meeting and someone in the crowd shouts out, "What happens if we elect you in June, Boris Nikolayevich?"

"You'll get a new president," Yeltsin replies.

"And what happens if we elect Zyuganov?" asks another voice.

"Then you'll keep the old president," says Yeltsin.

It could happen in several ways. There is the Nigerian option, in which the results of the election are never released and the previous regime just stays in power. Or, there is the Algerian version, in which polling day does not happen at all.

But an option more appropriate to Russia's stage of democracy is that the count drags out a few extra days (as happened with December's elections) and the final results show that the early returns were quite wrong and in fact Yeltsin has squeaked through with 51.2 percent of the vote.

Along with most of the rest of Western opinion, I earnestly hope this does not happen, just as I hope Zyuganov does not win the presidency. But for all the negative things I have written about Zyuganov, I believe that a false Yeltsin victory would be much worse.

A Zyuganov presidency would be fenced in by all the new political and economic realities in Russia, and it would give the voters a chance to appreciate how few ideas the Communists have for solving the country's problems. But an unelected Yeltsin carrying on would lead Russia into totally uncharted territory.

The chief suspects for such a plot do not need naming. Their names are well enough known already, and a series of leaks are enough to convince anyone that, for fear of losing their offices and their dachas, they could resort to desperate measures. But I wonder if these Kremlin plotters realize just how dangerous a game they are playing.

The lower house of parliament is now strongly opposition-dominated. The upper house is increasingly independent. There are plenty of regional governors who are better disposed to Zyuganov than to Yeltsin. Refusing to honor a Zyuganov victory could be a recipe for mass social unrest, political instability or worse. It could be October 1993 all over again, but this time it could escalate.

Nonetheless, a few siren voices are beginning to say out loud the Communists cannot be allowed into the Kremlin. The businessman Mark Massarsky, for example, has said, "We cannot allow a totalitarian party to come to power again."

Several Russian liberals, stunned by the prospect of a Communist revival, are also beginning to talk about the coming of Zyuganov as a new Bolshevik Revolution. Explaining why he was backing Yeltsin, the television commentator Nikolai Svanidze said: "I am not sure that people in the West understand that a political fight is going on here that has no rules. And if the Communists win, then the media will lose its independence. There is no choice.''

Svanidze may not have intended it that way, but it is only a small step from "there is no choice," vybora net, to "there is no need for elections," vyborov ne nado. The election is being presented as a choice between freedom and dictatorship in which freedom has to be given a helping hand.

These are all nightmare scenarios. But for the sake of stability, I believe the two best outcomes in a Yeltsin-Zyuganov runoff would be a Yeltsin victory or a Zyuganov victory that was decisive enough for no one to dare oppose it.