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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Communists in Despair

On the eve of the election, the communist electorate is sullen and apprehensive. The euphoria of last January, when the victory of the Communist Party in the State Duma elections seemed a natural course of events, is now quickly disappearing. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov appears to be permanently stuck at around 26 percent to 27 percent in the polls, while President Boris Yeltsin is making impressive strides. The communists can no longer take comfort from the only opinion poll, conducted by Nugzar Betaneli, that until very recently gave Zyuganov a lead of some 20 points. But Betaneli has finally given up all hope: His last poll puts Yeltsin ahead by 40 percent to 31 in the first round, with the president safely beating his rival in the runoff. The communist electorate is beginning to feel like children who come to the Christmas tree to find that their gifts have been stolen.

What contributed to such staggering dynamics in just a few short months? Certainly the miraculous revival of Yeltsin, who in the ultimate showdown of his political career has shown himself to be an unrivaled grandmaster of the political game, using the formidable resources of presidential powers to the fullest extent. Yeltsin's electoral gambit is a tough one to overcome. It stretches all the way from the subtle manipulation of Grigory Yavlinsky in the famous Kremlin "talks" to Yeltsin's giveaways on his trips to the provinces, and it can be seen in the current negotiations on Chechnya, which are supposed to last exactly through election time at best. In fact, Yeltsin looks like a tsar running for tsardom, and much of the Russian public seems to revel in the scene.

The talk of how much cynicism goes along with this powerful display of political muscle had better be left aside. What counts in an election is votes. And Yeltsin appears to be getting them.

Surprisingly, after two heart attacks and bouts of drunkenness, he does project an image of a strong and vibrant leader in a way that Zyuganov can only dream of.

I wrote in these pages over a year ago that people would turn to Yeltsin in June 1996 not because he is good but because others are not much better. This forecast seems to be unfolding before our eyes.

Zyuganov's tactic in the campaign has been to bank on the substantial anti-Yeltsin vote, which he exploited to the fullest. But he proved weak on the positive side, which finally limited his voter appeal. He turned out to be evasive on most critical issues, too dangerous for the centrists and too much a social-democrat for his more ideological cohorts. He ends up failing both to quell the apprehension of the former and to buoy the passions of the latter.

The communist faithful appear to sense a turnaround in voter sympathies. The doom-and-gloom atmosphere is reflected in dark murmuring about falsifying the vote from people within the Communist Party hierarchy, such as Valentin Kuptsov, the party's No. 2, and Viktor Ilyukhin, chairman of the Duma Committee on Security. It is exhibited in a memorandum by communist think tanks on what the party should do in case the election is lost. It surfaces in Zyuganov's attempts to lure the leaders of the so-called "Third Force" by offering them cabinet appointments in his administration, and it shows up in his promises to take it to the streets in case he gets 35 million votes and still fails to win. To borrow Lenin's phrasing, the impending catastrophe and the need to combat it make Zyuganov embrace even Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who until recently seemed to be the last on the list of likely communist fellow-travelers.

Today, Zyuganov's followers and allies blame others for the "unfair campaign": the biased media, the likely falsification of the vote by the Central Election Commission, the brazen waste of state resources by Yeltsin in an effort to appease the electorate. The party will reckon with Zyuganov later, in case he loses. For the communist nominee, a defeat will in all probability signal his political end. There will be some hard score-settling after the election on why the race was lost, and Zyuganov stands to be the first culprit in the process. Whether he will be able to outmaneuver his critics remains to be seen.

There will no doubt be some falsification of the vote, but it will certainly be a two-way street. There are certain areas in the so-called "Red Belt" that will be practically closed to any outside interference on election day. Rigging of the vote will be done by both sides, but considering the number of possible observers at the polling precincts, it will hardly be on a mass scale. Incidentally, the findings about fraud in the December 1993 election by the president's commission, headed by Alexander Sobyanin, were roundly refuted by experts at the California Institute of Technology.

The Russian news media are unabashedly one-sided and strongly pro-Yeltsin, which justly angers Zyuganov's followers. But one has to admit that this is a rather recent phenomenon in the campaign, as the press and television have been ripping Yeltsin apart for months. This was prompted primarily by the media's anti-Chechen war stance. In fact, the press has been doing propaganda work for Zyuganov against Yeltsin for a long time, mostly in the hope of enlisting a substitute for Yeltsin, such as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin or Yavlinsky to run for election. When this didn't work, the media did a miraculous about-face almost overnight and has been unequivocally pro-Kremlin ever since.

The communists' protest against media bias is in itself a sign of their shaken confidence in the results of the June 16 election. Media coverage during the December 1995 Duma elections was very similar to what it is today, but then the communists never protested loudly against it because they were certain that the political winds were blowing their way. It may be different this time.

Viktor Linnik, former editor of Pravda, is now an editor at Vek. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.