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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fire and Fury: How Scared Should We Be?

Election day is approaching, and this being Russia, rumors of impending civil war and mass unrest are in the air. How serious should such talk be taken? How scared should we be?

In some ways, the situation is disquieting. Falsification -- first by Communists stuffing ballot boxes at local precincts, then by President Boris Yeltsin's officials higher up the bureaucratic chain -- is widely expected and much discussed. That means the elections are looking less and less authoritative; some top Communists have already said they will not accept a win by Yeltsin as legally binding.

Almost on a daily basis, the Communists and the Kremlin have taken turns ratcheting up the tension, and are now shrilly accusing each other of preparing a resort to armed force. Two bombs have exploded in Moscow in as many weeks; high profile Yeltsin supporters have been quick to blame the Communists, but slow to back up those charges with evidence.

"The Communists have their paramilitary units on hold. But they're keeping a finger on the trigger, ready to pull it at any moment," Georgy Satarov, a senior Yeltsin adviser, told reporters last month. "We cannot allow the [Communist Party] to destabilize the situation after the elections if Zyuganov loses, otherwise the outcome will be much worse than in the fall of 1993."

A day before Satarov made that and other accusations, a little-noted lead article in the pro-Communist newspaper Pravda argued vice versa: That the Yeltsin camp would take up arms if Zyuganov wins.

"Who would begin this civil war [if Zyuganov wins]?" the article asked. "This war could only be begun by those who have lost power, that is Yeltsin and Co. For their part, this would be an attempt at armed rebellion against the law and the Constitution, against the will of the people."

Regarding banks and businesses, which have been doing well under Yeltsin -- and which often employ private security companies for protection from organized crime that amount to small mercenary armies -- the Pravda article said, "They are prepared for anything. They all have in common that they are in the grip of an animal fear ... For their dishonest incomes and influential posts they are prepared to fight with any means, to resort to butchery on any scale, to strike a deal with the devil himself."

Such fiery talk is not for the faint-hearted, particularly in a country that just three years ago destroyed its own White House with tank fire. So serious arguments have been put forth -- by everyone from Yeltsin's chief of Kremlin security, Alexander Korzhakov, to the head of the key Moscow military garrison, from university professors to influential bankers and businessmen -- to cancel, or at least cripple, the elections.

"Forces standing behind the back of [both Yeltsin and Zyuganov] await their hour," cryptically warned 13 prominent bankers and businessmen in a letter published in April by nearly every major newspaper. "The spirit of violence and discord rather than anyone's view of the truth, will win [the elections]."

The bankers' and Korzhakov's argument for smothering Russia's young democracy in the crib is that neither Yeltsin nor Zyuganov will be able to run the country after the elections, because neither represents more than a small minority of polarized Russian society.

A victory for either, the logic goes, would thus result in civil war -- a word Russians throw around perhaps too often, yet always with great seriousness -- as the dissatisfied majority refuses to obey the new president.

"If we have the elections there is no way to avoid a fight," Korzhakov told Britain's The Observer newspaper on May 9. "If Yeltsin wins, the radical opposition will run into the streets claiming the results were falsified and there will be unrest. If Zyuganov wins, even if he wants to take a moderate line, the same [radical hardliners in his party] won't let him."

Yeltsin and Zyuganov have indignantly rejected calls to cancel or postpone the vote. But both have promised to consider subtler proposals to make the results irrelevant. These proposals go under various labels -- a government of people's trust, a government of national unity, a coalition government -- but all foresee Yeltsin cutting a pre-election deal with Zyuganov and his Communists to share power, perhaps in the interval between June 16 and the July run-off.

In the meantime, the Communists have hotly denied reports that they have secret troops. But despite their protestations -- Zyuganov last week described himself as "the most peaceful man on the planet" -- they have openly courted the radical fringe, and many of the extremist forces who waged armed street warfare in 1993 have now publicly backed Zyuganov.

"There are different types of Communists. I think it's entirely possible that there are organizations that have troops, or proto-troops, on the ultraleft wing of the spectrum," said Dmitry Trenin, a military analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But if you look at Zyuganov, I don't think he would use those means."

Zyuganov has begun to sound more belligerent as his lead in the polls has evaporated. In Krasnoyarsk last week, he said his supporters could take to the streets if he loses. "If 35 or 40 million people vote for us, they may go out to the streets the next day [after the results are announced] to say, 'We have voted and demand that our will be carried out,'" he said. But Zyuganov risks playing straight into Yeltsin's hands if he allows his followers to stir up trouble in the streets, and the odds, most analysts believe, still very much favor the elections taking place without any of these apocalyptic scenarios.

If matters were to sour, would the army obey Yeltsin and Defense Minister Pavel Grachev? Arguably, Yeltsin can count less on the support of the army than ever before: Generals, including the commander of the Moscow military garrison, are among those who have called for canceling the elections in the name of "stability."

In October 1993, well-informed accounts -- including Yeltsin's own -- have said that it took him hours of persuading and negotiating, until 3 a.m., to prevail on the military to intervene on his side. Today it would be still harder, simply because the army is deeply divided and demoralized.

That would leave Yeltsin reliant on the forces of the Interior Ministry and special units under the control of Korzhakov. The Interior troops, in 1993, melted under pressure and it is impossible to predict their reliability now. Korzhakov's forces are undoubtedly loyal, but they are altogether an unknown quantity.

All of which suggests Yeltsin would be extremely reluctant to resort to the use of force, whatever the outcome of the vote.