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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Red Belt' Reflects Rural, Urban Divide

Were President Boris Yeltsin and his aides to pore over a map color-coded to represent the results of the 1995 parliamentary elections, they would see red.


The regions in which the Communist Party of the Russian Federation came in first place create a red swathe from the Pskov oblast, in the country's northwestern corner, extending southwestward along the country's southern border and across virtually the whole Russian Federation.


In fact, the only relief from this picture of Communist success is the Chelyabinsk oblast in the west, the republic of Tuva in the center and Khabarovsk and Primorsky Krai in the Far East.


Presidential elections are, of course, qualitatively different from the polls for this country's constitutionally weak parliament in 1993 and 1995. But the 1995 vote is the most recent and certain indication that exists of how the new Russia votes -- and it does not paint an encouraging picture for opponents of Gennady Zyuganov.


Yet if the "Red Belt" is formidable, it is not all that it seems at first glance. The areas that supported Zyuganov last December also tend to be more sparsely populated than the urbanized northwestern parts of Russia, where he was less successful. The statistical reflection of that fact is that, while the Communist Party came in first in 1995 and in a geographical sense swept the country, its total share of the vote was only 22.7 percent.


Hence the salient characteristic of Russia's political geography -- a north/south, urban/rural divide.


"The northern regions have more urban population and thus are more democratic and reformist," said Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The southern regions have a bigger share of rural population and are thus more conservative, more pro-Communist. So the regional variation to a vast extent is explained by this urban-rural division."


Last December, the Communist Party received a whopping 48.05 percent of the vote in the southern Siberian oblast of Kemerovo, and more than 30 percent in a host of other regions, including the Smolenskaya, Bryanskaya, Belgorodskaya, Ryzanskaya and Amurskaya oblasts. In a majority of these, the party's showing was stronger than in the 1993 parliamentary contest and there is little reason to think that trend will reverse for June 16.


According to a Central Election Commission study carried out earlier this year, not only agricultural regions tend to be pro-Communist, but also those that have been most impacted by the return of ethnic Russians from the former Soviet republics and those "located next to hotbeds of armed conflict."


It is no surprise, then, that in 1995 the Communist Party won 51.67 percent in North Ossetia, and more than 40 percent of the vote in the North Caucasus republics of Dagestan and Karachayevo-Cherkessk. The Communists' performance in the North Caucasus in general, however, was down in 1995 compared with 1993.


In 1995, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home Is Russia bloc came in first in Moscow, Russia's largest city, getting 19.05 percent of the vote, or 839,500 votes. It also won in ethnic republics with leaders closely tied to the Kremlin -- Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Tatarstan, the Yamalo-Nentsky autonomous regions, Kalmykia and Tuva -- as well as in war-torn Chechnya, where Our Home received 48.03 percent of the vote. By all accounts, however, the election process there was highly irregular.


Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko won in St. Petersburg with 16.2 percent of the vote, and came in second in Moscow, with 15.1 percent. It also came in first on the Kamchatka peninsula.


It should be noted, however, that the Communist Party came a close third in the Russian capital, receiving 15 percent, or more than 650,000 votes -- a mere tenth of a percent behind Yabloko. In St. Petersburg, the communists came in second, with 13.4 percent of the vote.


So what does this mean for the likely geographic pattern in Sunday's presidential elections?


Andrei Beryozkin, director of the ESPIAR analytical group, which studies regional politics, said he expected a similar pattern to the 1995 vote, except that the urban/rural factor may now play a larger role.


"In terms of regional differences, they will largely reproduce the last elections," he said. "What does that mean? It means that Yeltsin is sure to win in the capital cities -- Moscow and St. Petersburg -- and here his main competitors will be Yavlinsky and supporters of the Third Force. He will also win the northern territories, and naturally in the Urals. A similar pattern will be seen in large cities in all areas of Russia independent of where they are located -- even in the regions of the Red Belt.


"The population of big cities will vote for Yeltsin. The rural areas of the Red Belt will most likely vote for Zyuganov."


Others, however, while agreeing with the basic outline, add caveats. Petrov noted that in 1995 there was a decline in the relative support for the democrats in the Urals -- the region including Yekaterinburg, Yeltsin's home town.


"These regions have not only essential real importance for Yeltsin, but a kind of symbolic importance also," he said. "He needs to show rather high support in both capitals and in the Urals. Even if he wins, he needs to receive rather good results to be the first in these regions."


One volatile factor is Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party. Its overall popularity appears to be dropping: While it placed second behind the Communist Party in 1995, receiving 11.4 percent of the vote, that was only half of the 22.9 percent it won in the 1993 parliamentary vote, in which it placed first.


Recent polls show Zhirinovsky's support in the range of 5 percent to 6 percent. But in 1995, also, Zhirinovsky had polled only 7 percent ahead of the elections. With 17 percent of the electorate still saying they are undecided, Zhirinovsky has the potential to surprise again.


Yury Korgunyuk of the Center for Applied Political Studies said Zhirinovsky could possibly prevail in the Far East and parts of the southern Urals.


"In general, he can get votes practically everywhere, except in Moscow, St. Petersburg and certain oblasts," he said.


A key question, some analysts say, is which regional leaders will be willing and able to "deliver" the vote to which candidate. Kalmykia president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, for example, has publicly guaranteed Yeltsin 99 percent of his republic's votes.


But according to the Carnegie's Petrov, regional leaders -- even the Communists among them -- are more interested in seeing a kind of stalemate between Yeltsin's government and Zyuganov's opposition, which will allow them to extend their power. This reduces their incentive to fix the vote.


"The regional leaders are not interested any strong leader, in any absolute victory of such a leader in the center," Petrov said. "And the best way for them to ... play on contradictions in the center and to receive and keep their privileges is to give, say, 55 percent to Yeltsin and 45 percent to Zyuganov.


"So they don't need to falsify these results to a vast extent: They need only to ensure the same results as in 1995."