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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Inevitability of Yeltsin

"See? I told you so." It was my friend A. on the phone; and I have to say that he had. When Yeltsin's popularity rating was so low it was barely countable, A. had blithely announced that he'd win the election "for sure. It's absolutely obvious."

"There's no way on earth," he'd said, "that Yeltsin's going to lose this thing. All those guys in the newspapers and on TV go on tut-tutting and bemoaning the rise of the Commies. But they know it, too. The only reason they don't say it is that, if they did, they'd be out of a job. They have to maintain the illusion."

At this point, disbelieving, I'd pressed him to explain. "The first thing you have to remember, Jo," he'd said in that patient, slightly pitying tone Russians reserve for ignorant foreigners, "is that Russia isn't a democracy. Never was, isn't now. It just looks a little bit like a democracy when the stage lights are in the right position. And the second thing you have to know is that no one, absolutely no one, in this country has ever willingly given up power. They've never colluded in their own dethronement.

"Now the pols who are guzzling at the trough right now are certainly no exception to this rule. Yeltsin's no exception. They're Commies after all -- just under a different name; and they have all the cards. They can cancel the election, they can rig the election, they can buy the election. But they're certainly not going to lose it."

Given his record, then, I asked A., while he was still on the line, to read the political entrails for the second round of the elections. "Well, Jo," he said, "it's clear that General Lebed has been Yeltsin's man all along; he just had him running to maintain the illusion I was talking about. Yeltsin's boys paid for his advertising and talked him up -- even Yeltsin played the game, sounding as if he'd really like to vote for him if he didn't have to stand himself. In any case, he hinted, he'd be next in line for Prez.

"Well, now that that charade's over and Lebed's climbed on board with his inventor, Yeltsin can gobble up most of his votes and at the same time benefit from his image; he can look Pan-Slav and gritty -- not to mention anti-crime and anti-NATO -- and all those other good things. The West, meanwhile, can point to Yeltsin approvingly and say: "Look, what a democrat! First he fought the election like a champ, now he's making a coalition government." The illusion's worked out just fine all-round.

"Even the Commies have come up smelling like roses," he added. "The media will go on backing Yeltsin, of course, because that's where the money is -- and where their interests lie. The Commies will complain a bit, but they won't raise too much of a stink -- they'll lose as gracefully as they can and then they'll join everyone else at the trough of Western money and state-controlled patronage. By this time, they'll look like a Western-style opposition party -- when they're really just the same bully-boys who got left out of the power-and-money stakes the first time around. They'll have played out their role."

According to my friend A., then, the show will continue, the lights will stay in place, and by the time the whole thing is over, we Westerners will be convinced that the illusion was the real thing. We'll have forgotten that the president has far too much power, that the Duma is a noisy talking-shop with no real authority, and that Yeltsin is surrounded by people with a dubious commitment to anything other than their own advancement. It's also A.'s view that those in the West who really know what's going on in Russia are extremely unlikely to let on. Far better, they believe -- at least according to A. -- that those running the show should be lining their pockets than that they should start lining up something a whole lot nastier -- like missile silos.

I put all this to another friend, an oil man, the other evening. And though he agreed in general with A.'s hypothesis, he sounded a whole lot gloomier about it than A. did. I asked him why. "Because the money's running out," he said. "Cowboy capitalism's days are numbered. Russian raw materials are now costing much the same as anywhere else. In the old days, Yeltsin's people could just buy off the opposition with export licenses and the rest of it whenever it showed up. But when it presents its bills now -- after the second round of these elections -- how exactly is it going to be paid? If the government defaults, we could have a real fight on our hands -- rather than just a fake one."

Watch -- as they say -- this space.