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Russia’s Election Surprise

5 minute read
Paul Quinn-Judge/Moscow

Russia is not a land accustomed to elections–to say nothing of electoral surprises. But last week the country got a big one. Within an hour of the polls’ closing in Russian parliamentary elections Sunday night, a new and fairly mysterious party called Unity took the lead and held it for most of the night as results came in from across Russia’s 11 time zones. And though in the final tally Unity had slipped behind the Communist Party, it was an astounding upset. A group that was founded just three months ago and that had scarcely campaigned will be a major force in the new Duma.

This was, however, an unusual election, and not just in the outcome. Outwardly democratic, it was in fact an exercise in political ruthlessness. The TV marathons that tracked Unity’s surge were the nearest to Western-style elections that these polls got. Much of the campaign was an enigma. There were few rallies, cross-country tours by party leaders, debates or televised appeals. Instead there was what Russian politicians euphemistically call technology: a stream of invective on state TV. Most of this was instigated by the Kremlin and aimed at discrediting the one bloc thought to present any risk to Boris Yeltsin: the Fatherland-All Russia coalition, led by former Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

The “technology” worked. While the Unity Party ended up neck and neck with the communists, Fatherland-All Russia came in a disappointing third. It was an expression of what Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev described as Russia’s split soul: torn between the attraction of anarchy on the one hand and the desire for a firm ruler on the other. Some past elections have demonstrated the anarchic side. This time, though, Russians opted for a ruler.

They found him in 47-year-old Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: his youth, his sportsman’s bearing, his precisely phrased and brutally delivered statements–all so different from the doddering Yeltsin and his mangled, half-incomprehensible public utterances. In the past few months, as Russian troops have streamed into Chechnya, Putin’s popularity has soared. And though the presidential elections won’t take place until next June, the Duma outcome was widely seen as a sign of Putin’s strength. A vote for Unity was, in most Russian minds, a vote for Putin. Immediately after last week’s results were known, the Prime Minister’s aides fanned out among the news bureaus of Moscow, driving home the message that their boss was a shoo-in for the presidency. They admitted slight embarrassment about the wildly biased coverage of the campaign on state TV. But, they maintained, Putin’s endorsement of Unity was essential.

Unity’s leaders, almost invisible during the campaign, were silent after it. It is a peculiar party. Unity has virtually no platform, almost no organization (especially in contrast to the nation’s Communist Party) and only a handful of visible leaders. What it does have is the backing of the Kremlin. The party was formed last September by Sergei Shoigu, who serves as Putin’s Emergencies Minister, a position in which he dealt with natural and man-made disasters.

Unity’s creators–a small group of people in and around the “Family,” as Yeltsin’s aides and hangers-on are known–wanted a reassuringly predictable election. “Were you surprised by the results?” a reporter from the daily Kommersant asked Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter and aide and one of the most powerful figures behind the throne. “Come on,” she replied. “What surprises? Everything was precisely calculated.” The day after the elections, when other parties were crying foul or doing deals, a Unity official said there would be no party press conference. “We don’t see the need,” he explained. A TV team that tried to film Unity headquarters found no one there.

With the backing of allies, Unity will have about as many seats as the communists. The communists once again are loudly declaring victory, but Putin is undoubtedly quite satisfied. The communists do not have enough votes to block legislation, but the vote was good enough to encourage communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov to run for President again next June. This is exactly what the Kremlin wants. Kremlin controllers know that Zyuganov, wooden and thin-skinned, is a weak campaigner, and they will be able to pitch the contest as a race between the old and the new. The big loser in the election, however, is Primakov. Few now remember his announcement on the eve of the election that he would run for President. Primakov’s bloc will end up with a respectable number of Duma seats. But it had much greater expectations: it was supposed to be the second largest group in the Duma, the party of the leader in waiting.

As Putin basks in the afterglow of his victory, he may have forgotten some of the threats that still lurk on the path to the presidency. At the moment they seem very remote, but in Russia things change fast. There is the specter of Chechnya, where a single disaster–if it can break through the military’s news blockade –could turn public opinion against both the war and the Prime Minister. The other is the truculence of Yeltsin, who tends to fire overly successful Prime Ministers. Putin’s aides say this will not happen. But should Yeltsin decide to dump Putin, the Kremlin’s electoral technicians may return to last week’s results and put a new spin on them: with enough money and media, you can get absolutely anyone elected.

–With reporting by Andrew Meier and Yuri Zarakhovich

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