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  • Russia Between ElectionsThe Travails of Liberalism
  • M. Steven Fish (bio)

Did Russia’s December 1995 parliamentary elections represent a step forward for democracy or a harbinger of its demise? The elections were generally free and fair, but their results seem to have revealed a portentous popular nostalgia for a radiant communist past. Paradoxically, the elections both refuted a clutch of assumptions that have informed the pessimistic conventional wisdom on the Russian electorate and revealed the decrepitude of present-day Russian liberalism. Let us first consider the assumptions—here labeled “myths”—that the elections have called into question.

Myth 1: Russians are politically passive. Due to the persistence of political-cultural stereotypes and to public-opinion polls showing that most Russians mistrust politicians and political institutions, Russian intellectuals and Western observers often have regarded the Russian population as politically sullen and disinterested. But nearly two-thirds of all Russian adults cast ballots in the elections for the Duma—a far greater proportion of the voting-age population than ever votes in national elections in the United States. Furthermore, fewer than 3 percent of Russian voters cast their ballots “against all parties,” down from the roughly 5 percent who made such a choice in 1993.

Myth 2: Russians long for a “man on horseback.” Three major parties in the 1995 elections were led by celebrated military heroes. Yet, contrary to earlier expectations, neither Aleksandr Lebed’s Congress of Russian Communities (CRC), nor Aleksandr Rutskoi’s Derzhava party, nor Boris Gromov’s My Fatherland party surmounted the 5 percent barrier required for parliamentary representation. They received a [End Page 105] combined total of 7.6 percent of the vote in the party-list portion of the balloting. This result does not rule out the possibility of a popular general—most likely Lebed—mounting a strong campaign for the presidency, but it does cast doubt on the notion that Russians await a man in epaulets to put the polity in order.

Myth 3: Russian voters, unaccustomed to democratic participation, are easily manipulated. The election’s clear winner, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), did virtually no advertising and spent a total of only 1.2 billion rubles (about a quarter of a million U.S. dollars) on the campaign. The government’s party, Our Home is Russia, led by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, spent at least ten times more—and by some estimates far more than that—and won less than half the number of votes that the Communists captured. The Stable Russia party spent 1.7 billion rubles, most of it on television advertising, and received 0.12 percent of the vote. Thus, the Stable Russia party spent 21,500 rubles (about five U.S. dollars) for every vote it received, while the CPRF spent roughly 80 rubles (about one-and-a-half cents) per vote. Ivan Rybkin’s bloc, Democratic Choice of Russia (DVR), and the CRC each poured a great deal of money into television advertising—and each suffered a crushing defeat. The election results manifest little correlation between money and votes, indicating that advertising and media coverage had far less effect on Russians than they often have in the West.

Myth 4: Russians have embraced virulent nationalism. Three major parties—Rutskoi’s Derzhava, Lebed’s CRC, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDP)—placed the “defense” of ethnic Russians at the top of their agendas. The first two suffered humiliating defeat. Zhirinovsky’s LDP comfortably crossed the threshold needed for parliamentary representation, but saw its take in the party-list balloting fall to less than half the number of votes that it received in December 1993. Fewer than one-fifth of voters endorsed nationalist parties. While there is no question that the entire political spectrum in Russia has shifted toward nationalism during the past several years, and that the CPRF has to some degree embraced it, the Communists’ nationalism is typically more “Soviet” than ethnic. Some of its leaders do hold ethnocentric views, but the CPRF touts public order and socioeconomic change more than nationalism per se and does not, in contrast with the LDP and the CRC, flaunt ethnic appeals.

Myth 5: Russians...

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pp. 105-117
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