Reformers turn to battle for the Kremlin

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The Independent Online


With the ink barely dry on the millions of ballot papers that have propelled the Communists back into the forefront of Russian politics, reform parties have already turned their minds to perhaps the most critical issue of all - how to avoid a split which could destroy their chances in next year's elections for the presidency.

Supporters of Russia's move to the free market - including the main Western powers - fear that if the pro-reform parties continue to be divided into squabbling factions, no democratic candidate will get into a run-off for the presidency in next June's election, opening the way for a Communist or hard-line nationalist to be elected.

The issue was thrust to the fore yesterday by Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal-leaning Yabloko party, who makes no secret of his desire to occupy the top job. As results in the parliamentary election continued to come in, consolidating the Communists' victory, he called for a broad alliance of reformists "to unite all forces opposed to attempts to restore a totalitarian system", although he made it clear that this should not include Mr Yeltsin.

As he spoke, figures from Sunday's election confirmed that Russia is as polarised as ever between its pro-reform western cities (principally, Moscow and St Petersburg) and its anti-reform rural areas, where living standards have plunged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Communists - who, last night were leading with 21.5 per cent - consolidated their hold on the State Duma by winning a stack of seats in single-mandate constituencies. By yesterday evening, they had won 49 of the 225 seats, with 30 left to count. This means they are likely to bag a total of between 120-150 seats, giving them about a third of the 450-seat legislature, short of overall control.

The divisions among their opponents could scarcely be more critical, at least to those who believe Russia should continue its path to democracy and the free market: "History does repeat itself," Mike McFaul, a leading analyst of Russian politics, said. "It is a very scary thing they are playing with."

Mr McFaul, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, believes that Mr Yavlinsky, whose party was trailing in fourth place last night, is part of the problem, describing him as a "very dangerous presidential candidate", because he stands little chance of victory but has the capacity to split the pro-reform vote. He predicted Mr Yeltsin would try to "buy him off" with the offer of a deputy prime minister's position.

Mr Yeltsin has said he will announce in February whether he will fight for a second term. His wealthy supporters will probably want him to continue in power, if only to protect them from prosecution over their shady privatisation deals.

He may, however, decide to stand down in favour of an anointed successor - perhaps Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister, whose party, Our Home Is Russia, was heading for nearly 10 per cent of the vote.

As the reformers fretted over strategy, the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, was doing his best to dampen down fears in the West that the red flag of repressive Soviet-style Communism is flying high again in Russia. Yesterday, he appealed to foreign leaders to abandon what he called "bloc thinking", a reference to the Cold War. "Bloc" thinking had already resulted in piling up "uncountable arsenals of weapons", he said, "The planet will not endure another lap of the arms race." Instead, there should be a "mechanism for security and co-operation in Europe".

Every word Mr Zyuganov utters is being scrutinised by Western analysts, anxious to know what kind of threat he represents. But the Communist Party has yet to decide on its presidential candidate, and it may not be him. Mr Zyuganov's pro-Western statements have annoyed some hardline leaders who may dump him in favour of someone with more orthodox credentials.

As matters stand, the Kremlin will not regard the election as an outright defeat, largely because the 40-odd per cent vote for the Communists and nationalists is no larger than it was in 1993. But if the hard left is sophisticated enough to form an alliance, and the reformists continue to bicker, then Russia's fledgling democracy could sink in the stormy seas ahead.