Russia comes to the crossroads

The choice in today's presidential polls seems clear but any result will be a step into the unknown, reports Phil Reeves in Moscow

In most Western eyes, Russia is standing at a crossroads. One arm of the signpost points to Shangri-La, a distant land of milk, honey and freedom. The other points towards an abyss, a benighted world of central planning, censorship and imperial ambition. It is democracy versus communism; Jefferson versus Lenin.

But that picture is false. Russians will today go to the polls to decide between a hugely powerful president, with a marked authoritarian streak, and a man nurtured in the unpromising soil of Russian nationalism and loyal party service. A vote for either is no guarantee of safe passage through the years ahead.

It is rumoured that these days Boris Yeltsin has turned to mulling over his place in history. He cannot but conclude that the verdict so far will be mixed, although he deserves credit for negotiating a path through a minefield of problems. Some were caused by switching to a market economy, in a country demoralised by a huge loss of territory and a sense of cultural and military humiliation following the Cold War. Yet others were of his own making. Launching the Chechen war, in which at least 30,000 died, was a particularly ghastly mistake.

If Mr Yeltsin wins today's first round (and first place is not assured), and goes on to be re-elected in a run-off in July, it will not be because the country is wildly enthusiastic about his leadership. He is less loved than tolerated. His greatest achievement - to preserve, more or less, basic freedom - is largely overshadowed by a slump that was, at least on paper, worse than the Great Depression.

Factories across the country, deprived of subsidies, have come to a standstill. Workers still clock on, but have nothing to do; some are no longer even paid. Agriculture is inefficient, still largely collectivised, and decades out of date. Household consumption has dropped by nearly a third since the reforms began; so, too, has gross national product, not least because of the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union's disproportionately high military spending. Foreign investment in the Yeltsin years has been a meagre $5bn (pounds 3.25bn), a sixth of that attracted by Hungary.

Yes, Russians will repeatedly tell you, there is a far greater choice of goods and services than in Soviet times, and there are no longer food queues. But what is worse: being able to see a pair of Italian shoes you cannot afford, or not seeing them at all? Consumer items regarded as utterly mundane in the West are the zenith of luxury.

The temptation to take revenge on the one who presided over all this unpleasantness will be strong as voters go to Russia's 95,000 polling booths from the Baltic to the Bering Sea to choose among 10 candidates. It is part of the reason that the Communists came first in December's parliamentary elections, with nearly 23 per cent. It would also, according to Western analysts, be premature, nipping an economic revival in the bud. Mr Yeltsin's administration can boast some achievements, most in their infancy. After a crash which wiped out the life savings of millions of Russians, the rouble is stable; inflation is down to 1.6 per cent a month, although the impact of Mr Yeltsin's extraordinary pre-election spending spree has yet to be felt.

"A great deal of suffering has been needed to create the opportunity that now exists," said Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, "It would be a tragedy not to take advantage of that opportunity now." An expert on Russian economics, Prof Layard believes Russia is about to start a period of rapid economic growth, so long as the current policies are maintained, and it does not fall victim to the Communists' protectionist plans. "The rebuilding of the Russian economy will be one of the greatest stories of the end of this century," he predicts.

With its massive oil and gas reserves, he points out, Russia has greater natural resources per head than any other major nation in the world; the number of people with poverty-level incomes has fallen from 30 per cent a year ago, to 22 per cent in April; there is a large positive balance of trade in goods and services; exports have grown this year by some 12 per cent in dollar terms. Bear in mind, though, that even if it matches Poland's 6 per cent annual growth, Russia will not reach 1990's output levels until 2004.

But the economy is not the only measure of Mr Yeltsin's performance. He must also be judged on what kind of society post-Soviet Russia has become. Most Russians despair of rising crime, the near daily assassination of businessmen, the collapse of social services and once proud educational institutions. But what offends them above all else is the spectacle of the "haves", the unappealing class of nouveaux riches created by the proceeds of privatisation, whose capacity to acquire wealth is matched only by their fondness for its vulgar trappings.

Mr Zyuganov's election campaign has made much of this yawning gap between the rich and the poor. They have not needed to resort to the glossy TV ads or posters of the Yeltsin campaign. Their message is powerfully conveyed by the long, silent lines of old women standing outside every railway station trying to sell vodka, loaves of bread, potatoes, kittens, tortoises or any other item that will generate a profit of a few pennies.

And yet Mr Yeltsin can make one overwhelmingly strong claim. Whatever else you say about Russia, the country is more or less free. His human rights record has been horribly marred by the shelling of parliament in 1993 and the Chechen war, but Russians can now say what they like. They can travel abroad freely (although most cannot afford to).

They can publish more or less what they wish, although the Yeltsin administration has muddied its record by using the national media as an electoral platform. There is not one, but at least 40 political parties, albeit mostly small and shambolic. Mr Yeltsin, a former Communist, may not have been much of a ground-breaker on civil rights, but he did not drag the country back to blind censorship and repression - despite his authoritarian temperament.

So what of the future? A Yeltsin victory will certainly be greeted with relief in the West, which did much to engineer his re-election. It will be widely said, with some justification, that Russia has avoided falling into the grip of a regressive, economically suspect group of Communists and nationalists.

Mr Zyuganov has fought for months to present himself as a moderate to the West. Last week he issued more assurances that he wanted a mixed economy, with private property, glasnost, a free press and "a dynamic relationship" with Western investors. But the coalition behind him includes extreme Communists and nationalists who will expect some return for supporting his candidacy. This is why Anders Aslund, author of How Russia Became a Market Economy, calls today's events "the most important elections the world has seen since the German parliamentary elections in 1932, which prepared the road for Nazi dictatorship".

That may be a little strong, but it is indeed hard to feel confident that Mr Zyuganov, who has no experience of senior office, could control the unsavoury elements in his entourage. As it has done before over the centuries, a Communist-run Russia could easily draw in on itself and turn away from the West, which it believes is only interested in keeping the country on its knees. The nationalist determination to restore "great power status", and to rebuild the Soviet Union, will produce pressure to strengthen Russia's dilapidated military and keep its vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But what if Mr Yeltsin wins? Do not uncork the champagne. Boris Yeltsin looks like a caring, sharing democrat after his whirlwind tour around the country, dispensing money to the hard done by and dispossessed. Perhaps he will maintain his rediscovered liberalism, mindful that it has resurrected his popularity. But this is his last election; even if his heart condition allowed him to run again, the constitution limits him to two terms. His natural impulses are more tsarist than democratic: he is already openly talking about finding a successor.

Only five months have elapsed since the chairman of his human rights commission, Sergei Kovalyev, quit in disgust, accusing him of giving "exceptional extra-legal authority" to the security services, blocking all military reforms, signing secret decrees, creating closed institutions and becoming increasingly dependent on spies for his information. Even Sergei Filatov, Mr Yeltsin's former chief of staff - and now his top campaign organiser - warned about the dangerous rise of the security services.

Mr Yeltsin's constitution accorded his office more powers than any other elected leader in the world. He can rule directly by decree, oblivious of the will of parliament. Every key job is within his gift. The temptation to go into hibernation again, surrounded by his cronies, who include such unlovely types as his bodyguard, General Alexander Korzhakov, and security services chief, General Mikhail Barsukov - will be great. Russian is indeed at a crossroads, with both forks pointing into fog.

Runners, riders and fall guys: the at-a-glance guide to form

Boris

Yeltsin

Incumbent

president. Fights best when down.

Gennady

Zyuganov

Communist.

Blows his

advantages.

Vladimir

Zhirinovsky

Nationalist.

Sweet unreason in a yellow suit.

Grigory

Yavlinsky

Liberal economist. Nakedly ambitious.

Alexander

Lebed

Retired general.

He'll make a

man of you.

Svyatoslav

Fyodorov

Eye surgeon.

Can't see him

making it.

Mikhail

Gorbachev

Ex-Soviet

president.

Never learns.

Vladimir

Bryntsalov

Millionaire.

More money

than sense.

Martin

Shakkum

Political scientist. Cures insomnia.

Yuri

Vlasov

Ex-Olympic weightlifter. Brawn but no brains.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent