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 Agriculture is inefficient, still largely collectivised, and decades out of date.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.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing & Commnunications Executive, London

£30000 - £34000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly successful organisat...

MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh-£260/day

£230 - £260 per day + competitive: Orgtel: MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh...

Junior Database developer (SQL, T-SQL, Excel, SSRS, Crystal rep

£25000 - £30000 per annum + bonus+benefits+package: Harrington Starr: Junior D...

Residential Property

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Residential Conveyancer - Wiltshire We have a...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment